Computer Business Review

A Q&A with Kaspersky Labs’ MD Ilijana Vavan

I’m running a fraction late for my 30 minute interview with Kaspersky Lab’s Ilijana Vavan, writes Computer Business Review Editor Ed Targett, and by the time Google Maps has walked me in circles, security have checked my ID and introductions have been made by the PR officer, we have just 17 minutes to talk.

It quickly transpires that 17 minutes with Russian cybersecurity company’s polyglot Managing Director (appointed at the start of 2018) is the equivalent to a lot more time with a less colourful executive. Here are five things I quickly learn about the Oracle and Microsoft (11 years in a range of senior sales roles) veteran.

Ilijana Vavan at the world junior speed skating championships, Sarajevo, 1983. Courtesy of Ilijana Vavan

1: She was born in the late Yugoslavia to Bosnian parents, holds a Dutch passport, and lives in Munich.

2: She was champion Yugoslavian speed skater, but has loved computers equally since getting her first Spectrum.

3: She’s happy to mention opposition to Kaspersky Labs among unnamed industry rivals. “It’s a new era”.

4: She holds company founder Eugene Kaspersky in very high regard: “He’s extremely charismatic; extremely human”

5: She had to flee Yugoslavia when it collapsed in bitter civil war in the early 1990s, returning to Holland where she had earlier been awarded an Msc in Computer Science.

Speed skating, intrigue, civil war, cybersecurity. Where to start? Time is sadly short, so we dive right in to the obvious business question:

Kaspersky’s been de facto Banned by the US Government and Described as “Malicious” by the European Parliament. How Has this Affected Business – and how are You Responding?

Obviously it hasn’t been easy. But [this environment] is a new reality; not just for Kaspersky, but for many other companies.

I believe Kaspersky has made the right first step in opening a transparency centre. We moved our data centre [live from November 2018] and core infrastructure to Switzerland. We have done everything to set a precedent in this industry by opening up to everybody, basically.

Listen, I believe that we are now entering into the new era… because information is available to everybody, people can start checking up everything which is being said, as you have access to different sources of information; whatever’s written in a newspaper, you can check it.

… We are a small private company; maybe too successful for the taste of some people who would rather see us go. Fortunately there are a lot of people in the world who understand that today, it’s all about ‘you dislike your competitor, you just set up a story about them’ and it’s instantly on the internet.

How do you Reassure European Enterprise Customers of your Trustworthiness, Given  Political Opposition?

In 2017 we participated in 86 tests, and out of these independent tests around the globe, we ended up at Number 1 in 82 of them.

We hold the ultimate best cybersecurity position in the world. We have 400 million customers, 270,000 big corporations around the world that trust our technology. So we have a really really good track record when it comes to trust and quality of the technology.

When it comes to building trust, we are very, very open to our enterprise customers. We have nothing to hide. Whatever our customers would like to see – you have to have trust, like in a private relationship. I’m not even going to mention all the government institutions around the world which we have helped to catch cyber criminals.

Are You Still Declining to Support Europol Investigations (After the European Parliament Decision?)

[Checks with PR] I don’t think we have anything new to say on this. I think it’s still on hold.

You’d Previously Worked At Kaspersky. What Brought You Back, Particularly in Such Difficult Times for the Company?

I came back because of, not despite of the challenges. Real friends help each other in difficult times. I was here in the good times and I wanted to be here when the company has some difficult times.

There’s something about this company: you’re treated as a person, not a number. On top of that we have a CEO who’s the founder of the company who is extremely charismatic, extremely human himself in the real sense of that word. He does a lot of great [charitable] things for people in the background that are not publicised.

So working for such a charismatic and inspirational leader is really fantastic in my opinion.

You’ve Moved from the Technical Side to the Commercial Side Over your Career. What was Your First Job in the Industry?

I have a Masters in computer science so it was a logical thing for me to get me first job as a programmer. It was something with object-oriented programming in a Dutch company that got acquired by Compuware.

We were programming user interfaces for big companies…

Do you Still Keep your Hand In?

I’d like to but I don’t have time. But I love computer science: it is beautiful, clean.

You Joined the Industry as a Young Woman. Even Today, That’s More of a Rarity than it Should Be. How Was the Experience for You?

In Yugoslavia the computer science courses were 70 percent women. When I moved to Holland for my Masters it was 7 percent women. It was a real culture shock.

Look, being a woman has its advantages and disadvantages. I am one of those people who just follows my own road. Of course I’ve been in odd situations and when you’re young, pretty, people often don’t expect you to have a technical education.

I don’t even notice if someone’s a man or a woman I just do my job; run the business. It’s important I’m surrounded by good people who can perform.

Speaking of Leaving Yugoslavia, Is Its Collapse Something You Look Back on Often?

War – wasn’t easy. But you have to go through it. I look at the situation in the following way. I compared it with the death of a family member. You are sad and terribly depressed, it hurts and its painful, but life goes on.

I had a choice to sit down and cry for everything that happened or pick up my life and build a better future. I chose the second option.

Back to the Present: What are Your Business Priorities?

Firstly, presenting this company in its real light. To show how good we are to the outside world. Speaking at conferences, to C-level executives, to you.

We believe in our mission at Kaspersky to save the world from cybercrime. And our mission is to enable people to safely enjoy the benefits of technology.

Secondly, obviously we need to be profitable in order to keep on doing what we’re doing. So that’s the priority.