Posted: 3 Min ReadFeature Stories
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Innovation is Much More Than Something New, Flashy, or Shiny

Innovators@Symantec series

Nick Johnston is a technical director, working primarily on the Symantec Email product, with a focus on URL-based threats. 

Can you share a little about your background and what your team works on?

I joined MessageLabs in 2005 as a software engineer to work on the company’s anti-spam service. Looking back now, MessageLabs was a SaaS pioneer. Symantec acquired MessageLabs in 2008. Now I’m working on a team responsible for an anti-spam engine, link-following (checking URLs extracted from email for malware, phishing, and spam), and a telemetry analysis platform which gives us insight into how our service is protecting our customers.

What are some of the innovations your team has developed that you're most proud of?

Our link-following platform started as a humble experiment running on a single already-overloaded server. The potential was clear immediately. We dramatically increased our capacity, and over time added many more features to protect customers from the latest threats, evolving into the advanced platform we have today.

More recently we’ve been using OCR in our email scanning to handle some threats. This benefits from an earlier innovation: being able to push rules and signatures to our entire production environment in under a second.

You are developing security solutions for many of the world's most well-known and demanding companies, based on what you hear from them, what trends are driving Symantec's product roadmap?

Large enterprise customers often have their own security teams and want deeper insight into the threats we block. Such customers sometimes also want much more customization, even the ability to provide custom policies, rules, or heuristics. Implementing this securely with high performance in our multi-tenant environment can be difficult, but that’s our job.

That leads to another point—recently I met with a customer and was staggered by the sheer complexity of their overall infrastructure. So many vendors. A mixture of on-prem and cloud. Mind-boggling amounts of data. Our products need to seamlessly integrate with each other lest they add to the existing management burden. Regular account reviews are important to see if new features in our products could help customers simplify their infrastructure by removing other products that may no longer be necessary.

Is there capability that Symantec offers that sometimes flies under the radar, but when a customer sees it, they have a "wow" moment?

One of the challenges of operating a managed filtering service is that when we do our job right, we are invisible. Threats are identified and blocked before they reach customer inboxes. Obviously, we provide reports and stats, but stressed IT teams often have more pressing priorities.

In the security space we’re fighting active adversaries, which adds other problems. We must be careful how much we disclose about the inner workings of our products. Showcasing our technology is great; leaking valuable trade secrets and comprising the effectiveness of our products is not.

Something that often gets a "wow" reaction is how our link-following platform uses deep integration with Symantec’s advanced anti-virus technology to discover threats in documents hosted on various cloud services—and then distribute that intelligence back to our scanning infrastructure in under a second. Vendors who license a third-party anti-virus engine often only have limited integration with it. Symantec, on the other hand, reaps the rewards of its decades-long investment.

What does being an Innovator mean to you?

To me, being an innovator means improving the customer experience by breaking cultural and technical barriers. Innovation is much more than something new, flashy, or shiny—those things might be dangerous distractions which won’t necessarily help our customers. To innovate, we often need to challenge and overcome entrenched, deep-seated views like “we can’t do that” or “what you’re suggesting is too difficult”.

As an innovator, I have to remind people that we exist for our customers. Engineers often have perfectionist tendencies, making them susceptible to falling into the trap of forever wanting to polish and tweak something while failing to question whether this work benefits customers. There’s no place for outdated, harmful rivalry across teams—instead we need to unite and collaborate to improve the customer experience.

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About the Author

Nick Johnston

Technical Director

Nick Johnston is a Technical Director, working primarily on the Symantec Email product, with a focus on URL-based threats.

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