Security is like guarding your family: Shiv Somanathan
In the summer of ’98, a 20-year-old Shivanath ‘Shiv’ Somanathan had two achievements he could boast about. One, he had successfully organized a huge IEEE conference as the student council chairman of the Government Engineering College, Thrissur, and two, he had found his future wife.
The second one was something he was particularly proud of. Shiv had hit a home run on the family front.
But what the chief information security officer (CISO) of Freshworks didn’t know then was this: his life, both personal and professional, would thenceforth revolve around the idea of a ‘family’.
The making of a ‘family’ guy
For Shiv the idea of ‘security’ is akin to caring for a family. It is a people’s game. People are your biggest advantage and your biggest threat, he believes. You win if you stay together—and lose if you don’t.
It all began when a teenaged Shiv shifted to Ramagundam, a township some 225 kilometers from Hyderabad in the southern part of India. Shiv’s father, who worked at government-owned engineering and manufacturing firm Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL), was transferred to Ramagundam from Chennai on a project.
That experience shaped his thinking.
“I spent four years of my childhood at Ramagundam. Probably the most blissful time as well. Our colony was like a well-knit family. It was a beautiful experience,” says Shiv. “What I felt there was a sense of security and love. That experience stayed with me. When I started to work in security, it came back—you need to think of security like guarding your family.”
The Ramagundam days also instilled in him the urge to experiment. Shiv tried his hand at mimes, mono acts and theatre and, to his surprise, found that he excelled in these. But, good times do come to an end.
Soon, it was time to move back to Chennai.
After finishing schooling in Chennai, Shiv decided to pursue a degree in electrical engineering from the Government Engineering College, Thrissur. And while he now calls himself a “true blue Chennaite,” it was a homecoming of sorts, given that his family originally hails from Kerala.
The college days flew past with a flurry of activities, which included a three-year stint as the college’s student chairman and a lot of conferences he helped organize for the college chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Shiv takes pride in being “one of the early founders of the IEEE student branch” in his college and the fact that they even pulled off some international-level events. In a way, it was his newfound ‘family’.
And in the midst of it all, he also got involved in “making chemistry happen” with his then girlfriend and now wife. It was an achievement, remember?
A new phase begins
Near the turn of the millennium, the Indian government decided to break the internet service monopoly of the state-owned telecom provider VSNL and gave service licenses to private players. This move, which led to a rush of industry activity, also helped Shiv land his first job.
Shiv was selected by Satyam Infoway (now Sify), amongst the first few Category A private players to launch internet services in the country.
This was a time for him to gain practical experience as well as some insights into where the future might lead.
“I felt over a period of time, the bloodline of software service would have to be networking…it was a natural attraction there. Even during my engineering days, we created our own labs. We had a natural inclination to see what was new out there from the networking and communication technology perspective,” recalls Shiv.
After an initial six-month orientation on network control engineering, Shiv was asked to move to North India to set up satellite nodes for the back office in Chennai. A lot rested on his young shoulders. For Satyam Infoway, the network he was expected to set up would be the foundation over which internet would travel across North India.
“Even though I preferred to stay in the comfort of my house, I took this assignment. It was a tough task. I knew a lot was on my shoulders because of what the company’s vision was. And they needed someone who could speak Hindi and create a good stakeholder rapport with the local telcos,” he says.
Shiv was stationed in the historic city of Lucknow, the Nawabon ka sheher (Nawabs were the viceroys of the Mughal emperors). But his work paved the way for the future: he was a part of the team that soon expanded the internet nodes to 33 cities within a few months.
“It was a great exposure at the start of my career,” says Shiv.
But the best was yet to come.
First brush with security
With complex networks comes the need for security. Recognizing this need, Satyam Infoway wanted to bring in standardized policies for the networks and infrastructure it was running. “We knew even in those days that there were natural threats we should be aware of, especially with people who could misuse or abuse the network,” says Shiv.
Thus began the dive into the complex and ever-changing world of security.
Within a couple of years at Satyam Infoway, Shiv was requested to lead the security consulting practice of the parent organization. This role involved everything from the go-to-market strategy to delivery management for clients.
One of the many marquee projects Shiv was involved in was a stint with Prof. Dabbala Rajagopal “Raj” Reddy, the then Dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer and Management Studies.
He had a dual objective of creating and implementing a security blueprint for online course delivery for their then newly launched West campus (now called Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley) and also converting the University’s MS in e-commerce course into video-based instructional learning modules so as to help students gain real-world experience of security. The latter involved establishing honeypots and role-play simulation with mentoring.
While the going seemed good, the economic downturn signified by the dotcom bust hit the young market. Suddenly, the internet was looked at cautiously—projects were either delayed or abandoned, and a lot of people were ‘benched’.
“We did not want to stay idle. So we took up internal projects. One of those was getting the company certified against the only known information security management system then—BS7799. There was no ISO. I took this project, voluntarily, to study and implement it,” says Shiv.
Shiv soon took up consulting as a livelihood. In the nascent years of the internet, security expertise was a sought-after skill. A host of such assignments with companies such as Ramco Systems, 3D Networks, and Wipro Consulting made him a name to reckon with in security circles.
Along the way, Shiv earned a Master’s Degree in Cyber Law and Security from NLU (Jodhpur), a PG diploma in International Business from Pondicherry University, and a diploma in Digital Business from Columbia University.
Shiv does not lack certifications either. He has amassed a host of certifications in the Information Security Management space—CISSP, CISA, CISM, CRISC, CPIR, CHFI, CFE, among others.
Prior to his current role, Shiv’s latest gig was at Tata Communications Ltd (TCL), where he served as the CISO for India operations—and he transformed the company’s digital security culture in line with their business imperatives besides establishing a state-of-the-art Adaptive Cyber Defense Operations Center, which eventually became the poster child for TCL’s managed security services business.
What started as building nodes for a nascent internet era was now a two-decade-old career. What was just setting up basic network policies had now become a complex world with threats looming just around the corner.
A ‘Fresh’ start
Shiv’s first connect with Freshworks was an off-hand chat regarding security with the company’s top executives a couple of years ago. But this soon became a full-time role, thanks to Freshworks’ massive growth.
Shiv is now responsible for the company’s Information Security, which includes application security, network and systems security, data security, business continuity, and disaster recovery. He also oversees governance, risk, and compliance related to product development and production infrastructure.
For the 43-year-old Shiv, Freshworks presents unique challenges—business delivery over the cloud, ever-changing privacy laws across countries, growing security threats, and what not!
“We have very clear end-objectives. I lay them out and ask my team to operationalize them. We want to build a bottom-up value creation culture. Every employee should be involved. Security cannot be a centralized function: everyone has to own a piece of it,” insists Shiv. Talk about family—everybody owns a piece of it.
Promises to keep
For a man who deals with security threats day in and day out, there really cannot be a break—but Shiv makes it a policy not to touch his electronic gadgets after 7PM. After all, his family is everything to him.
Shiv enjoys riding his Royal Enfield and going on nature retreats with his family. He believes these retreats help him become “one with nature”.
You know you have the right man for the ‘security’ job when you know he keeps his promises. After all these years, he still makes it a point to meet his Ramagundam friends every year—and deliver on the promise he had once made to his teenage family.
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