Q&A Session with Judith Bitterli, Chief Marketing Officer of AVG

Inspring Women Series

Judith Bitterli, Chief Marketing Officer of AVG
Judith Bitterli, Chief Marketing Officer of AVG. Judith Bitterli

From rigging tanks for parachute drops in the Army to running the marketing arm of a global tech firm, Judith Bitterli has perfected the capacity to build upon past experiences.

Judith is the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) for the on-line security company, AVG, a company with over two-hundred million active users worldwide. It's a competitive and challenging space, but one in which a pioneer like Judith can excel.

I sat with her for a Q&A session to discuss her path to success, her outlook on cyber security as well as her ideas about women in tech and leadership. Judith is not shy. She'll tell you flat-out what she thinks but her ideas are always informative, cogent and intelligent. It's partly the product of her military upbringing and partly her experience in the high-stakes world of tech security, where there isn't time for fluff or the competition will gain ground.

Judith's parents were both in the Air Force. Raising five siblings under the demands of military life isn't easy, and certainly tests the limits of pragmatism. Judith has always been one to understand the mission. She came from a family of modest means, so she worked her way through college with side jobs and scholarships. When the money ran out her senior year she talked to an Army recruiter about using the GI Bill to pay for her degree.

At the time the Army was just beginning to put women in Airborne rolls and Judith seized the opportunity because she, "didn't want to sit behind a desk." Initially, Airborne women were only allowed to be a parachute rigger. For the next four years Judith worked at what she considers a "great job" rigging everything from personnel parachutes to those designed to drop tanks from cargo planes.

She earned her degree at night and then her Commission, eventually conducting R&D for the Army testing weapons and parachutes.

Judith built several businesses in her career. We talked about her current role and her concerns for internet security.

Joe - What's the difference between doing R&D in the military and the private sector?

Judith - In the tech world, because of the speed of things, you put it out there. You get maybe 85% there and put it out or you'll get run over. In the military it's much more precise. That's because people's lives are at stake. For example, we had to have a 98% success rate on a new parachute rig before it was approved. In tech, if you waited till you had only 2% errors, you'd be five or ten years down the road. The biggest difference in the level of diligence and care and the understanding of application to human life.

Joe - How do you want us to think about what AVG is and what you do?

Judith - What I'd like people to think about AVG is we are the online security company for devices, data and people. Whether it's business or family, if you think about a family—how many connected devices are in your household and the responsibility to keep your family and your children safe.

We want to be that. We are working towards building our security platform to secure multiple devices across different platforms.

Joe - Recently hackers gained remote access to a car and took control over it. Will AVG be involved in that type of protection?

Judith - There are two types of packing on cars. One is with the operating systems, the brakes, steering, all of those things. That's not an area we will play in. The area where we will play in a connected car is the entertainment console where you're downloading music, linking emails and doing your banking.

Joe - Do people take a lot for granted when it comes to security?

Judith - People take a lot for granted. In the US, over 90% of children have a digital footprint by the time they're two years of age, so I think parenting has gotten incredibly difficult, and the responsibility to curate that child's online existence, so when they go to college or apply for a job there's no digital legacy that's going to keep them out of college or keep them out of a job.

Parents are beginning to grasp this, but they're a long way from securing their family and their children's privacy.

Joe - What's your challenge from a marketing perspective to educate people without sounding like you're just trying to sell them something?

Judith - We walk the talk. We were formed in the Czech Republic and after communism there was such a fundamental belief in the right to privacy that when AVG began it was started with just a free product. And, yes, we make money and pay-for products but almost all our products have a free version, because philosophically, as an organization, we believe in privacy and we believe in security. The second thing we do is partner with organizations and the people know the intent is clear, it's not just for money. We are working with the Clinton Global Initiative on something called The Smart User Initiative. It's designed to help the next two billion people coming on line understand what they need to do to stay secure online. On the business side, we do a lot of community outreach to parents so they can learn to keep their children safe.

Joe - Most of us protect our PC or laptop but then walk out the door with a mobile device in our hand and get into our connected car and we lose sight of security.

Judith - If you want to get your heart rate going, do a count of the number connected devices in your household. Generally, the PC is protected but then you start looking at smart TVs, cameras and other devices. About a year ago my husband and I counted close to thirty connected devices.

What we've done as a company is introduced a product called AVG Zen which is designed to be that platform so for all of those devices to have one console and one vehicle to keep them updated.

Joe - We're talking the Internet of Things here, so Zen speaks to that?

Judith - Yes, Zen speaks to that, exactly.

Joe - Shifting gears; how do you have to think about your job to be successful at it?

Judith - I start with strategy because strategy drives structure and tactics. A strategy may be in place for five years but the tactics change with the times. As CMO I have to be sure my own strategy is in line with the overall strategy of the business. Then I make sure there are metrics in place so that if we're going off the rails I know about it ahead of time, so the most critical element is the ability to architect strategy.

Joe - Did the military help you in this process?

Judith - My military background actually defines the way I operate in the business world.

From understanding strategy and tactics to the way you treat people from the basic premise of leading by example. You learn how to collaborate, to build teams and don't ask them to do something you aren't willing to do.

Joe - Is it part of your job in marketing to get the public to understand what the mission of AVG is?

Judith - It has to be both internal and external. Our constituents are customers and employees. Our employees are the most important stakeholders because if they understand the mission and understand their role in that mission, there is huge potential for success. We have shareholders, press and analysts, but I always start with the employees.

Joe - Do companies like AVG feel under pressure because of threats of cyber-terrorism?

Judith - We have a threat lab. We know how many attacks are happening daily—random malware, malware for hire, in different countries where the probabilities of getting hacked or having malware downloaded is the greatest. Our business is built on trust so our vigilance is the cornerstone of our business. Cyber security is now a board-level discussion across the industry. The easiest thing people can do is create secure passwords and change them frequently.

Joe - Tell us about your talk at SXS, Boardroom or Baby.

Judith - There's no right or wrong choice but you have to plan your career. I fond most women I mentor put more effort into planning their wedding than they do their career. The workshop had people lined up down the hallway. We had to turn people away. The audience was engaged, energetic, they asked questions.

It was a great experience. I think the women walked away with some constructive tools on how to manage their careers.

Joe - What surprised you at SXSW?

Judith  We sponsored a Mother's Room where moms could go of they were nursing or had small children. I expected two or three a day. It was packed and the women were so grateful We will sponsor it again next year, but the thing that surprised me most was the lack of accommodations for moms, especially moms with babies.

Joe - Do you mentor others outside the company?

Judith - I mentor men and women. I spend a lot of time with veterans who are transitioning from military to civilian life.

Joe - What can the military do differently to help this transition?

Judith - I think most of the soldiers getting out of the military are completely unprepared for what to do, the basic.

I help them with resume writing, interview skills. Veterans undervalue their contribution. I was working with a young woman who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and had lost a limb. She was applying for a clerk job at Home Depot and asked me if I thought she was worthy of this job. I had to walk away to cry and I'm not an emotional person. I finished the session and went with her to the interview and she got the job.

In general the military can do a lot more for those entering civilian life by having placement services and skills training. Most of them entered the military so young they have virtually no other work experience.

Joe - Let's talk women and STEM. What can we do from the corporate side to reach out to women when they are younger to encourage their participation?

Judith - You need to pick out a couple of organizations and support them. Girls Who Code and Technovation are good examples of good organizations to work with.

We need to get men involved. Women can't do this alone. Men have daughters and want the best for them, so once we engage them in the conversation a little bit better than we have been I think we can move forward, better.

Joe - Do you think it's gotten better in recent years?

Judith - No, I don't. When I got out of the military and into technology I was the only woman on the team and still today when I go into a room at a senior-level meeting I'm the only woman at the table. Very few boards have women on them, so no, I don't think it's gotten better, at all.

Joe - Doesn't the pipeline have to get wider so there are more women to choose from to put into these leadership roles?

Judith - To make the pipeline wider we need to do a couple of things. We need to acknowledge that women have babies and that it takes two people to make a baby, so getting women back on the career trajectory after they have a child is going to be really important. Second is educating ourselves in a company to make sure that we're friendly to, whether it's a single-parent mom or a dual-parent mom or dad, that our behaviors don't impair their ability to do their job at work or at home.

For example, I rarely do meetings with my employees after 3:30 in the afternoon because they may have to pick a child up or go to soccer practice. I know they'll be back working in the evening from home. I try not to have early morning meetings as well. I try not to have team dinners unless I give them notice a month ahead of time so they can plan for make childcare arrangements.

A lot of the reason we see women leave the work force is they have a difficult time after they have a baby and come back to work.

Joe - It seems we need more women in leadership positions so that perspective is there to make those types of operational decisions.

Judith - Correct, but that's two things. We need more women but we need to do a better job at educating the men. There was always a lot of sexual harassment and all it took was, 'would you say this to your daughter, your mother, your wife?' We have to include men in the conversation.

Joe - Why is tech appealing to women?

Judith - It moves fast. You get a sense of fulfillment very quickly. It's not like banking or oil & gas where nothing ever changes. You can see your contribution and you have the opportunity to rise a lot faster. Women like to solve problems and a lot of problems arise as businesses grow.

Joe - What's coming out in tech that may surprise us?

Judith - Two things. On the consumer side, on the Internet of Things I think parents are going to be a lot more involved in not just security but to curate the digital lives of their children. As parents engage more and see the ramifications of what kids post, then I think curation of social media is going to be a critical part of the consumer side.

On the business side, data is the new currency. Anything related to data management and security around that data. If you want to see the valuation of a company drop, look what happens if their data gets out there. There will be more diligent cyber security at an enterprise level.

In terms of threats AVG is more focused on personal security rather than government security. So data has to be looked at from two perspectives. One is, what data am I giving up in exchange for using an app. (Judith figured out it would take seventy days to read all the privacy policies for all the apps on her phone) For instance, health apps collect data on you on everything from when you're running to when you're likely to be having sex, so the big question is, who owns that data? In a car, do auto manufacturers own it or do we own it?

Companies are going to optimize and mine data we provide them for their advantage, sometimes good and sometimes not. Consumers need to take back control of their data and be aware of what they're giving up.

Judith has written several e-books which you can pick up here:

  • Dealing with Digital Death (PDF)
  • Parents Guide to the Early Years (PDF)
  • or follow her on Twitter @JudithBitterli

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Joe Hefferon is a writer and retired police captain living in Toms River, New Jersey. He has recently completed a novel, "The Unlost," due out in 2015. Hefferon is a regular guest writer and has published a series of articles featuring inspiring women.

He can be reached at hefferon.joe@gmail.com or Twitter: @HefferonJoe