IBM Software Group, Security Systems
CTO – Security Division
Like Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg, this tech prodigy was too busy starting up a business to finish his college degree.
While attending the University of New Brunswick in the late 1990s, Sandy Bird and two friends, all of whom worked part-time in the school’s computing department, shared an unusual obsession for a trio of college students: securing the university’s system network.
“This was right after the Internet boom, and there were a lot of worms and viruses causing havoc on the university’s networks,” Sandy recalled. “We built a technology to detect anomalies in network traffic.”
From a start-up to a security powerhouse
In 2001, the three friends equipped in equal measure with technical precocity and youthful self-confidence formed Q1 Labs—and quickly began expanding their business to government clients and local telcos in eastern Canada.
The young company had attracted enough venture capital to expand and grew to 50 employees with Fortune 50 clients in the United States and Europe—all within five years.
By 2011, the privately-held firm with 250 employees, more than 1800 clients and soaring revenues was a hot commodity—either for an initial public offering or an acquisition. As it turned out, the century-old IBM and decade-old Q1 Labs made a perfect match, according to Sandy. “Lots of companies were interested in acquiring us. Some would have pigeonholed us. Some didn’t share our vision for security technology. We talked to IBM and our visions aligned. We looked at the potential to meet security intelligence goals faster with IBM and grow the company, and it all made good sense.”
A new partnership takes form
Since joining IBM, the QRadar technology developed by Sandy has evolved to become IBM’s security intelligence platform. And the chief technology officer for IBM Security Systems, still in his thirties, has been elevated to the highest echelon of IBM technologists: IBM Fellow.
The son of two small business owners, Sandy grew up in Fredericton, a scenic city on the Saint John River and the capital of the Canadian province of New Brunswick. Attending college in his hometown proved to be fortuitous when Sandy met Chris Newton and Dwight Spencer, his two pals working in the computing department who would become co-founders of Q1 Labs.
“Chris has moved on to other ventures, but Dwight stayed with IBM after the acquisition and is now Principal Solutions Architect for Q1 products,” Sandy said. “Brendan Hannigan was our CEO at Q1 Labs and is now leading the IBM Security Systems organization. Retaining that talent from Q1 and blending that with some great minds from IBM has helped make for a very smooth integration. Sometimes it feels like we’re running a start-up within IBM.”
Sandy extended the QRadar product from a network traffic anomaly detection tool to QRadar SIEM (Security Incident Event Management), a security intelligence platform built for the age of Big Data and analytics. The technologist designed the platform to scale huge volumes of continuous transactions, processing more than 1 million events per second for some customers with high-traffic networks.
“This architecture gives IBM a competitive advantage in terms of cost at scale,” Sandy explained. “We’ve continued to add new modules to the platform. A risk-management module. A vulnerability management module. Behavioral profiling. We give more clients more value by snapping on these new features to the platform and by integrating with other security applications already in their environments.”
Looking ahead, the CTO for IBM Security Systems feels IBM is well positioned to lead in security in the age of data analytics, cloud and mobile. “We have the opportunity to actually make things more secure by using cloud. At IBM, it’s one of the things we have to do.”
And what about finishing that degree in electrical engineering?
“I’m still short a bunch of hours,” the new Fellow admitted, “but some day I’m going to finish it—as my mother continually reminds me.”
Sandy Bird in his own words
What was it like for you to move from a start-up to a huge organization like IBM?
Personally, I was fortunate to have some phenomenal mentors when I came in to IBM who connected me with some of the IBM Fellows, Distinguished Engineers (DEs) and others in the IBM technical community. They helped me navigate the IBM landscape. One colleague at IBM told me [that] IBM is like a tool shed. It has one of everything, just make sure you are using it correctly. That was good advice. I had two very close DEs as mentors, Doug Wilson and Raj Nataratnam, who showed me how to build products under the IBM process. They also know where all the bones are buried. There’s enormous technical expertise within IBM and some of the smartest people I have ever worked with. IBM is a great place for engineers.
Things do move a little slower at IBM than in a startup, but the potential is enormous. Just look at the transition IBM is making into cloud right now.
What do you look for when hiring?
I always look for the problem solvers—even if the person is not necessarily right for the position I’m hiring for. Is the person a thinker, a leader, someone who is going to make a real impact? You are going to work with these people a lot of hours, fight with them over concepts and work late into the night. You have to have the right person who will fit within the culture.
Where do your best ideas come from?
I spend a lot of time in the field. If you sit with a customer for a day and truly understand their pain points, you get a huge source of new ideas. But the customer won’t solve the problem for you. That takes a lot of hours back in the lab, working with your colleagues. Working in groups of very smart people, white-boarding concepts, getting in heated discussions. That’s all part of the process of solving difficult technical problems.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
I love cars. I love driving cars. I love racing cars. When I’m not busy with my family, my wife and two small children, I spend a fair amount of time with cars—maybe more than I should. I have many favorite automobiles. Lately I’ve been focused on old air-cooled Porsches. I also have an old Datsun 510 wagon that I love. While I love the latest and greatest, I am often drawn to old school cars proven by the fact I own two cars older than I am.
Last book you read?
I read a fair amount due to the amount of seat time I spend in a plane. One of the last was CyberStorm by Matthew Mather, which left me stockpiling water in my basement and thinking about what our life would be like if the Internet was disrupted even for a short period of time.
What’s on your playlist?
Everything from jazz music to contemporary pop. Literally—from Frank Sinatra to The Tragically Hip to Rihanna. You name it. Lately I am obsessed with Parov Stelar and similar artists. Spotify has changed my life. At one time I was purchasing 1-2 albums a week, now I have everything I can imagine with a simple search. My wife will tell you it does cause me to slip back into hair bands of the 80s from time to time, which she isn’t so fond of.
How would you like to be remembered?
I know that security threats will continue. Since the first cave man hit somebody over the head and stole their lunch we have needed security. The threats change every year, but they don’t go away. You have to keep innovating to stay ahead. That’s my plan.
What does it mean to you to be named an IBM Fellow?
My nomination to Fellow is a way to honor the spectacular team that built Q1 Labs and formed the Security Division at IBM. It shows IBM’s dedication to security for years to come. It’s hugely important for IBM and our clients.