The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Chief Officer Awards were announced March 25, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place live, in-person May 11 at the The Ritz-Carlton in McLean, Virginia.
Next is Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer (Public) finalist Stephen Kovac, chief compliance officer and head of Global Government Affairs at Zscaler Inc. Here, he talks career turning points, primary focus areas going forward, taking professional risks and more.
What has made you successful in your current role?
I attribute much of my success to the people around me. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to build a tremendously diverse team, both in background and knowledge. At Zscaler, we really look to foster cross-pollination of knowledge and experience between our teams. With the ability to hire the right people, it is important to surround yourself with those who will help propel the joint mission and help the team succeed. The support from the team colleagues, mentors, auditors and others who are dedicated to the mission truly makes my job easier.
What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
2020 and 2021 bought us a world we have never seen before. The pandemic, security attacks to a level we have never seen, everyone working from home and so much more. We are at Zscaler and have to meet demands we have never seen before.
Zero Trust is at the top of everyone’s agendas and with cybersecurity being an essential part of how businesses operate, it wasn’t hard to decide how to service our customers, but 2020-2021 put this into hyperspace speeds. We had to deliver zero trust fast, securely and we need governmental contract support. CISA issued an interim approval but more was needed as ZTA growth was over 1000%. Then the Biden Administration’s 2021 Executive Order on Federal Cybersecurity was the validation our work needed. From the ambition goals set forth in the executive order, our teams were able to effectively align their work to ensure that our products meet the highest standards of compliance. Zscaler works to enable agencies to securely adopt cloud technologies, while having the ability to work from anywhere
This triggered an era of federal digital transformation and dramatic growth throughout the pandemic, and the executive order responds to an urgent need to accelerate cybersecurity modernization, including industry practices like zero trust security. This monumental inflection point in my career has only encouraged Zscaler to continue to provide strong public and private collaboration and coordination across government agencies and global enterprises as we enter this new cloud secure era.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
I’m most proud of our effort to turn compliance from a limiting factor to a business driver.
Compliance is often associated with restrictions; you can’t do this or that. As such, compliance organizations are often perceived as “no-shops” that limit teams’ abilities to get things done.
At Zscaler, compliance is ingrained into our daily processes and our way of operating. It is an essential business driver as opposed to an inhibitor. We’ve turned ourselves into a “yes-shop” that works tirelessly to find solutions internally and for our customers. We use compliance to ensure we’re aligned, looking ahead and being prepared for what is needed to best service our customers and our internal needs.
A good example of us looking ahead is the many executive orders the president issued this year. Our federal team was working closely with the government and we were able to get ahead of potential items that we believed would be part of the executive orders and make changes to our policy ahead of the mandates. This is the proactive “can do” thinking that makes me very proud of our organization.
What are your primary focus areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?
Zero trust is top of mind and a primary focus of my work at Zscaler. We live in a world of ever-increasing cybersecurity attacks that are becoming a global threat to our nation, but Zero Trust can eliminate many of those risks. It’s essential to work towards Zscaler’s vision of creating a world in which the exchange of information is secure and seamless. As such, we continue to invest and drive advancements in zero trust frameworks.
Another focus of mine is to continue to advocate for and support ongoing global certifications in the enterprise and government space. Our dedication to these certifications is also essential to supporting the continued advancements of cloud technologies. Certifications are a differentiator and the absolute proof of the cloud technology and its capabilities. Our goal is to continue to certify all the way up to the highest levels in global enterprises and government.
How do you help shape the next generation of government leaders/industry leaders?
Fostering the next generation of leaders is not just a personal goal of mine but also an organizational priority at Zscaler. We are committed to promoting professional development at all levels of the organization, starting with our internship programs. Our interns aren’t just there to support our teams; they are involved participants in projects and have active seats at the table. That’s important, because in 20 or so years, they’ll be industry leaders, sitting where I am today. Personally, I find it essential to take the time to help the next generation in their career development. I take great pleasure in seeing the future of the industry grow before my eyes, and do everything I can to help them along their path.
What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?
Earlier on in my career, I was a senior sales leader running IT and security for a major telecommunications company. After 15+ years in that industry, I realized that telecommunications was not where I wanted to continue investing and spending the rest of my career.
So, I made a decision to switch to a new path toward innovations in security and compliance in cloud computing. It was a whole new world that required me to relearn. I come from a sales and marketing background, and there was a steep learning curve to understanding information technology and the security field and then having to learn the compliance world on top of cloud compounding and security, it was a big risk, a new challenge, but with big rewards.
I committed to the challenge, and my background allowed me to bring sales, marketing, engineering, operations and compliance together. That resulted in a very powerful combination that still works well today. Although my engineers and operations teams will say we may not speak the same technical language, we understand each other clearly. They have a better sense of what our customers need, and my team gets a better idea of the technology required to meet those needs. As such, we’re able to create solutions that help our customers achieve their mission objectives securely.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
My advice is three-pronged.
First: Whatever your job is in the company, get to know the technology. You don’t need to know every single piece of code, or how it was created, but you do need to be able to talk about its benefits and features. Most importantly, you need to be able to understand how the technology you’re providing will help your customers meet their goals.
Second: Take time to know your industry. Make sure you’re aware of what’s going on in the space, as well as trends that are peripheral to your industry and may eventually impact your business. Be aware!
Third: Prioritize your work life balance. Don’t become a person who constantly works. The social time that you spend with friends and family, as well as the boundaries you set for yourself within your workplace, are tools you will need as you rise in the chain of command. Take care of your family. Your family is your biggest team and it’s essential you prioritize the time you spend with them and the things that matter personally to you. And most importantly, take care of yourself. I love that my CEO encourages us to walk or exercise during calls, our president holds Zoom yoga meetings, whatever you do for your physical well being, pays big dividends in all parts of your life.
Click here to see all the Chief Officer Awards finalists.