For a procurement process to be effective, the relationship between the customer and the product team is almost as important as the functionality and features of the product itself.
During this interview for TechStrong TV, strongDM CEO Elizabeth Zalman and Steve Flinchbaugh, senior SRE at Kustomer (a customer support CRM platform for managing high support volume effortlessly), talk to us about the strong bond between the Kustomer team and the support team at strongDM.
Steve explains how Kustomer uses strongDM to empower its remote teams, how it fits into their development workflow and how strongDM has made his and his team’s lives easier.
strongDM allows remote teams to easily manage access to databases, servers, Kubernetes clusters and web apps.
Check out the interview below and follow along with the transcript to find out more.
Alan Shimel: Hey, everyone, thanks for joining us for this next session here on TechStrong TV. This is gonna be a really good session; it’s something we haven’t done before. I have two guests, which we’ve done before, but we’re really gonna zero, we’re gonna take two different companies and see how they interact and how that helps, especially given everything that we have going on around us.
Let me introduce my two guests to you first. First of all, we have Elizabeth Zalman. Elizabeth is the CEO of strongDM. We’ve done—I think we’ve done at least a podcast and so forth with strongDM before. Liz—hey, welcome, thanks to TechStrong TV.
Elizabeth Zalman: Thanks, Alan. Nice to be here.
Shimel: Thanks for joining us. Okay, and then joining Liz and I is Steve Flinchbaugh. Steve is with a company called Kustomer, and that’s spelled with a K, and he’s gonna tell us about it, as well as his position and background there.
Steve, why don’t we start off with you, okay? Kustomer with a K—what do you guys do, and what do you specifically do at Kustomer?
Steve Flinchbaugh: Sure, Alan. Thank you for having me. So, I’m a senior SRE at Kustomer, and what Kustomer is, is a CRM for customer support. And we really are built off of our platform. There’s a lot of intelligent automation that allows our customer service teams, our customers, to give the best possible customer experience they can and accomplish their customer service goals through, ideally, less staff and less effort using our platform.
My goal as the senior SRE is to ensure the reliability of our platform, the kind of implicit trust that everyone expects, and to make the job for our developers as easy and seamless as possible.
Shimel: Cool. So, a real, live SRE right here on our show—very cool. You know, there’s a lot—I don’t know if you guys have seen, there’s been a lot of articles written lately in the press around, you know, are we overblowing the whole SRE thing, right? And is it real, how real, and where does it fit in and all of these other things.
But anyway, Liz, we gave Steve a good chance to tell us about Kustomer with a K. Let’s give you your chance—tell us about, remind our audience about strongDM.
Zalman: Yes. Steve is one of my favorites, by the way—so is Kustomer with a K. They’re one of the most forward thinking customers with a C that we have. [Laughter]
Shimel: Okay. Very good play on C/K, there. [Laughter]
Zalman: strong is a—it’s a proxy, it’s a control plane, it’s insert whatever word you want there and it lets you manage and audit access to servers, to databases, to Kubernetes clusters, to whatever infrastructure you’re running that is firewalled. So, typically, that access is managed by hand, or keys are sitting in a box or a vault somewhere, and we let you collapse all of that down into a single control plane for both the management and auditing of that access
Shimel: Yep. And I just—look, I feel like we have to mention that, you know, given the whole COVID situation and working from remote, you know, strongDM has been a real godsend to a lot of companies who had to kind of flip a switch and empower remote people to have access and stuff that, you know, from a different place on different machines, devices than they had before.
So, though strongDM had a great case before COVID, right, a great use case, post-COVID, Liz, how many—you know, I’m not asking for the amount of customers, but I mean you’ve seen a lot, I imagine you’ve seen a lot of activity from customers who are, have switched to remote and need help with that.
Zalman: Yeah, certainly, it was challenging before. I think most companies today have remote workers, anyways, or multiple office locations. With the lockdown with COVID, I think what ended up happening is, for companies who rely on the corporate network itself as the perimeter within the building, that perimeter is now gone, and so, what do you do? If you’re using something that’s IP-based, all of a sudden, your IP surface area went from, like, two to 5,000 if you’re an enterprise.
So, we certainly saw a doubling down of existing customers and an increase in interest in the product. I might ask Steve, like, could you have imagined what—I mean, what was it, like, you guys have an office in New York…do you guys have remote workers? I don’t—yeah.
Flinchbaugh: Yeah, so, we have an office in New York and we recently—that’s our headquarters—and we recently acquired some office space down in Durham, North Carolina. That’s kind of our first official outpost, and that was kind of our introduction to people outside of New York, and it was—this was after we had adopted strongDM, and I have to say, it was entirely seamless. And ever since the pandemic began, I know it’s good because I haven’t thought about it that much. strongDM is—
Shimel: That is always the sign. You know what—sorry—I was in security for 20 years. They didn’t call it cyber then, it was InfoSec, but we always used to say, “If they didn’t think about it and it didn’t hit anyone’s radar screen that they—you know, that was a good thing.” When people hear about security stuff, it’s because something bad happened.
But I wanna make a point here, though, and that is—Steve, it’s my understanding you guys didn’t, you’re not a Johnny come lately to strongDM. You guys were using this well before COVID and the present situation. Talk to us—let’s go back in time to then, it was about a year and a half ago, right?
Flinchbaugh: Yeah. And actually, if you don’t mind, I’d like to go even further back in time, about four years ago—
Shimel: Be my guest.
Flinchbaugh: – when I joined Kustomer.
Zalman: You joined it four years ago?
Flinchbaugh: Four years in September.
Zalman: Wow! How big were you then?
Flinchbaugh: I was, I think, employee number 16. We were still in stealth mode, we weren’t charging our customers yet, and Steve comes into Kustomer bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. But at this time, we were running agents on our servers to provide SSH access to our engineers, and I was charged by the CTO to stand up a VPN, which I had never done. And this came in the form of open VPN, and I had to manage the certificates and the log-in and the users and every employee that joined the company, I had to on board them and configure a profile.
And then, fast forward to, I think it was about a year ago, where the CTO again came to us and said, “Hey, there’s a really cool company that I think we should take a look at. We have a mutual investor, and they have a lot of cool features that we haven’t had for the past three years.” So, we had a couple really cool meetings with Liz and her team. I could immediately tell that we were working with a team that knew what they were talking about, they were technical, they were fun to work with and they kind of just got what we needed out of the tool.
And now, today, there are so many things that are taken off of my plate in addition to more features for security and making developers’ lives easier that strongDM now gives us.
Shimel: Very cool, very cool. Alright, now, we can fast forward to Durham and how strongDM helped with the rollout there of a new—I don’t wanna call it a remote office, but I think you used the term outpost?
Flinchbaugh: Yeah, so, it’s definitely, like, our—we call it HQ2, I believe, but we’ve got a fully functioning, we call it squad, so we kinda have self-sufficient and cross-functional teams out there, and everywhere across the country, but Durham was our first remote squad, if you will.
And the neat thing about strongDM is, I don’t necessarily have to say when a new user joins, when someone joins the company, there’s not necessarily a task in my to-do list. It’s so self-service with our Okta configuration, a user can go in and say, “Hey, I wanna start using strongDM, I’ve heard all about it. How do I get access to our data storage and our private resources?” And at that point, I get an e-mail, I can add them to a roll, to a group, and they’re happily on their way. So, I don’t need to configure a profile, I don’t need to do anything special for these individuals. So, from my perspective, it’s incredibly easy to onboard new and remote folks.
Shimel: That sounds like too good to be true. Is it true, Steve?
Flinchbaugh: [Laughter] It does feel too good to be true sometimes.
Shimel: Okay, and you’re saying you guys use Okta for a lot of your IAM and stuff like that?
Flinchbaugh: Yeah, part of our maturation as a company, you know, back in the day, we had, of course, authentication and identity all over the place and now it’s much more unified. All of our tools that can integrate with Okta, it just makes it that much easier. And again, it’s just things that I don’t have to think about as often
Shimel: So, Liz, let me throw something back at you. Again, the whole IAM space is something I’m somewhat familiar with—how important is it for strongDM to integrate with an Okta or ADs or other kinda directories and stuff like that
Zalman: It’s critical. It’s one of the core principles of the business. I think, you know, I’m guessing, Steve, the customer made the decision to buy Okta well before strongDM.
Flinchbaugh: I think it might have actually been around the same time—but yes, I think Okta was shortly before strongDM
Zalman: Yeah, so, you have to start with the question of, “What is my identity store? What controls identity, and then how do I integrate that identity store with everything else?” So, strong has integrations with all of the SSOs—because I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Steve’s already invested a bunch of money in Okta. He’s already reinvested a whole bunch of money in whatever he’s using for automation, Terraform or otherwise or an Amazon tool. Most companies have already invested a whole bunch of money in Splunk or Sumo Logic or QRadar, whatever they’re using for logging, I don’t need to reinvent the wheel with logging and alerting, I just need to make sure there’s a connector between the two.
And so, honoring what people have already invested a whole bunch of money in and sort of bet the farm on already is critical.
Shimel: Yeah, you know, Steve, you’re an SRE, so you live this every day. But it’s something—I’m an observer now. My days of those battles are over, right? But as an observer, it’s still, I shake my head sometimes, because so many companies like Kustomer, right, have kinda made their bets on the tools that they use, right? They’ve put together an identity in access management, but it’s not log management, cloud platforms—you know, your whole tool set. But yet, there are still plenty of companies who are trying to say, “No, no—you should use us for everything, right? We can sort of do what strongDM does.” You know, and you know the old saying with this, right? They try to give you 80% of the functionality for 40% of the price, and if that’s good enough for you, it’s good enough, right?
And I was never a fan of that model—Liz, you’re laughing; what do you think? I mean, we see this still, and I don’t—you know, I assume some companies go for that, you know? But I can’t imagine it really works out. You just don’t get the function—we live in a great time where there’s so much available to us to try to make lives easier for people like Steve, for the SREs of the world and the Ops folks. You know, why would you try to just shove everything into one vendor and do, and put up with less than.
Steve, what do you think?
Flinchbaugh: So, it’s definitely, when you’re a smaller company, it’s, of course, much easier to adopt and drop and try new technologies and vendors. But, of course, as we’ve grown, that cost becomes higher and higher. So, when I first joined Kustomer, we could try new things whenever we wanted, but I can already see in the couple years that I’ve been with the company that implementing something like strongDM would be almost exponentionally more effort now, because I’d have to go through different departments and accounting and finance and communicate with the team, and developers just wanna know, “How do I do my job? Like, just tell me what to do.”
Flinchbaugh: And more than the functionality and the features of the product, I truly feel like we have a relationship with the strongDM team, and that’s almost just as important to us. We know that they are responsive, that they’re gonna listen to us, that they’re gonna help us out—and they have, you know, literally weekly.
And that is so important to us as customers that, if someone came along and said, “Hey, we’ll charge you 50% of the price that strongDM does,” I don’t think I would be too tempted to consider that right away.
Shimel: Yeah. But I think that goes to the model today, right? It’s part of this whole cloud native, open source, freemium core, open core, whatever you wanna call it, which is—the key is not to go hire some enterprise sales guy who comes by and wines and dines people. It’s about—hey, here’s the product. Let me get the product in your hands, right? Let me deliver delight, as they say, right, with that product, and the bonds that are formed from that type of relationship, right, it’s—if you wanna call it DevRel, you know, a lot of people call it developer relations and community relations—those sort of bonds are much stronger than the old sort of sales game that I grew up in, for instance.
Elizabeth, with what Steve is saying, is that sorta news to you that it’s much easier to get in and kinda grow with these customers than it is to kinda come in when they’ve reached a certain scale and it’s a lot harder to get adoptions done
Zalman: Certainly, it’s easier when a company is young—50, 100, 150, even 200—to get implemented. I think to Steve’s point, eventually, you have a procurement department, and then you have to go through the traditional, like, “Oh, that’s the price? Okay, we’re gonna knock it down by 50% now,” right, and that’s just how the operate.
Shimel: Right, yeah. Mm-hmm
Zalman: And certainly, there are much longer sales cycles in the enterprise side, with a company of Kustomer’s size. Even the size today, you know, two week POC and you can play with it enough, to your point, Alan, where you decide if it’s right for you, if it fits enough of your requirements.
With larger enterprises, it’s—and again, to Steve’s point, it’s not…you do have to go team by team, right, at a larger enterprise and say, “Okay, we’re gonna do the finance team now, and then we’re gonna do the engineering team, and then we’re gonna do the DevOps team.” And it’s sort of rinse and repeat and you get the hang of it after a while, but it’s bite sized chunks, always, whether the bite sized chunk is the entire company at once, or work group by work group.
Shimel: Yeah. And I think that very much mimics the whole DevOps adoption pattern as well, right? You don’t go in and just turn on a large enterprise to DevOps, you do it bubble by bubble, team by team, right? And quite frankly, the other thing is, though, is I will tell you that sometimes that procurement process and all the b.s. that goes with it is why developers or DevOps people will whip out a credit card and just do it, right? And you get the whole shadow IT thing or whatever you wanna call it, but it’s like, who wants to—you know, I gotta sit and explain to this person why strongDM makes my life easier? You know, I mean, it’s—especially someone who has no technical background, it’s like, you know, where do I begin?
But, you know, nevertheless, you guys got a year and a half of history here. Steve, where do you see the first squad’s in Durham, I assume that means you guys are planning second and third squads and maybe outside the U.S. and what have you—is strongDM tied, I imagine, tied into that as the roll out moves along here
Flinchbaugh: Yeah, of course. It’s become the way that we access our resources across all of engineering. And we actually acquired a Spanish company, Reply.AI, a month back.
Shimel: Oh, very cool.
Flinchbaugh: Yeah, so—
Flinchbaugh: Thank you. So, I’ve been having some conversations with the Reply engineers, and I can already tell that they’re impressed with how we use strongDM and how it kind of fits into our development workflow. And so, that would be interesting, because they have infrastructure of their own, infrastructure that we haven’t used before, so it would be a cool opportunity to say, “How does this plug into strongDM?” And I really have no concerns that that would be the case, but it’s gonna be a fun task to get all of that in the same kind of workflow that all of our Kustomer engineers use today.
Shimel: Excellent. When you say Spanish, like in Spain—they’re based in Spain?
Flinchbaugh: Yeah, they’re based in Madrid. I believe they’re a fully remote company, though, throughout Spain. So, they kinda have that remote culture, already, so it’s perfect for us right now, and of course, their AI expertise is nice to have, as well.
Zalman: Steve, where is their infrastructure? Like, is it in the U.S. in AWS or is it in something sitting in Europe?
Flinchbaugh: I can’t say too definitively, but I do know that they have a mix of AWS and Heroku right now.
Zalman: So, you’ve got a distributed team in Europe and now, effectively, multiple data centers if you’re talking AWS and Heroku that aren’t merged with Kustomer as well—
Flinchbaugh: Yes, indeed.
Zalman: Yeah, I see.
Flinchbaugh: That’s right.
Shimel: Sounds like an opportunity, Liz. [Laughter] Liz, let me ask you a question—how many, I mean, what I’ve always loved about the Internet is, it knows no borders, frankly, right? I remember the first time I put up websites and I started seeing hits come in from around the world. This is, like, 1996, and I was like, “Wow, we’re global!” Not at Media—you know, not this company, obviously.
But what is the customer mix at strongDM? Is it international or is it mostly U.S., or—if you know?
Zalman: Yeah, it’s heavily international. We’ve got, actually, a big contingent in Australia, we have Europe, we have Asia. Our large enterprise customers all have offices in India, whether they’re using contractors as a work force or an actual office there, you’ve got the U.S., you’ve got Canada, you’ve got South America.
Oh, and you know what? Actually, I was just gonna say we’re not in Africa—we’re totally in Africa, so it’s everywhere. And then even, we’re not in the Middle East, I don’t think. But even more interesting, I think, than where the people are, it’s where the data centers are. You’ve got this crazy Cartesian product of people trying to connect to stuff, and most companies—we’re in China, I mean, we’ve got people on, we have workers on factory floors in China who need to SSH into infrastructure.
Shimel: Very cool.
Zalman: And so, it’s crazy to think about all of the networking going on, the latency, and how to make that connect, and it’s just personally fascinating to hear the new use cases that come up. I was like, when I heard factory, I was like, “Wow!” And then I started thinking of, like, Tesla. I was like, “I wanna be on the factory of Tesla,” but no.
Shimel: Yeah. That could be in China, too. You know, it’s funny you bring it up, I actually interviewed a CEO of a company maybe last week who, they are instrumenting manufacturing factories, because a lot of that machinery was not connected that you can, you know, you had visibility, and they actually put things on to machinery that allow you to instrument them and monitor and stuff. There’s amazing things going on. And by the way, each one of those add-ons to the manufacturing machines has to have a certificate, an identity—you know, there’s a whole piece of this, too, and I just think it continues to go on.
Steve, we don’t have a lot of time left. How has the COVID thing kinda affected you guys?
Flinchbaugh: So, personally, I feel incredibly fortunate to say that my work has changed almost not at all. I think my position and a lot of our department is very remote friendly, and even though we weren’t set up, really at all, for remote before the pandemic, the transition has been relatively seamless—obviously, from a strongDM perspective, it is seamless.
But overall as a company, I think—of course, there’s a ton of adjustments with different departments and some are having it easier than others. But I actually think engineering is, our efficiency and output and how we’ve put out features since the beginning of this has actually increased just a little bit.
Shimel: That’s great to hear, man. Really good. Guys, we’re about out of time. I want to thank both of you—both of you coming at us from New York, today, I should mention, so thanks for joining us. Liz, any last thoughts, comments you want to add?
Zalman: Nope, I don’t think so. I wanted to say thanks to Steve, and I appreciate the comment on relationship. It’s so important, as I say—you know, at strongDM, everybody touches the customer equally. It doesn’t matter if you’re in account management or support or engineering that I joke that if we were to ever have commissions at the company, which we don’t, I would give support the commissions, because they’re that important.
Flinchbaugh: As a support company, somewhat as an employee there, I can very much appreciate your support team as well, Liz, and it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s the best support that I’ve received from any vendor, ever.
Shimel: Very cool, very cool. That’s a good way to end it. Alright, Elizabeth Zalman, CEO, strongDM; Steve Flinchbaugh, SRE at Kustomer with a K—thanks for joining us on TechStrong TV. This is Alan Shimel. We’ll be right back with our next guest.