Q&A: Alex Thurber On McAfee's New Channel Strategy

Alex Thurber, McAfee's new senior vice president of worldwide channel operations, sat down with editors at Channelweb.com to discuss how he plans to change the company's channel strategy, its historically high turnover rate, and how the company will stay ahead in the security space. Here are a few edited experts.

McAfee's Alex Thurber

What are some of the first tasks at hand in your new role?

Just getting out talking to partners and talking to the channel and just getting a grip on what's really going on out there. It's pretty exciting. It's a great team. We have wonderful products, certainly best-of-breed products, and some of the different areas that are tied together so well with the management console, and we have wonderful partners. And what I'm excited about is that I think with a few tweaks and a few adjustments, a little bit of this and that, we can pull everything together and really put together a dynamite opportunity for the channel.

What are some of those tweaks and adjustments you were talking about?

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[President and CEO] Dave DeWalt has really taken the company to that next level. He's very focused on, I hate to use the Cisco term, 'an end,' really that idea of a complete interlock between network security, endpoint security and server security.

Some of that's been done in research and development, and some of that's been done through acquisitions. And so, when I look at the McAfee channel program today, I'm very open and honest about this stuff. It's a combination of three or four different programs that never were very well integrated. And so where we look to do repair is putting together a comprehensive channel program for our partners worldwide that will not only handle today's technology, but tomorrow's technology. We'll certainly continue to grow and certainly continue to move into these strategic areas.

How can McAfee really dig into the Cisco security/network strategy?

I love Cisco. I still love the company. They're still incredibly well-rounded in every area but security. One thing McAfee has is a purely focused security company. That's all we do. That's a wonderful focus. It makes sure that our account managers, our channel account managers and obviously our channel, are very aware of what's important. I was asked, 'What made you make that jump from Cisco to McAfee?' and certainly Cisco has the culture and that idea of changing the way we work with and learn that. That's been the Cisco paradigm for a long time.

McAfee has a very similar idea of making the Internet safe. That's a very broad generalization because there will always be challenges out on the network. But it is a real belief in McAfee that with our technology from the endpoint to the server we can really help that online experience be a safer one, and one that enables the Internet to continue to grow and to do those great things that we know it can do. I think it's that's single-minded focus on security that really was intriguing.

You had to say the networking side of security was the way to go and now you have to see the other side, knowing you're going to have to go up against your old colleagues. How are you making that shift?

I don't think it's actually a huge shift. Certainly, the networks out there are Cisco's, certainly the routing and the switching. Cisco is great in so many different areas but I think if we could combine McAfee security on top of that Cisco infrastructure, that's a real win-win. And I think that they're pretty complementary. Cisco is outstanding in so many of the different areas and I think that McAfee has got the story when it comes to security.

McAfee has had a slew of channel people coming in and out and it's been kind of a revolving door. What do we say to make people think you're going to stick around and actually follow through on the changes?

First, I'll say trust me. I have 17 years or 20 years of channel experience. Channel is in my blood. I wouldn't have made the switch to McAfee if I didn't get a very direct commitment from both Dave DeWalt, the CEO, and Mike DeCesare, my boss, that they were in it for the long haul. They were in it to the channel for the long haul and they were committed. I think the exact same message went to Fernando [Quintero, vice president of channel operations for the Americas]. McAfee has always been a channel company, they just haven't executed necessarily very well on an overall channel strategy. So the strong account managers, the great partners in the strong business we have and by adding the right strategy and the programs and all the other things that we know, I think will really take them to that next level. I wouldn't have made the jump from Cisco to McAfee without a very strong commitment that they are here for the long haul.

What's been the problem up to this point? What's been going on if McAfee has been in it for the long haul? Has it been the wrong people?

I hate to bash my predecessor and part of the confusion has been a little bit on messaging. So there have certainly been some changes in the Americas and the U.S. channel leadership, and of course there have been some changes in the worldwide leadership. Of course I think McAfee was struggling to find the right people who were really devoted to the channel. I think with Fernando and myself, they've done that. We certainly are devoted to the channel and that's something we're going to drive forward with.

It seems like there is also very high turnover down the line in the channel. How is McAfee addressing that?

We're doing a combination of things. I think part of why there's been some turnover all the way down to the channel account manager level is because there hasn't been a focus from the leadership on the channel. There hasn't been an overall strategy. People get frustrated, they're not sure what it is they're supposed to be doing and so as we start rolling these issues out, and start rolling out our solutions, that's going to help a lot.

Nobody wants to be a channel account manager one month and then an end-user account manager the next month and then a channel account manager a month after that. I'm not going to sugarcoat the fact that there have been challenges out in the field making all of this work. But even more to the point I know that there have been a lot of comprehensive plans discussed. We'll start with some concrete changes and put some time into that and we'll ask you to audit us. If we say that we're going to do this by January 1 and that by June 1, and we don't -- we'll expect you to call us on it.

What are some of those changes and what does this particular plan look like?

I think what you can expect is an overall channel strategy laying out how exactly we're going to combine the disparate channel programs we have today. How are we going to deal with MDF? How are we going to deal with rebates in a comprehensive way and with some commitment so those members are not going to be at the whim of the market, and at the whim of the economy?

We've obviously always had to take the overall business into account. We're going to carve aside financial incentives for the channel. They're going to be set aside separately, and we're going to commit to them. That's going to be committed all the way up to Dave DeWalt.

We're also going to roll out some very specific issues around deal protection, so ensuring that if you're a partner and you bring us a deal or we engage you in a deal early on in the cycle, you're going to be protected all the way through the cycle in ways that allow you to profitably do business and develop the relationship with the end user. One of the key areas I've heard loud and clear already is ease of doing business. Certainly that's something that I heard a lot of at Cisco as well, and those are not easy fixes. But we are in the process of making some pretty radical infrastructure changes in the company that started almost a year ago. Some of that will go live in January, some of that will go live throughout 2010. And our partners will actually see the differences in that. I'll put stakes in the ground and I will commit to those.

Next: Reaching Out To the Channel Base

What is McAfee doing to reach out to its channel base and instill some confidence? What are some of the outreach strategies?

We're going to be implementing a number of different communication models, talking to many of our different partners. We're going to be implementing some of the Web 2.0 technologies, so our partners will be able to hear from us on PDAs, SMS, text and e-mail. And then we're certainly empowering our channel account managers, and our channel leadership team, to go out and talk to folks and feed that information back. I think one of my tasks over the next few months is to build that two-way channel to our channel, so that we have an ongoing series of dialogues. We'll certainly be conducting partner meetings both at the strategic level as well as local levels, communicating out and talking to everybody, making sure that we know what's happening.

How are you taking all these diverse technologies and merging them into one integrated company?

That's one of the areas that has been a challenge for McAfee in the past. At Cisco, it is a complex task to make [channel integration] happen. The folks at McAfee, Dave DeWalt and Mike DeCesare, make it very clear that channel will be a core part of acquisitions from the very beginning, similar to what we did at Cisco over the last couple of years.

So that as we roll out these acquisitions, and of course I could never comment on any future acquisitions, but DeWalt has certainly said that the company will continue to make strategic investments, that we will be rolling out and be involved in the very beginning stages of any potential future project so that we're able to link those new acquisitions or new investments into the existing channel program as we go forward, how we're going to be the program that will enable us to stamp in other technologies as we go. I'm not confirming or denying any future acquisitions, but certainly we will continue to invest in strategic technologies. And I think part of the goal is building a global channel program that has both the integrity that our partners depend on as well as the flexibility to ensure that we can expand it if necessary.

A couple of your smaller competitors are really getting noticed in the field. What are you doing to stay competitive?

They've done a really good job, I have to tell you. Certainly in terms of having point products that are very specifically aimed at the individual issues, they've done a great job and what I've read about competition is that it focuses us on what we need to do. I think that our customers and certainly our channel will understand that as we continue to build together the various technologies that McAfee has, the overall story is much stronger than any one particular point product, and that's particularly true with our EPO, our ePolicy Orchestrator product, and how that gives you such an incredibly comprehensive view of the security of your company. The threats are just amazing. I listened to Dave DeWalt do his overall introduction into the security business, and that took me back to when I ran a security company in the '90s and how much that has changed over the last 10 years.

These are professionals who are out there doing hacking issues, not only for money but also ultimately for competitive advantage, for terrorism, for lots of different issues. It's quite different than the 16-year-old pimply faced boy in the basement who couldn't get a date and thought he'd impress a girl in a different way. It's a big deal. And while it's great to have point technologies, you really need to have that comprehensive view of your security situation. That's something that McAfee is unique in its ability to bring.

Several of your competitors have added a very strong storage component. Is storage something McAfee is considering to stay on par with them?

As far as we're concerned, the way we're attacking storage is through data loss protection. So the technologies we have are around encryption, technologies we have around access control of laptops, not the devices themselves but data that could be taken, the ability to say, 'No' you can or can't plug in a USB key or you can, or can't burn something onto a DVD, or you can do it but only if it's encrypted.'

I personally think that's a more strategic position because it allows us to focus on security, not be distracted by disk drives and other kinds of dissimilar areas or pure storage. It's also to ensure that customers are protected, because regardless of what type of storage you have, we have the technology to help ensure that nothing is going to leak out, so that you are protected, your intellectual property, of course the different privacy rules in all the different countries, are being managed.

What do you see when you look at the overall makeup of the partner base right now? Do you have the right mix of partners? Are you going to be recruiting partners?

I think we have a great group of partners around the world. Everybody from system builders, down to very focused partners who cover particular cities or particular geographies. One of the things we are doing as part of our overall strategy is economic analysis because we want to make sure we have enough of the right partners to satisfy our mutual customers' needs, yet we don't want to overdistribute to the point where we run into financial issues. We want our partners to be profitable and strong.

So I think there will certainly be particular areas, either technology or geography, where we need to expand our partner base. But in general, one of the things I was very impressed with is the overall competency of our partners, and how much they want to work with us. They've been very vocal and they've been very honest and very supportive. So they're saying 'Hey, you're fairly new, we want to add this McAfee technology. We do endpoint, we want to add the network, or we do network, we want to add the DLP piece,' and I reply, 'Work together more.' And that's part of what's been driving this whole idea of an integrated, global channel program that lets us put together all of these disparate technologies so that the partners can pick where they want to be and really be the best in those areas.

What are some of the geographies that McAfee is targeting right now?

I think the obvious ones are the Americas, particularly the United States and Europe. I don't think there's any question that Europe has not been growing as fast as the rest of our geographies. We have a great new leader there. And he and I are working very closely together so that the channel is strong and enabled. Asia's doing well, but what's exciting about Asia, it's not our biggest geography of course, but it's got so much upside, so much potential, we're seeing a lot in terms of growth. And certainly in Latin America, part of our overall Americas' theater, there are growth areas in Latin America, particularly with Brazil. Brazil's got a great economy now under the president. It's been going well and we've got a lot of opportunities there.

Any specific philosophies or elements of the Cisco side that you feel like you'll be able to implement?

Cisco has of course a world-class channel program. So part of that of course is in my DNA, it's in my way of thinking, and that will certainly be something that I take with me. I think a couple of the biggest things I learned are: talk to the channel, talk to them honestly, and listen about what's going on. That's something that Cisco is so good at and we can take to the channel program at McAfee -- talk to your partners. You can take integrity, not only personally, but you can take it through the channel program. So build the program, build the rules, and then live by those. And if the policy needs to change, make the changes that you have to make, communicate them and then live with them. Certainly the strong support elements of the Cisco channel are certainly ones that I will continue to live by.