10 Questions for StillSecure CFO Larry Middle
Name: Larry Middle
Time with company: Almost eight years
Education: BS accounting from Colorado State; CPA
Company headquarters: Superior, Colorado
Number of countries: One, with offices in Colorado and Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Number of employees total: About 100
Number of employees the CFO oversees: About 25
CFO's areas of responsibility: CFO and VP of operations, with responsibility for finance, human resources and the security operating center
About the company: StillSecure designs and delivers managed network security and certified compliance products and services to companies and data centers. The company brings together security experts, certified processes and technologies to take a holistic approach to its products and services, with the aim of eliminating the need for multiple vendors, products and requirements.
1. Where did you start in finance and what experiences led you to the job you have today?
Right out of college, like a lot of accounting majors, I went to one of the big eight accounting firms, which is now one of the big four -- PriceWaterhouse in Denver, Colorado. I worked in their middle market group (which meant you audited many different clients for short periods of time) -- this exposed me to many businesses in quite a few different markets. There was a steep learning curve but a really great place to start my career. The key to being successful in that environment was the ability to quickly understand how a company operated and determine the key areas you needed to spend time in. I had to develop a very analytical mindset and ensure I spent time with not only the accounting staff, but the sales and operational folks too. That was my favorite part, going from company to company, talking with the different people across the organization, understanding how the company operated. Ultimately though, I wasn't looking to make partner so I left after five years and went to work for a client, Intelligent Electronics. Eventually, after working with several startups in Boulder, Colorado, I met the founders of StillSecure and joined them about eight years ago.
2. Who was an influential boss for you and what lessons did they teach you about management and leadership?
I'm honestly the type of person who tries to learn things from everybody and every place I go. At PriceWaterhouse, my colleague, Lew Visscher became both a mentor and a good friend of mine. He's the one I worked for the most while at PriceWaterhouse. He taught me so much more than accounting -- he highlighted the importance of understanding more than just the accounting details of our clients, but digging into the operations and understanding the company from all sides of the business.
In the past, I also worked for a startup called MatchLogic There were two executives, John Moinester and Pete Estler, who helped me grow professionally. It was a startup, and a very successful one, so I literally learned how to navigate and excel in a startup environment, as well as how to contribute to the growth of a startup. I learned the delicate balance of how much to analyze decisions versus just making them. Things move pretty quickly and it can be difficult but because of my time at MatchLogic -- and the help of John and Pete -- I now thrive in those types of situations.
My current boss here at StillSecure Rajat Bhargava, our CEO, has really shaped me as well. One of the things he keeps me focused on most is backing out of all the details and all of the moving parts so that I can focus on the one or two things that will really drive our business. When you are moving fast, its easy to get lost in the day to day details, so it's helpful to step back and think about the few key things you're really driving towards. We spend a lot of time on the company objectives. Everyone in the company has their own set of objectives and we make sure they all feed into those two or three things that are at the heart of our business.
3. What are the biggest challenges facing CFOs today?
I guess one of the biggest challenges (that probably every CFO has) is managing the short-term numbers and performance while figuring out how to intelligently invest in the future. StillSecure employs some of the brightest talent on the market, there's no denying it, and we are fortunate enough to say that they all have great ideas. So it's tempting to want to invest in all of them but we have to determine which ideas will help us stay focused on our long-term strategy. It's never an easy task, but absolutely critical to maintain the discipline.
4. What is a good day at work like for you?
There isn't anybody who doesn't like positive feedback so getting that email or call from a customer saying we saved them is a big one. Being in the network security business, we obviously get that chance on a daily basis, which is and should be the expectation. However, when you go above and beyond and you get that email or call from a customer saying, "You really saved our day," that makes all the effort worthwhile and gives me that extra energy to keep doing what I'm doing.
5. How would you characterize your management style?
I am hands off until I need to be hands on, and even then I prefer to provide a higher level of direction or insight rather than telling my colleagues what to do. I set high-level objectives and goals, and then let the folks go and achieve those. I try to be a sounding board and listen to ideas and then I get out of the way and let them execute. I'm a big believer that when you hire, you hire to your weakness, so you get people who have different skills and are stronger in certain areas than you are. I hire strong people who have initiative and get out of the way and I always get blown away by what they end up achieving.
6. What strengths and qualities do you look for in job candidates?
The first, and arguably easiest, attribute to interview for is a candidate's deep expertise and long history in a particular role -- like security engineer. When looking for resources at our SOC, we try to look for security ninjas -- those folks who really have a stronger customer orientation that most, but that also love security. Security lovers always do really well in our environment. You have to love to solve problems because that's what we do 24/7 -- it has to be more than just a job.
Some of the things that are harder to interview for are the soft skills like honesty and sense of ethics. Those are really the biggest ones to analyze. To me, I tried to find the people who strive to not only do things right, but to also do the right thing. I need someone who will ask: What's the right thing for the customer? That's always the most important perspective to have -- much more important that what might be written in a contract or policy manual.
Initiative is another skill that I'll buy into. People that always look for a way to step up and have a voice or change things to make a business process run more smoothly are the ones I enjoy working with.
And the last skill I look for is self-awareness or rather, people who know what they are and are not good at or capable of accomplishing. These people always come to the right conclusion and in a much more timely fashion and thrive in a team environment.
7. What are some of your favorite interview questions or techniques to elicit information to determine whether a candidate will be successful at your company? What sort of answers send up red flags for you and make you think a job candidate wouldn't be a good fit?
Maybe I'm different, but I don't usually have a standard set of questions that I ask everybody. I jot down a few things that I want to cover with the candidate and then I have a conversation with the person, which allows me to pull out much more specific answers about how they work and how they think. I like to hear why they left their last job. I want to hear about their thought process. I try to get them to articulate whether or not they fit with what the company was trying to accomplish, as well as determine whether or not they really understood what the company's goal and mission was and how they felt they fit in. I think that's really important.
When a candidate just wants to talk about what the company did and not what that person personally did that drove the company, that's one red flag. Another one is a person who has a lot of reasons for why their career wasn't successful and it's mostly outside influences. They essentially sound like victims. I want them to take ownership of what they did and where they are in their career. You can be in a bad situation or have a bad manager, but ultimately I think the person has to take ownership of where they are and what's happened to them.
8. What is it about your current job, at this particular company, that sets it apart from other chief finance positions?
I've got amazing people working for me, which is what has allowed me to be in this organization and what is unique about it. I've worked on the product development side, as well as the operations side of things. At StillSecure, I oversee a wide variety of processes and have acquired a strategic vision because of them. My role is more than just the management of the finance and department; it's also about being out there and involved in all aspects of the day-to-day operations.
9. What do you do to unwind from a hectic day?
I love sports. I like being competitive. After work and during weekends I try to get out there and play basketball, or go mountain bike riding or skiing. When I spend too much time at work and don't have the time to play outdoors, my mood is affected and I'm really just not as effective at work.
The other thing I do that I love is coaching. I've coached my kids in a lot of different sports. Right now, I'm coaching my son's 7th grade basketball team. Even though coaching can be stressful -- making sure the kids are learning and having fun, and dealing with well-meaning parents -- it still helps me to deal with my work stress.
10. If you weren't doing this job, what would you be doing?
Something to do with sports -- I'd say I'd probably be a pro athlete, but that's not going to happen. However, I would most definitely be involved in sports, either coaching or some other role. I played sports when I was growing up and I think you learn valuable life lessons that you wouldn't learn in any other environment. When you're coaching and teaching a kid and you see that they "get it," and then they go out there and execute, that's just phenomenal and really what I enjoy.