Our guest today is the Co-Founder & CTO of Armis Security, Nadir Izrael.
Nadir guides the technology vision behind Armis to protect unmanaged and IoT devices. He co-founded the company in 2015 with its CEO, Yevgeny Dibrov. Prior to Armis, Nadir worked at Google as a senior software manager. Before Google, Nadir spent six years in the Israeli army, specifically in unit 8200, where he designed and programmed software projects and systems, served as team leader, and did officer’s training, attaining the rank of captain.
In This Conversation, We Discuss:
- How Nadir found meaning in working in a large organization like Google
- The journey Nadir took stepping down from Google to co-found Armis
- How Nadir was able to grow as a leader and grew Armis from the ground-up
- The three layers of evolution in a company
Armis Security – https://www.armis.com
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Our guest for this episode is the Cofounder and CTO of Armis Security, Nadir Izrael. Nadir guides the technology vision behind Armis to protect unmanaged IoT devices. He co-founded the company in 2015 with its CTO, Yevgeny Dibrov. Prior to Armis, Nadir worked at Google as a Senior Software Manager, and before Google, Nadir spent a couple of years in the Israeli Army, specifically in Unit 8200, where he designed and programmed software projects and systems, served as a team leader and did officers training, and attaining the rank of Captain. Nadir, welcome to the show.
When I was only 25, I spent a month in Israel, and I loved it. Thinking back several years ago, I learned that everyone in Israel has to spend time in the Army. It’s not like in North America where you opt-in and decide to sign up, but you decided to stay in for a little longer. I’m curious as to how your experience was. You mentioned 8200. Is that the Navy SEALs or something? Was there a specific reason for mentioning that one?
First of all, you are right. It’s mandatory military service for everyone. That’s already a big thing to chew on, especially when you are eighteen, just got out of high school, and have to enlist and serve. I wish from a physique standpoint, I was a Navy SEAL, but the reality is more like geeks on keyboards. The 8200 is probably the best equivalent to the NSA in the US. However, it’s pretty similar to maybe Navy SEALs in that sense. It’s a unit that you volunteer to. The fact that military service is mandatory doesn’t mean that you don’t have any control or the ability to enlist proactively into any of the units.
Lots of kids in their senior year in high school go to all kinds of different tryouts or tests in different units. The good thing about the Army in that sense or the IDF is that the 8200 in particular have the first pick of whoever they want. They do try out tests on large scales of students and pick whomever they want. Somehow, I manage to trick them into getting that unit and service some of the smartest people I have ever met. To your point, I continued the service willingly beyond the mandatory three years there.
Do most of the kids think about it as a career move or were you one of the few who saw it as a career path? I don’t think most people would think of it that way.
Back then when I did it not as much as now. Now, the name 8200 is way more dominant especially in the area of cybersecurity or in other areas. It’s way more well-known, especially in Israel. People do optimize for it. The IDF wised up to the fact that it’s hard to find kids who willingly sit and learn programming and do all kinds of things at home. There are kids like that. I’m one of them, but not as many as there used to be.
They do pre-Army training courses that essentially train people up to pass such tests, but to your point, one of the nice beautiful things about this is that the IDF and units like 8200 act as social equalizers in a way, or at the very least, they allow for social mobility. You can start from a certain point, and this can catapult your career forward quite a bit.
The IDF and units like 8200 act as social equalizers in a way. They allow for social mobility.
When I joined, I knew nothing of this. I wish I could say that this was a grand plan that got me to where I am now, but the reality is that I have stumbled into this in a good way. It introduced me to a world that is rich and amazing. It got me in front of and meet some of the best people to date. It’s a big part of why I stayed as well beyond the mandatory service.
As I recall, mandatory service is 3 years for boys and 2 years for girls. Is that right?
It has also changed in the last few years as well. They are trying to equalize that into 2 years and 8 months or something like that for everyone, but when I joined, it was 3 years for guys and 2 years for girls.
You then decided to stay for an additional three years past that. Was that because you were starting to career track and gaining some excitement in what you were working on or what was the purpose to stay?
It was as naive as you can guess. I loved the service. I loved the work and the people. For a while there, I thought that this was going to be my entire career path. I kept staying on for more and more roles. If you think about what this is to an 18-year-old or a 20-year-old, this whole notion of throwing a bunch of responsibility on you, telling you that you are fighting a cyberwar here, which is the reality of things, but fighting a cyberwar for the protection of the country you are from and get the responsibility for what amounts to human lives.
They are all kinds of different examples of that, but on top of that, you get to try out and it’s unclear to me to this day why they would give someone like me that responsibility, but to manage people, teams, and eventually manage entire groups of people, and you can step up the ranks there pretty well. On top of all that, that is as opposed to the NSA, which I paralleled before.
The 8200 is the smaller scrappier version of NSA. It’s not a huge budget and buys whatever you want. It’s more like, “Here’s what you have to work with. Get the job done no matter what. If you don’t, then bad things might happen.” That’s the mentality for people. Honestly, it helps a lot in the mind frame of building a startup because it’s very similar in those in those regards.
That’s what I was going to ask you about. When you got thrown into the fire and were given responsibility and managed people and projects at such a young age, do you think that has given you as a leader the ability or the understanding that people are capable of more if we maybe let them? We often try to delegate and hold people accountable. Do you flip that and give people more and let them run with it?
Yes, hands down. It’s the reality of having too few people to work with at any given point in time and the fact that there is a lot of responsibility to go around. Not every person that joins or every person you end up managing can handle that. There are people that get more and people that get less responsibility, but those that do get and can handle responsibility have the chance of also rising in ranks, and getting actual management experience at a very young age.
Honestly, it shapes you. It’s a young enough age that it shapes your perception of reality. For instance, it gives you a certain fearlessness that you wouldn’t otherwise acquire would be way harder. You got the fearlessness of understanding that things are possible even when it seems like you have very little to go on, but you make it work. It steals you for the rest of your life and this ability to look at challenges as what they are. Challenges are not stressed factors if that makes sense.
Have the ability to look at challenges as challenges, not stress factors.
What do you look for in terms of those leaders to know that they are capable? What behavioral traits or skills do you see or look for to then decide, “I’m going to let these people run with more than maybe the average person would?”
There’s a mindset where when you get a task, you take ownership of it. You can call it extreme ownership even, a term I learned way later in life from a famous book, but that notion of extreme ownership of basically saying, “I got this task. This is mine. I need to raise a flag when there’s a problem. There’s something else. No problem, but I own this.” That extreme ownership trait, you can see it almost immediately. There are people who have that and people who don’t. That translates well to your own personal management like being able to manage yourself, your time, and tasks, and be able to project correctly what’s going right and wrong as well as managing people
The other one, which to me, is a must is transparency and willingness to own up to things that go bad. Things go bad all the time. Your ability to reflect that correctly and be able to prep management and other people who are relying on that information is crucial. Those two things are some of the most important ones that I see.
I’m right there with you on that introspection, that ability to take the blame for a project and then, let people know what happened and what went wrong, and then grow from it versus passing the buck or externalizing. You are in the military for a couple of years and then you do the logical leap from the military to Google. Are there any similarities? There aren’t any, right?
Google is a very different experience. It was an interesting transition. When I went to Google, it was the hottest thing in Israel at the time. There’s always a company at any given point in time, that’s the hottest one. These days, it’s Armis, there’s no question there. A friend of mine from the Army is the one who brought me to get interviewed there. I end up spending a couple of years there working on specifically Google suggests or auto-completes the stuff that completes your queries for you. In case you ever needed a face to every auto-complete failure that you have ever had, you have one now.
Google is a very different beast than the Army. It’s a very different experience. The Army by definition is frugal. Everything is very different. Google has pool tables, snacks, lunch, and anything you want. At the same time, what was very similar is the very good people. People are very smart, very capable, and have lots of extreme ownership. Their mentality glorifies a flat organizational structure as much as possible and personal accountability for things. The difference between it and the Army is that in the Army I felt that drive off, “You can always do way better, and you must,” because if you are not, someone else will be one step ahead of you, and consequences will be dire.
Google, at the end of the day, is a company that’s doing very well for itself. The overall individual contribution of one person to that scale of a company is fairly smaller and it’s felt. I think highly of myself, but me leaving Google did not leave Google in a bad place. There are plenty of good people who can take over that. I was looking for a challenge. It’s something I felt how crucial I would be to that challenge, and that’s what led me to the next thing in life as well.
If that’s not a recruiting soundbite for Armis, I don’t know what is, either. You want to be a number inside of a big corporation and work at Google, but if you want meaning in your day-to-day work, come to work with us. How did you find meaning inside such a huge organization and how did they help you find that? Google is a cult. The cult is in between a business and a religion. It’s that strong culture. Have they ever gone too far in culture to become that or are they riding a nice balance?
What Google does well, or at least did very well when I was there, is despite the fact that it’s a huge company with tens of thousands of employees at any given point in time, they are over 100,000 now, it still felt like family. It still felt small. It felt like the distance between yourself and Larry Page and Sergey Brin when they were there is still not a lot. You are a few steps away from them. On top of that, it’s an organization that glorified and encouraged personal opinions. It encouraged speaking up and how important your opinion is no matter where you are on the organizational ladder, and how anyone can make a contribution there.
That transparency as well as that encouragement of opinions is something that I have personally also taken into Armis. It’s something that we advocate as well because it works well. It creates a very healthy organization of people who want to contribute, be part of it, and care deeply about the organization. If you don’t do even one of these things, you are not fully transparent and not encouraging opinions, it breaks down almost immediately, but Google does those things very well. It’s a core part of the culture and value system. They adhere to it and it works well in organizing a huge organization like that.
It also attracts more A players as well. A players thrive in that environment, whereas B and C players run away and hide.
Correct, I agree. Going back to that point from before around also personal accountability and transparency, it works the same way in reverse as well. It creates the situation where the people who want to work in an organization like that are people who are like that, who are personally accountable, who appreciate that in other people and in peers around them, and who don’t like, to your point, people who hide away, do their own thing, and below being noticed.
I feel like that’s what culture is all about as well. It’s not about the pool tables and the free lunches. Culture is about accountability, core values, and transparency. It’s the way that we all show up versus the little perks that we get when we are there. I had to check the numbers because when you said they are around 100,000 probably, now Google is at 139,000, which is astounding. Google in Israel is now at 800 people. Eight hundred in Israel alone is a big company.
At the time, at least I was there, it was the second largest office outside of the US. I might not be accurate about that.
It makes sense. They are such a huge tech hub there right now as well, which is intriguing. You then make the logical leap to go from Google to start your own business with a cofounder. What the hell are you thinking? Did your parents think you were nuts?
At the time, I had just gotten married. My father-in-law asked that exact thing. He was like, “I thought my daughter was marrying someone from Google. Now, he’s going off to be unemployed. What the hell is that all about?” It’s interesting. It’s one of these things where early enough in your professional career that you are taking chances, trying to make large leaps, making things happen, and connecting with things that are inspiring or exciting to you is important.
A lot of people look at it as like a huge risk, but realistically, I didn’t see it as a risk. I saw it as an opportunity cost. I might waste a few years of my life and I could have maybe done something else in that time, but I wasn’t worried about the tech community, and with the experience and everything I have that I wouldn’t be able to find another job. In that context, taking a calculated risk here and trying to start a company is something, I wanted to try and build. Thankfully and luckily, I managed to get a few other very good people to join in, and then the fun started.
Tell us a little bit about Armis and what you do.
I joined forces with Yevgeny. He was a good friend of mine, a bit from the Army, but mostly from studying together at the Teknion. We worked together for quite a bit before, but at the time when I was at Google, he was at a company called Avalon. They were a cloud security company that got bought up by Microsoft and became Microsoft’s Cloud Security Solution. He was the first employee there. He had a front-row seat there for pretty much everything and participated in a lot of the different client interactions.
When Avalon got bought by Microsoft, that was the day that me and him sat down on a couch and started brainstorming what exactly we could do. We started from something that people do way more now, but at the time, it was a very boring way of starting a startup. We went to every single client of Avalon, partners, investors, or anyone who would talk to us and ask them, “What are you guys missing? What do you feel is a growing gap, a huge problem, or something that pains you and is going to grow exponentially?”
Even though we got plenty of answers for that, we did get one answer that seemed to resonate no matter who we asked. That answer was, “The more time goes by, the more other devices I have. The more stuff I have that isn’t laptops or servers. I have network gear, IP cameras, MRI machines in hospitals and infusion pumps, and industrial controllers. I have pretty much anything that isn’t laptops and servers.”
When we started looking into it, we discovered that it’s outpacing the number of normal devices out there. The difference between the two is that for your laptop, you have an antivirus. You have agents that go on it and organizations can see and control it. For everything else, you don’t. At the time, we categorized the problem as IoT or that’s what we thought it was. We ended up accidentally understanding what the real problem is. It’s a problem of scale.
Organizations don’t have any idea what devices or assets they have. A large-scale enterprise has no idea what’s even on the network, in the cloud, or anywhere else worldwide. They have no way of protecting things at scale because installing things on the devices requires first seeing them, but secondly, requires a whole apparatus of control that when you multiply by millions and millions of devices, it doesn’t work.
What we understood is that the world requires a whole other paradigm of security tools, which we call agentless visibility and security. Armis provides organizations with basically Google Maps for their organization, all their assets, devices, and everything. On top of that, layers of information for risk, security, and vulnerabilities. We are giving them entire visibility and control over every asset and device that they have no matter what it is. That’s what Armis is about.
IoT for anybody who doesn’t know what that means is the Internet of Things. Those are things or devices that are on the internet other than your computers. Are you selling to the OEMs who are making the devices or are you selling to companies that have a lot of devices on networks or the internet?
The latter, we sell to organizations to be able to visualize, understand, and secure their own environments. It’s not for OEMs, it’s for the organizations themselves.
The OEMs are the people that are making refrigerators that are going to be on the internet because they are going to order your food for you or whatever. Do the OEMs care about security at all or are they making these devices and saying, “Go with it,” and it’s the end user who cares about the security?
I doubt that there are manufacturers out there that don’t care entirely. It’s naive maybe to think that these days, mostly because cybersecurity threats are very real. They have the potential of destroying the reputation and brand of a company. If the last few years taught us anything, it’s that manufacturers internalize the fact that they have to have some security. The problem is that security costs money. That money comes off of margins for a lot of these devices that aren’t great.
Organizations need to make hard decisions many times about how much security is enough. Usually, it’s way lower than what you would want. There are also geographical constraints. Some countries in the world are more aware and manufacturers feel more ownership towards their future users than other countries, and that also impacts a lot of how the landscape looks like.
When I was looking at your website, you have got some pretty solid marquee clients. You have got some brands that everybody knows the names of. Are they doing this and using your services because they are large organizations, are they doing this because there’s a real need, or is it a combination? When do we get to the stage that it’s like a Y2K problem or fear that every homeowner wants your stuff as well? Do you ever go down to that level?
We started with some of the larger clients. There’s a rule of thumb that cybersecurity issues are exponentially larger according to the size of the company, but the reality is that these days that’s no longer the case if you think about it. A few years ago, cybersecurity was one of these things that large organizations thought about a lot. A ten-people organization wouldn’t think about it at all. They didn’t give it a second thought because from their perspective, why would they? They are not a target and are not able to provide attackers with pretty much anything. That wasn’t true then either, but in the last few years, we have seen seismic change happen.
Everyone is concerned about things like ransomware these days. Everyone is concerned about the notion of having their data locked, ransomed, and spread out into the wild or things like that. There are almost no organizations, small or large, that can afford to not think about cybersecurity at all. Having said that, again, the complexities and the scale of an environment that a large-scale organization has are infinitely larger than a small one.
There’s almost no organization, small or large, that can afford to not think about cybersecurity at all.
Basic hygiene for smaller organizations can usually work pretty well to combat most of the different threats, especially since they are not targeted, but large organizations can’t afford to not secure themselves, and budgets are ever increasing, even though the damages from cybersecurity are increasing even more.
You are explaining the issue pretty clearly for us. I want to dig into, the company itself. When you look at your leadership team, you have either got a small company with some big titles, but I guess that you guys are a big company now. How many total employees have you grown into now? My guess is about 600 and I’m probably low.
We are around 450 at this point. We have grown quite a bit in a couple of years. Generally, in distribution, there are about 200 or so in Israel. That’s where the R&D product and a lot of the folks who are way smarter than I am built the actual tech and brought the magic. Most of the other folks like sales, marketing, business development, customer success, and all these different functions are mostly in the US but spread out worldwide as well.
I got lots of things I want to dig into here. The first question I have got is when you are co-founding a company and you are going from 3 employees to 10, 10 to 30, 30 to 100, 100 to 300, there are these inflection points that start to hit. Did you raise money? How much have you raised?
We had a bit of odd history in that regard. Up until a few years ago, we grew pretty much like a regular venture capital startup. We raised three rounds and a seed before, but three rounds in total. We raised a total of $120 million or so. What happened then was in early 2020, right before the pandemic hit, Insight Partners who are one of our investors and a VC out of New York did what they called a venture acquisition. It means they bought out the other investors, but Capital G, which is Google’s venture arm. They bought everyone out and put $1.1 billion into the company.
It was an event in which every single employee in the company also got paid for it or cashed out on the options that they had and then immediately got re-upped on new equity. It’s the same startup and continued working the same as before. When we started talking to Insight about this, I was like, “What’s the catch? It sounds like we are getting paid a bunch of money,” and then and then we are getting equity and zooming on towards the horizon.
If you think about it, Insight’s logic is pretty simple. They believe in the company. They believe this is a $20 billion company. If they do, then why own 10% of it? I want to own most of it. Being a VC, they understand that people’s sense of ownership in the company is important. From their perspective, the fact that the employees need to have equity is a given, so it worked itself out from there. Now, the company is valued at $2 billion. We raised another round a few months ago, but we are on the path to growing and scaling the company as much as we can here.
What was it like and what lessons you had to learn in the role that you are in to stay in that role? How have you been able to grow as a leader? You must have grown substantially in the last couple of years.
I don’t think my younger self would recognize me in a mirror even, but a lot of things happen when you grow very rapidly and very fast. Some things are incredibly surprising for good and bad. Some of them you learn from a technical standpoint as you go. It’s true for a lot of ecosystems of startups, but it’s true for the Israeli ecosystem, there are a lot of very good and very willing founders that you can talk to, that you can have as mentors and ask questions. You have a lot of support. Myself and Yevgeny are very active in that community. We care a lot about founders starting their own companies for these exact same reasons.
As a company grows, it’s interesting to see evolution, especially around management and leadership. We are at what I would call the third step of our management leadership evolution. The first step is the easiest. You have 10, 20, to 30 people max and you run everyone like a team. You are directly involved in pretty much any process. You make decisions and people go with them. Everybody knows everything. There’s no communication gap and you are usually very geographically close. It’s considerably easier than larger-scale organizations.
The next step is hard if you have never done it before. I have never done it before so it’s a little hard to adjust, but it’s managing through the first layer of managers, or instead of instructing everyone, you have to act like a judge or critic. You let people run and do their things, and then you course correct them or explain where or what you think should have been done differently. As a result of that, a shared culture is created. People know intrinsically what to do. They try and intuit or understand what it is that the company needs to be done, and they work from there.
The third layer of evolution is what happens when you reach 100 to 150 people or maybe a little more, especially if it’s geographically dispersed in the world. The third layer of management is around shared values. It’s what I would call a compass. Instead of trying to manage every decision, you have a random set of people making random decisions and you are trying to put like a magnetic field that’s trying to orient everyone towards a shared north.
In that regard, you are trying to influence all these micro-decisions happening according to a shared set of values and mission. You end up course-correcting whatever you can along the way, but if you don’t do that part right, you end up with a very top-heavy organization where a lot of people lose their initiative and their ability to innovate and do things on their own as opposed to a very healthy culture of values if that makes sense. I have to say that that’s a lesson that I have learned personally and heavily from Google as well.
I’m curious when you got to the second stage, the managers and leading through them, that is what I was thinking of the 30 to 100 and then 100 to 300, where you are now, what lessons you learned because the leadership team that you have were not promoting from within. There might have been 2 or 3 of you that grew within the organization. I guess that the other 10 or 12 that are on your leadership team were mostly from the outside brought in. How did that go and what can you teach people in terms of how to bring in these solid leaders without causing too many ripple effects in the organization?
When I figure it out, I will let you know how to do it seamlessly, but I will tell you what is a unifying factor for all of us. It’s not that hard to bring in new leaders in the beginning. The reason is that usually, they form new organizations that didn’t exist before, in which case, there’s not that much contention. The problem is that it’s rare to have folks that can do well in the early stages in which they are very hands-on.
It’s where you have to make a lot of decisions, it’s like a dictatorship. In many cases, you would be micromanaging. Someone who is in every detail and can guide everything top to bottom, and then be able to make the transition into a larger scale organization where you have to be able to scale that. You can’t micromanage anymore. You can’t be in the details of every single thing, but at the same time, you have to be able to instill and empower an organization and lead them from behind.
Those two people tend to be very different people. There are examples of people who can make that transition, but they are few. Usually, what happens to a company is that somewhere along the way, you have to make transitions and find different people. Sometimes it happens by adding a layer on top, adding a strategist on top of the person who’s being more tactical.
In our experience, it rarely works. It’s a rare breed of people even from a personal standpoint are willing to go through a route like that and that’s okay. It’s an amazing market out there for people right now to find the jobs that they want, especially in leadership positions and if they have the right experience. Everyone can find their own spot and what they love.
I launched a course called Invest in Your Leaders. It’s what I believe are the twelve core leadership skills that all managers and leaders need to be good at to continue to grow with the company. Did you notice that as you scaled quickly, your revenue grew as fast as your headcount has? Did you find that you had to grow your people as well or they were going to be out of a job? If their skills don’t increase at the pace of the company’s growth, they can’t stay in their role.
Yes. That’s solvable in two ways. One is investing in them, which we are doing heavily, both in managers as well as any person in the company. We are trying to invest as much as possible in their skillset and what they can do. The other part is a combination of transparency about things that are working well and aren’t. At the same time, being able to be willing to allow people to transition horizontally within the organization to places where they might be of more use.
Be willing to allow people to transition horizontally within the organization to places where they might be of more use.
This happened to us many different times. In my opinion, it’s very healthy for an organization as well to have cross-functional knowledge. It’s people who did one thing and then work in another organization and do something else. When it works, it’s great. In many cases, you can find both, for the people themselves, diversity in their role, but at the same time, find better fits as the organization grows for their particular skillsets.
I agree. That’s what Jim Collins talked about in his first book, Good to Great, he talked about getting the right people in the right seats. At some point, there might be a different seat or role that is better for them, and then they can continue to excel. It’s like they grow and go lateral, and they grow again and go lateral. I want to go back to your younger self. Before you joined the Army or maybe you could have left the military after a couple of years, what advice would you give yourself back then that you know to be true now, but you wish you had known maybe when you were 21?
One of the things I have consistently learned throughout my entire career is that business and any objective you are trying to achieve are about people. Almost everything else is less important as a lesson. It’s all about people. It’s about remembering for a second that these people don’t have to work for you and they don’t have to work with you. They work because they are intrinsically interested in whatever it is that you are jointly doing. No matter how much other people around you might try and push everything into a spreadsheet, it’s all about those people. It’s all about their ability to lead, follow, or do anything that they need to do.
It translates either well at both large scales and small scales. You get judged by whoever you lead, especially in the times when it’s great and when it’s tough. In those two instances, you are judged for everything that you do, whether you share and make everything good for everyone. An example of that would be that insight acquisition I mentioned that happened. We made sure that every single person, even someone that joined the day before the acquisition would get something out of it. Something as substantial as we could make it. From the belief that if you treat people right when it counts, then it will matter in the long run significantly.
The same goes when times are tough, people look for your leadership, for how you treat them or this, if you are still supporting them and making sure that everyone is contributing, and doing what they need to versus not. That’s a lesson that I learned the first time in the Army and later on in life. I have learned to be very vocal and adamant about that. Sadly, a lot of people that I work with outside of Armis or in the community don’t necessarily understand what that means when it comes down to people.
I love the insights you still carry on. We have Nadir Izrael, the CTO and Cofounder of Armis Security. Thank you so much for sharing with us. I appreciate the ideas and the time.
Thank you very much for having me.