Skills, Education and Tech Careers

  • Damien Horner, VP of Engineering at Rapid7, explores the many routes they offer their employees to widen their knowledge and assist their learning journey. 

    How would you summarise your first year as VP Engineering and what are your expectations for your team in 2024?

    My first year has been both exciting and challenging, but challenging in a good way. The exciting part is to join a company as big as Rapid7. With around 2,500 employees, it’s big for me but at the same time, it still maintains a really warm, small company feel. There’s a lovely culture. I feel it every time I walk into the building and people say good morning. It’s generally a really nice environment to be in. 

    The challenging part has been the steep learning curve. Although my previous two roles were in the same industry, cybersecurity is an extremely complex area to be working in. It’s always evolving. Not to mention that coming into a new role at any level means learning about everything from the products and the technologies to the people and the structures in the company. At this stage, I feel like I now have ownership of the pieces that I'm responsible for and I'm moving forward from there.

    There is lots more to get excited about in 2024. Our Belfast office is growing all the time, with a long list of open roles on our website. This is fantastic because it shows the trust the company has in this office, in this group of people and in this part of the world.

    We're also making great inroads in our cybersecurity work areas, with a number of projects either extending existing products or combining them in different ways to bring a better user experience. The last week or two was spent putting together a detailed roadmap for the year that we're rolling out across the teams. There's a lot of work to be done but it's both interesting and challenging work, so it’s all good.

    As a Cyber Security software business, how does Rapid7 continually improve its products to address an evolving threat landscape for its customers and to what extent do machine learning and AI play a role in this?

    Machine learning and AI encroach on every aspect of our lives now. It’s everywhere. When I'm talking at the dinner table with my 80-year-old aunt and she's asking me about chat GPT, that's when you know it has hit the mainstream.

    We've been using elements of AI for many years now, having woven data analysis into our products pretty much since the beginning. However, the threat landscape and the environment that our customers have to deal with is evolving rapidly. Attackers are using AI to create threat vectors, which are ways of attempting to extract data, knowledge and money from our customers. In response, we are taking advantage of the recent advances in AI to help us identify those attacks and establish where the patterns are.

    This year we have set aside two roles specifically dedicated to AI as part of our placement student intake and that's just a small part of a much bigger group of cybersecurity experts that the company employs here in Belfast as AI becomes part of everyday life.

    As new technologies emerge, what new skill sets will you seek to invest in and develop within your engineering team and where do you see opportunities for growth within the business in particular?

    As a company, we’re predominantly focusing on skills around the shift to cloud. Most of our customers are running security operation centres or their own security initiatives. They are used to working with infrastructure that is in their own environment or in their data centres and in many ways are still playing catch up with the shift to cloud. They have spent many years looking at vulnerabilities on operating systems or on physical hosts, and now they're being asked to track what's happening in AWS accounts. Without a good understanding of privilege escalation or exposed datasets, they don't really know what to look for or how to interpret it.

    As a result, one of our major areas of investment is in our tools and products that address cloud security. We’re helping organisations to be action-oriented so that they can not only see threats and risks but they can understand them and act to remove them.

    Are there specific skill sets that you try to focus on when hiring engineers to join your team?

    For the younger generation who are coming straight from university, our main focus is on their values, enthusiasm and passion for their subject. Obviously, as  people progress in their careers we start to look more and more for technical excellence as well, but cultural fit is really important for us. We want people who enjoy what they do and who share our core values. For example, one of our core values is that you’re never actually finished, and that there is always room for improvement. We want people who will be asking, what does my customer need? Am I advocating for my team around me? So, those core values are one of the key things we look for when we’re hiring.

    What kind of continuous growth, learning and development exists at Rapid7 for engineers?

    I am a believer that every day is a school day. For a start, there’s a fundamental onboarding process that every employee has to go through to get informed about all the different tech at Rapid7 and to get up to speed with their team.

    Then we have team events where individuals can present on any element that they’re working on that interests them. That employee learns presentation skills and the attendees learn about what other people in their team are working on.

    We have formal online training sessions and libraries of content that employees can access if they really want to study a certain subject. We also have a fantastic library in the building stocked with lots of fantastic books of all types, and team members are encouraged to set aside time to read whatever they’re interested in.

    Employees also have the opportunity to move around within groups and experience different projects, bringing good habits and ideas from one area over to another. We benefit as a company and the engineers get to experience a variety of work in different project areas.

    Across the company, we push our teams to bring people out of their comfort zones, so I'm always bringing people with me on to customer calls so that they can experience what the customer is going through. Nothing sharpens focus more effectively than a customer firing questions at you about a subject that you thought you knew! That really helps you understand just where your limitations are.

    On a monthly or quarterly basis, there are learning opportunities with events like trade shows and conferences. There are so many different opportunities for growth but in the end, I think it all comes down to just how much you want to learn.

    This article appears in the skills, education and tech careers edition of Sync NI magazine. To receive a free copy click here.

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