​Silicon Valley veteran schools Sydney startups on success

Former SpaceX CIO Branden Spikes spoke with ZDNet about his 20-year career spanning some of Silicon Valley's high-profile exports, and shared some advice for startups in Australia.
Written by Asha Barbaschow on

Branden Spikes says he has led a charmed life. Boasting an IT career that started in Silicon Valley when the web was born, Spikes was in the midst of the "awesome craziness" that occurred as a result of the dotcom boom -- not to mention "the craziness" that he said followed.

"The invention of the web was happening right in my backyard at a time when I was really into computers and teaching myself networking and learning about how all of the stuff worked," Spikes said. "In those early years I met Elon Musk and that was quite a great, I guess lucky, encounter."

At the time, Spikes had no idea Musk would be sending people to the moon.

"Certainly I didn't know he was going to go off and do such great things, but I did know that he was really smart and I was inspired by working with him. So as he continued to go off and do other things I reached out and said: 'Hey I'd like to get involved again'. So I did that when he started PayPal and I did that again when he started SpaceX -- which I'm glad I did," he explained.

Spikes was SpaceX's fourth hire and he served as its CIO for over nine years.

Spikes told ZDNet that security has always been something he has simply enjoyed, having hacked unprofessionally through his teenage years. He said having the viewpoint of both the hacker and the systems architect has allowed him to successfully defend against cybercrime.

"Cybersecurity for me has always been a passion and a necessity but my career working in the enterprise environment has always been one that was about all of the information systems and not only making them secure but also making them resilient and fast," he said.

After almost two decades of working as an employee of startups and seeing the fruits of their labour -- not to mention his friends from the PayPal Mafia -- Spikes said he had the experience and a lot of good role models to help him start up a startup.

While in Sydney to talk with startups at big bank-backed fintech hub Stone and Chalk, Spikes offered advice for those just starting out.

"When I started thinking about ideas to launch my first entrepreneurial adventure I went down a list of a bunch of ideas I had and looked for things that combined all of my requirements -- almost like a Venn diagram -- first and foremost was something that would be useful to the world, but then looking for things that would be also enjoyable to do," he explained.

"I found one idea was the confluence of all of those things and even better it involved my passion in cybersecurity."

Spikes set out to go after what he labelled the number one most pressing engineering challenge in cybersecurity, which he explained was the consistent and continuous attacks against web browsers.

"The first time I really measured that with statistical data -- in 2008 -- I found that about 80 percent of successful attacks I saw were from web browsers," he said. "I spoke with a man at a successful bank today who is in charge of cybersecurity in their network security operations centre and he said that it's still the case. So it's been nine years and it hasn't changed."

He said the thing that is truly important for all entrepreneurs is to do something they enjoy.

"I think startups are under the gun in so many ways that the things that are the most important to them are conserving cash, getting product out on time, getting customers, and getting revenue, and preventing security breaches is not even in the back of their mind -- just not even thought of," he said.

"And I don't fault them for that. I think startups need to think that way. It's very difficult -- unless you're a cybersecurity startup -- to think about security first, but jeez is it useful if you think about it during product design."

Spikes is now the chief architect and technology evangelist of Cyberinc, the result of a merger between Aurionpro's Security division and Spikes Security, which Spikes himself founded in 2012.

Cyberinc's flagship product, the Isla Web Malware Isolation platform, was born out of a set of requirements Spikes said he had to come up with in the environment at SpaceX.

"I wanted to provide complete and total access to all of the web," he explained. "I didn't like the idea of content filtering or preventing people from going places -- I wanted to give everyone access to everything but find a way to make them 100 percent secure."

"So that's what Isla is," he concluded.


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