Dave DeWalt and the mission for McAfee


You didn’t have to know that Dave DeWalt is the CEO of McAfee to realize he is an American visiting Toronto this week. No one up here is quite so tanned in April. But that wasn’t the only way DeWalt stood out to me as a leader of the world’s second-largest security software firm.

I was invited to a customer-only briefing session at a posh downtown club called the Fifth, where I discussed the state of the CIO in Canada and tried to put some of DeWalt’s keynote remarks in context. Not that he was unpopular with the crowd. Tall, handsome and highly approachable, he was surrounded shortly before the event like a debutante out at her first ball. His message to attendees was pretty simple: there are a lot of threats out there, and McAfee has a number of its own products or ones it has gained through acquisition to deal with them. The most memorable image in his slide presentation, which he repeated a couple of times, was a picture of a man’s feet, standing on the ledge of a building, followed by an animated Batman-style “Splat!” that filled the screen.

This was standard stuff, but I was intrigued by some of the questions from the crowd, which were perhaps more sophisticated than DeWalt had bargained for. One guest was interested in learning more about security as a service – ways in which protecting data can be offered in a utility fashion similar to other compute infrastructure. Another attendee pointed out the absence of wireless threats in his keynote, which Dewalt admitted he wished he’d had more time to discuss.

DeWalt, meanwhile, surprised me by mentioning Symantec by name as its greatest competitor. Usually vendors in McAfee’s position like to pretend that they’re the only game in town, as though mentioning the other leading brand will make customers more predisposed to consider their alternatives. He also said he speaks to about 40 CIOs a month – an approach that, based on the data I presented, might not be the right move.

According to IT World Canada’s annual CIO survey, for example, only six per cent said they see security planning as an important job activity, and only 14 per cent suggested they spend much of their time there. Instead, 64 per cent focus on interacting with other CXOs and developing strategy, leaving the more tactical work to their IT department staff. DeWalt, in other words, may find it increasingly difficult to get CIOs’ attention, at least here in Canada.

DeWalt was an intriguing choice for McAfee. He came from Documentum, a constant management firm that was taken over by EMC. Content, obviously, is one of the assets that firms like McAfee are trying to protect, which is probably why EMC branched out last year into the space with its purchase of RSA. Symantec, meanwhile, moved into storage with Veritas but has left the content hole unfilled. It would be interesting if DeWalt were to shake McAfee up by taking on a content management firm – Waterloo’s Open Text, perhaps? – that would make it a more pivotal player in the overall handling of information, as well as making it safe.

I told the crowd that as much as CIOs want to become more strategic, they shouldn’t limit themselves by thinking of security as tactical. If you’re really innovating, I said, you’re probably taking some risks by opening up new ways to communicate with customers, partners or employees. That in turn opens up new avenues of attack or vulnerabilities. Security needs to be as strategic as all the other elements of IT which CIOs oversee. If he wants McAfee to gain traction over Symantec, DeWalt is going to have to tell his customers the same thing.

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