Career Notes 10.29.23
Ep 173 | 10.29.23

Nicole Sundin: Women helping women. [Chief Product Officer]


Nicole Sundin: Hello, my name is Nicole Sandin and I'm the Chief Product Officer at Axio.

Nicole Sundin: When I was a kid growing up, I wanted to be, uh, ear, nose and throat specialist doctor because I had a lot of ear problems growing up and so I was always in the ENTs office getting fixed up, um, which is obviously much different than what I actually do today.

Nicole Sundin: Ever since I've been growing up, I've been very interested in humans, people. I remember talking to people as a little kid, I was a very friendly kid, and asking them questions that probably kids should not ask adults, right? But it's coming from a place of inquiry, because I was so interested in why humans would make choices in their lives.

Nicole Sundin: I became a social researcher for a university in Iowa where I was evaluating large government grants, and this is where I fell in love with the discipline of usability, because I was writing these hundred page reports, and in my head I was thinking, there's no way people are reading, right. And so before data visualization was cool and everyone talked about it, I really immersed myself in data visualization and infographics and I started presenting that in parallel with reports so they could consume the data much more easily and that really led my career trajectory into design and then product, um, at other organizations.

Nicole Sundin: After I worked at the University of Northern Iowa, I moved to a job as a consultant at NIH in NIAID where I would do, uh, visualization design of their budgets, their security operations, and some of their clinical research sites in their HIV and AIDS organization, really expanding how they're viewing the the massive amount of data that they have. In that, I really started working into more custom development and custom development design for products to support some of those initiatives and there's where I really fell into the discipline of usable security and information visualization and retrieval and the paradigm where these two meet and with that education, I decided I was going to just go all in on security products. 

Nicole Sundin: I started working at an organization called Thycotic, which is a privileged access management solution and they are now Delinea because they were bought, but I built their UX program from the ground up, redesigning 11 product lines, building a UX team. Um, but really inserting UX discipline, understanding the user, in the product processes, but also in the overall organization, um, we often led with a usable security message, which I'm very passionate about. We really, uh, ingrained ourself in that philosophy to build the best products for our customers. After that company was, was sold, I started working at Axio and the reason why I started working at Axio was because the usable security message that I really deeply believe in is so present in the discipline of risk management and cyber risk quantification that Axio does. And then we received series B funding last year, and a couple of months ago, six months ago, I was promoted to the chief product officer, which is my first, uh, chief product officer job where I'm really shaping the vision and the strategy of the product under UX principles and usable security.

Nicole Sundin: I think there might be some truth to that being complex over being simple to gatekeep, but there's two things that are happening. It's harder than ever to hire cybersecurity resources, and so you are not always getting these highly technical people joining your teams, there's a lot of mentoring and training. So the luxury of having these technical personas is, it's just not as high as it used to be. So you have to service them and make their jobs easier by augmenting technology, but the second thing is, is what I often talk about is that there's always two personas that are using cybersecurity products, though the configuration persona, right? That's that person who is hacking away at the command line APIs, they like it when it's 12 clicks to set something up because the more complicated it is, their mental model says the more secure it is. Obviously, that does not work for the second persona, which is the utilization persona. The utilization persona is where often these workarounds are found. They're the people that are using that two factor. They're the person that has to go into the vault to get their password, right? And those two personas could not be more different, right? This is where, uh, designing for cybersecurity products gets very tricky and designing product and I mean, from the product feature level, it gets very tricky as well because you are servicing two opposite personas and so in some ways you have to service that API command line person. Thinking about those two always when you're buying and implementing a product, but also when you're designing features or designing UI or UX for a product is highly important as well. 

Nicole Sundin: So cybersecurity is absolutely a male dominated industry and cybersecurity technology is also a male dominated industry, and so it is not rare for me to sit in a room and be the only woman there. I am comfortable with that now, at first it's uncomfortable, right? But I am comfortable with that now. The biggest thing is to find mentors and friends in your organization that you work with, that you can help with influence. As soon as you have influence, you can start making moves and feel more comfortable speaking, speaking up about things that you think are good or wrong, but finding that cohort in your organization is highly important. It's also highly important to find your cohort outside of your organization, where you can talk through issues that you have, um, things that you've experienced to work through problem solving that and going back to work and working through those problems. Really, it's about building community in your organization and outside your organization of strong women or strong friends that you have that you can lean on when you know you're the only person in the room.

Nicole Sundin: My leadership style is very data driven. I have learned often in my career that if I can make a case that is backed up by data, I can influence much easier and so I have moved to be very objective, right, in what I'm saying. You can't argue with data, which is very nice. I've also really tried my best as a leader to elevate and empower the voices on my team because diverse voices are super important in any product organization, because at the end of the day your user population, your customers are also diverse and so speaking up, uh, as a team and empowering them to have a voice at the table is really one of the most important things a product leader can do and empowering them to be able to speak their mind and give advice and feedback to the larger leadership team is also something that I find very valuable.