Driving Disruption: Ryan Smith Of QFunction On The Innovative Approaches They Are Taking To Disrupt Their Industries

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

The first way we’re disrupting cybersecurity is by offering a way to utilize AI within your cybersecurity data right now. Most organizations collect a large amount of cybersecurity data, but a large amount of the data isn’t utilized until there’s an incident response. Being able to know what’s “normal” for your data is critical in finding anomalies and threats in your critical users and systems.

In an age where industries evolve at lightning speed, there exists a special breed of C-suite executives who are not just navigating the changes, but driving them. These are the pioneers who think outside the box, championing novel strategies that shatter the status quo and set new industry standards. Their approach fosters innovation, spurs growth, and leads to disruptive change that redefines their sectors. In this interview series, we are talking to disruptive C-suite executives to share their experiences, insights, and the secrets behind the innovative approaches they are taking to disrupt their industries. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Smith.

Ryan Smith is the founder of QFunction. He has worked within a number of organizations providing cybersecurity expertise for threat hunting, user behavior analytics, SIEM administration, and endpoint security. He has worked at various organizations including NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Pfizer. He has also created the red team curriculum for Fullstack Academy where aspiring cybersecurity professionals can learn ethical hacking and penetration testing techniques.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series.  Before we dive into our discussion about disruption, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Sure, I graduated from college and started working at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory within the IT division. I worked in various IT related roles for about 4 years or so, and then I moved into the cybersecurity space where I learned about everything that is involved with defending environments from cyber attacks. While I was there, I led the threat hunting team that was responsible for finding hard to find threats in the environment. I left my role there and started to learn more bout artificial intelligence and how it can be used to solve problems. After being enamored by the field of AI, I figured pairing my knowledge of cybersecurity with artificial intelligence made a very interesting fit, and I launched QFunction to help other businesses see how AI can augment their existing cybersecurity operations.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes QFunction stand out is the fact that it goes against the grain of how cybersecurity tends to operate. Cybersecurity tooling is the lifeblood of any cybersecurity team, and adopting new technologies tends to mean “let’s buy this entirely new tool and implement it in our environment”. What makes AI interesting is that you can most likely reap the benefits of it using the tooling already available in your environment right now. While traditional cybersecurity vendors are incorporating AI into entirely new and existing offerings, QFunction would rather utilize the existing data that you’re collecting within your environment and show you how AI can utilize it right now. It makes for a very interesting proposition.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each? 

I believe the three important character traits would be curiosity, openness, and determination. All three of these traits were utilized when I was first starting out in understanding how artificial intelligence can be used within cybersecurity. AI is largely math and programming oriented, and even understanding the basics of it is a real challenge. I spent long afternoons and evenings after my day job trying to come up to speed with it, and there were times where I wanted to stop because I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around it. Sticking with it required a strong enough curiosity to want to see the next part of the course, an openness to the fact that this would be a long process even after the course is finished, and a determination to get through it.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader?  I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

I remember being at a crossroads whether to jump into another cybersecurity role at an established company or venturing out for myself full-time. There is some degree of security that you get when you go into an established job role, including traditional career progression and benefits. However, venturing out for yourself full-time requires a drive and tenacity that tends to be possessed by those who have leadership qualities and aren’t afraid to embrace risk and try something new. Both paths are good paths, but I would argue that the act of starting your own business demonstrates leadership qualities in and of itself. The experience of starting a business including setting up operations (accounting, marketing, product/service development, talking to prospective clients, etc.) has already influenced how I lead the development of QFunction as a business.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview.  Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. In the context of a business, what exactly is “Disruption”?

Yes, I think Harvard Business Review’s definition of disruption is the best definition. They define it as “the process by which a smaller company—usually with fewer resources—moves upmarket and challenges larger, established businesses.“ That’s effectively what is happening with QFunction, as it’s a smaller company with fewer resources who’s challenging the larger, established cybersecurity businesses and the status quo that has been set within cybersecurity as a whole.

How do you perceive the role of ‘disruption’ within your industry, and how have you personally embraced it? Is it a necessity, a strategy, or something else entirely in your view?

Cybersecurity is a well established industry. For every tool that’s used within cybersecurity, there are large, brand name companies who lead the effort in that tool. Most companies and businesses looking for cybersecurity products/services tend to gravitate towards these brand name companies because they’re established, which provides some degree of comfort. However, with the rise of artificial intelligence and its rapid spread throughout all industries, I would argue that there hasn’t been a technology better suited to shake things up within the cybersecurity world. In my opinion, disruption is a necessity. The reason why innovation happens in the world is because of disruption; there will always be people who aren’t happy with the status quo and are willing to make moves to improve their world.

What lessons have you learned from challenging conventional wisdom, and how have those lessons shaped your leadership style?

Challenging conventional wisdom has taught me that what has worked in the past may not work as well now. Conventional wisdom states that there’s a tried-and-true way of doing something, and while there may be some truth to conventional wisdom, it often doesn’t take into account the constant progress of both technology and attitudes that occur in the world today. This lesson shaped my leadership style by being more open to new things and giving authority to others to make certain decisions who may be better suited for the task or issue at hand.

Disruptive ideas often meet resistance. Could you describe a time when you faced significant pushback for a disruptive idea? How did you navigate the opposition, and what advice would you give to others in a similar situation?

I remember discussing with a potential client how AI can be used to assist in one of their cybersecurity functions. One of the attendees on the call immediately shot the idea down and kept saying that the idea wouldn’t work, even though I had a working demonstration showing exactly how it could work. Unfortunately, I didn’t get another chance with the client and I had to move on from them. I remember feeling really disappointed after the call, mainly because I spent so much time preparing and making sure everything checked out. The advice I would give is to not take rejection personally (which I admit is easier said than done) because it happens to everyone. Also, you have to understand that not everybody will be receptive to your ideas no matter how hard you try, and that’s ok. The trick is to keep moving forward, as you’ll eventually find somebody who is willing to take a chance on your idea.

What are your “Five Innovative Approaches We Are Using To Disrupt Our Industry”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

1. The first way we’re disrupting cybersecurity is by offering a way to utilize AI within your cybersecurity data right now. Most organizations collect a large amount of cybersecurity data, but a large amount of the data isn’t utilized until there’s an incident response. Being able to know what’s “normal” for your data is critical in finding anomalies and threats in your critical users and systems.

2. The second way we’re disrupting cybersecurity is in the fact that QFunction offers a cybersecurity service for AI, and not a product. There’s a vast sea of different cybersecurity products that offer AI-enhanced capabilities, but we’re not interested in adding yet another cybersecurity product to that long list of available ones. Instead, we offer prospective clients who are interested in applying AI to cybersecurity a way to see it for themselves and how they can utilize it within their businesses. We utilize only the data you’re collecting, and we implement it directly in your existing environment.

3. For QFunction’s threat hunting, targeted user behavior analytics, and anomaly detection offerings, we walk you through the AI development process, including the data collection, the training of the AI, as well as its deployment. A lot of existing solutions utilize machine learning in some form, but you don’t know exactly what it’s learning and how it’s learning it. QFunction believes in transparency for its offerings, which is completely different from the usual “black hoodie hacker” persona that most cybersecurity offerings adopt.

4. There may be something in your environment that you want to monitor, but you’re not collecting the data to properly monitor it yet. QFunction will work on your specific use case to assess what you want to monitor as well as devising a way to collect that data for monitoring purposes or otherwise.

5. What’s nice about anomaly detection is that it doesn’t need to apply to only cybersecurity. If you have large datasets that you need to monitor for anomalies, the same approach used for cybersecurity data can be used for general data. QFunction’s anomaly detection approach can be utilized regardless of your industry, which definitely broadens the number of different businesses and industries that we can help.

Looking back at your career, in what ways has being disruptive defined or redefined your path? What surprises have you encountered along the way?

I can confidently say that being disruptive has completely redefined my career path. I always thought that I’d be comfortable in a traditional career and slowly progressing through the ranks in whatever company employed me. However, venturing out on my own has allowed me to explore new avenues that I would never have thought I’d be interested in exploring. It’s definitely stressful, but worth it at the end of the day. Some surprises I’ve encountered on the way involve realizing how much human psychology is involved in business and marketing, as well as realizing that you can’t do everything by yourself. I tend to try to do things alone, which simply doesn’t work when you’re establishing a business.

Beyond professional accomplishments, how has embracing disruption affected you on a personal level?

Personally, disruption has allowed me to be more open to change in my life. I’m very routine in how I go about things, and I tend to follow the same patterns every day. While I don’t ever see myself as someone who deviates from routine drastically, I’m definitely more open to trying things that go against my routine. Disruption really does take its roots in both your personal and professional lives.

In your role as a C-suite leader, driving innovation and embracing disruption, what thoughts or concerns keep you awake at night? How do these reflections guide your decisions and leadership?

The rapid development of AI definitely keeps me up at night. The fact that such a disruptive technology is in its infancy and is already making significant waves really does spell concern for future generations. It’s worrying that we live in a time where we honestly don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 10 years in terms of how our careers are going to be as well as how we’re going to interact with each other. We live in a time where it’s hard to determine what’s true and false in terms of what we see and hear, and AI isn’t going to make it easier. If you add the constant economic uncertainty that the world goes through on top of my previous concerns, it will be enough to keep anyone up at night. As a result, my leadership style involves being more open and understanding to various concerns that people may have.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could start a movement, it would be one that has an end result of eliminating financial uncertainty in our lives. For better or for worse, effectively every aspect of our lives is influenced by the dollar. Where we live, what we eat, how much we save, the general quality of our lives…all of this is influenced by money. I believe that being able to not have to worry about finances and making a decent living would ultimately bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people. I realize that a utopian society may be somewhat unrealistic, but I like to believe that we can do better than what we’re doing right now. I have no idea what the movement would entail, but if the end result is people being able to live better lives, I’m all for it.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can follow my blog at https://qfunction.ai/blog . I write about cybersecurity and AI related content that people may find interesting!

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.