Michael Hawkins is the founder and CEO of Netizen Corp., America’s fastest-growing cyber security company and the 2nd fastest-growing company in all of Pennsylvania according to the 2019 Inc. 5000 list. After serving in the U.S. Army and leaving as a staff sergeant, he went on to earn a degree with honors in computer science and spent almost a decade working in the government and defense sectors doing highly technical and security-related work, including a stint as a very senior-level program manager at the Department of Veterans Affairs working on nationwide initiatives under former Secretary Eric Shinseki. He moved to the Lehigh Valley in 2010 and in late 2013 he officially founded Netizen. Netizen is now a certified provider of advanced cyber security products and services to federal agencies, branches of the military, and Fortune 500 companies at locations all around the world.
LVB: How did you get started with Netizen?
Hawkins: I founded Netizen to provide services in the cyber security and compliance fields that I was familiar with, coming from such backgrounds working for the federal government. I also wanted to target markets that were non-typical for this region, such as the Department of Defense, given my first-hand experience of what it takes to successfully operate there. Hence the name of the company even, which is portmanteau of the words net and citizen. I intended, from the beginning, to serve large organizations and government agencies, helping them secure their systems and protect their data while operating in one of the most hostile environments around – the internet. That is exactly what we do.
LVB: Why is cyber security so important in today’s world for both business and government?
Hawkins: Cyber security has been important since the dawn of the information/computing age, but it is more so today because of the level of connectivity, number and types of devices, and the sheer volume of data being stored and transmitted around the globe. Nowadays everyone is a target, and governments and businesses especially are coming under attack every second of every day from nation-state adversaries, such as China and North Korea, in addition to the so-called “hacker collectives” or even just individuals with some technical knowledge and a lot of time on their hands. Malware tools are proliferating like never before, meaning that the level of skill once required to carry out a large attack has been reduced significantly, as the recent rampant ransomware attacks on municipal governments are demonstrating.
LVB: Do small businesses sometimes think cyber security isn’t a problem for them? How do you respond?
Hawkins: A lot of small businesses seem to think they aren’t a big enough target for cyber-criminals. To that, I say, they are actually the biggest targets there are. For instance – why attack a large, well-defended organization when one or more of their suppliers, a small business, leaves a much easier route through which to break in. Small businesses are generally less defended and less knowledgeable of attacks and attack vectors, but they still reside within the supply chain of the large target companies and government organizations. So, therefore, a small business can either be a target itself to extract ransom or money from directly, or they could simply be a jumping-off point to one of their larger customers up the supply chain. Either way is disastrous for business.
LVB: What are your biggest challenges as a cyber security professional?
Hawkins: One of the biggest challenges we have, as an employer, is finding the necessary talent and skills needed for success in the industry. Cyber security requires a certain mindset, a high-level of attention-to-detail, and the ability to communicate clearly and effectively in addition to baseline technical skills. This is not really an industry that you can attend a class or two for and jump in at a high salary – you have to have a certain mindset and passion for it from the get-go or it will be difficult to succeed. As a professional, individually, I think the biggest challenge we face is convincing businesses of the merits for being proactive in establishing cyber security defenses. After a breach, the costs to remediate are an order of magnitude higher than it would be to put in place effective defenses to mitigate or even prevent such things.
LVB: What do you see on the horizon for Netizen Corporation and the cyber security industry?
Hawkins: I see a lot of growth and diversification on the horizon for Netizen, in general. We have won several new major contracts this past summer alone, established a mentor-protégé relationship with a large business in our industry, and are continuing to enter into new markets and develop new software products to aid our customers in managing their security and compliance status from the top-down. We had 3-year growth of 5,638 percent and, though it may not be that much again soon, we are continuing to experience substantial year-over-year growth in the mid double-digit range. As for the industry, there will likewise be a lot of diversification. Automation will also begin overtaking certain parts of the industry, driven by a shrinking labor pool and advancements in new technologies such as Blockchain and AI. Professionals and companies alike will need to constantly stay ahead of these new developments, which is why we specialize in cyber security and are not a “general services” provider, so we can do just that.