F5 Channel Chief Lisa Citron On The Shape Security Deal And How Partners Must ‘Adopt And Expand’

‘We’re looking at how we better move forward with customer success and then practice building — how we can help [partners] amplify and accelerate what they’re doing with us around cloud managed services,’ F5’s Channel Chief Lisa Citron tells CRN.


Adapting Along The Way

F5 Networks, a longtime application delivery specialist, has been honing its skills over the last two years as a multi-cloud application security expert, too.

Seattle-based F5 closed its $1 billion acquisition of Shape Security in 2020, and since then, the company has been integrating Shape Security’s fraud and abuse prevention capabilities into its portfolio. This bet paid off big in 2020, as enterprises grappled with an influx of traffic coming onto their networks from all different locations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the same time, partners needed to reach and work with their clients in new ways, and F5 has been there to help solution providers learn about and support “adaptive applications” — the company’s term for an application’s ability to grow, shrink, defend, and heal themselves based on the environment they’re in and how they’re being used.

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F5’s Vice president of Worldwide Channel Sales, Lisa Citron, caught up with CRN about how the company has been working hand-in-hand with partners, the Shape Security acquisition, and the subscription selling model. She also shared the big opportunities she sees that are only getting bigger this year around cloud, edge, and managed services.

Here’s what Citron had to say.

What are your big areas of focus for F5 partners right now?

There’s more going on with F5 than ever before. Learning and understanding our adaptive app messaging — that is really inclusive of everything, from security, all the way out to how do we serve the edge and where applications should be with the most scale available. There’s really a place for so many of our partners to really accelerate with F5. I think it starts for them in understanding that adaptive applications message and focusing in on an area that amplifies what they’re good at. Whether that be cloud, security, or next-generation architecture, all of those things are alive and active here. And we really want to meet that partner on the journey that they’re on and help them understand how to take F5 with them. We’re looking at how we better move forward with customer success and then practice building — how we can help [partners] amplify and accelerate what they’re doing with us around cloud managed services.

Right now, we’re launching a subscription growth program, which focuses that partner on adoption and expansion. So, how do we partner together on customer success and help that end user? And how do you get [partners] to be more focused on the adoption and expansion with their customers and incentivizing them for that, and helping them set up those customer success motions, which are so key, as many of us in the industry turn to these software-based go to market approaches.

What have partners been asking F5 for over the course of the last year?

I think that most of the F5 partners have experienced a positive upturn in their business in this COVID era. I think we all went into it very nervous about what the world was going to look like [and] how customers were going to engage. On the early side of COVID, we had this conversation around how to support what [partners] do, and there were definitely situations where we jumped in and offered education and better terms, and the things that in the early days people needed, but I but I think that we’ve all seen the positivity in the business. But that’s also led to the conversation around how can we evolve the business together? The customers are asking for new ways of working and that is definitely accelerating what we as a vendor have to do, [but also], how do we help our partners that aren’t there yet in their businesses? How do we help them accelerate, and continue to work with us? We have a lot of partners that have been on the journey with us for a long time, but the business is changing.

An example would be that so many of the partners were event marketers. Their version of marketing was getting customers out. And now, in this era where digital communication is so important, how do you help the regional partner advance that? For F5, that’s really meant putting more effort to how to deliver them concierge campaigns [and] understanding how to fit what we do into their businesses. Then similarly, much like a lot of others in the market, how do we start focusing on specialization areas with the partners who have taken the lead in things like app development and cloud, and looking at them differently than I think we have in the past. I would say that this year, it’s been a year of a lot of listening, and a lot of thinking how we evolved together for the future.

Are you seeing more partners pursuing specialization areas and do you think COVID-19 has shaped that transition?

I think the three areas that are merging really fast in our ecosystem is [number one,] cloud. I think the cloud providers are doing a better job than ever in focusing in on the channel and recognizing the channel’s role in helping customers. The second is managed services, which I would argue other manufacturers have been faster to move on than F5. But I will tell you that that this is a dynamic shift, and when I say faster to move than F5, I mean it from the lens of we offer our managed services, but how do we get the partner to be more involved than just reselling it? How do you actually embed something into their business? The third area is the app dev work as we’ve seen a lot of partners go buy the experience that they haven’t had. We’re seeing more consolidation is happening so rapidly, and you look and you look at what our partners are buying, and they’re buying cloud skill sets, modern application, modern architecture skillsets, and that really aligns well with this idea of making sure an app has services no matter where that app is.

I definitely think [those trends] have been sped up by COVID. I think that customers are realizing that the value of outsourcing certain things is freeing up the time of their own people to focus on what will drive them forward. I’m beginning to see that more and more. It’s an opportunity that we are trying to make sure that the midsized partner — or at least the midsized partner to us — recognizes is there for them. Over the next, I would say a year, you’re going to see us emerge with a more concerted program against it. Right now, we’re piloting a couple of different ways of working and are going to our strongest regional system integrators and understanding what they need from us in order to activate that motion, because we think that they can be a really important bridge in helping that customer get to the strategic initiatives that, by outsourcing things that are not as strategic, the partner can participate in more.

Tell us about the enhancements F5 has made recently to its application security portfolio thanks to the Shape Security acquisition and the opportunities that brings for partners?

I think the exciting things specifically about the Shape offering is putting those offerings into the hands of our partners to be able to help give their customers insight and help build business in the process. Anything from Device ID, which allows a partner to install something at the end user and allows them to build a view around the data and build it into a security assessment that they’re already giving. Now, they can analyze customer traffic, pinpoint things like how much automated versus manual fraud is going on. Not only are they doing something that’s not going to cost the end user to use it, but it becomes a value add to those partners’ security assessment mindset and a path to build an offer to that end user to help them mitigate the risk, and potentially even sell SOC service to them. I think what you’re beginning to see us do is figure out how we can use these tools in order to not only demonstrate to an end user that there could be a problem, but bake it into the way our partners are working.

Did Shape Security have an existing partner program before it was purchased by F5?

No, they did not. At the time of acquisition, they had a relatively small customer base — very impressive logos, I will say, and an incredible fit into the enterprise, which is where F5 plays also. So, we knew it was a great combination. But there is such a huge opportunity to grow that through the security experts in the F5 channel. We have a great base of security-oriented partners, so this is a real opportunity for our security partners to leverage the best that Shape brings to the table. It allows them to also branch out. So, you’ve got things like, looking at traffic through Device ID, but it also allows them to touch into areas around fraud risk that they might not otherwise have been involved in. And that that offers them a way to sort of open the aperture of what they’re consulting that end user on.

I think that’s what everybody’s looking for — how do they add that leg up to what they do? We’re very excited about that opportunity, whether it be Shape, whether it be our Silverline Security offerings, as these things come together.

How big is the area of opportunity at the edge for partners?

Oh, it’s a super-hot space. I think what partners have an opportunity to do right now — and in leveraging our acquisition of [edge as a service provider] Volterra — is really go in and help that end user determine where the app should live. Whether that’s public cloud, [or] sitting in a data center more centralized, or is it living at the edge? What are those opportunities and improvements in how they serve their customers?

When we make it about the business outcome, the partner gets to walk that end user through that experience of being a customer of theirs means — whether that’s an internal customer or external customer — [partners can] help them make key decisions about where the apps should live and what services and security the application needs. So, you can even fast forward to the opportunity with Volterra to be able to build a stack of managed capability on top of it. It’s so multifaceted right now. We’re really focusing a key set of partners on helping to bake that channel-oriented message for their consumption. That’s a big part of my strategy — not assuming all the time that we understand what’s best for the partner — and beginning to leverage that work that a key group who are already down the path of edge can do in helping others come along on the journey.