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Days after I was named CEO, my company faced one of the most sophisticated cyberattacks in history

April 4, 2022, 2:14 PM UTC
SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna attends a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. The hearing focused on the 2020 cyberattack that resulted in a series of major data breaches within several U.S. corporations and agencies and departments in the U.S. federal government.
Demetrius Freeman—Getty Images

I was enjoying my birthday dinner with my family when my cell phone rang one evening in December 2020. On the other end was the General Counsel at SolarWinds, the I.T. company I was set to join as CEO a few weeks later. He was calling with news about a cyberattack the company had just been alerted to.

Overnight, SolarWinds became a household name. It quickly became clear that the cyberattack discovered that day–now known as SUNBURST–was a highly sophisticated, well-resourced cyberattack attributed to Russia by the U.S. government, and targeted multiple technology companies, including SolarWinds.

My experience since that evening has reinforced a number of valuable lessons for any executive navigating a situation where rebuilding customer trust and keeping employees engaged is critical.

Follow through on your commitments

When the news of the incident first broke, many friends and family members questioned why I would take on the role and deal with the numerous unplanned challenges.

Ultimately, the only reminder that I needed is what I’ve told my children countless times: “Once you give your word, you do your best to follow through.”

As CEO, you set the tone for the company, and employees look to you for stability. From day one, my message was that we would address this challenge head-on and come out stronger. 

Recognize your employees’ needs

I was blessed to have inherited a team of capable, talented, and dedicated individuals we call “Solarians.” Not only did they successfully face a challenging period through both the leadership change and responding to the cyberattack, but they also did it all during a global pandemic.

Many Solarians worked around the clock for many days. I knew the road ahead was not short or easy. We needed to set clear expectations and boundaries to protect our team from burnout. Constant communication, progress updates, and encouragement helped us get through.

Define your goals and work with a sense of urgency and purpose to achieve them

It was critical for us to set clear, immediate goals. First, we must get to the bottom of what happened. Second, fix it, and third, support our customers and help ensure their environments were secure.

By focusing our efforts and working as quickly as possible across these three fronts, we were able to identify the issue, collaborate with industry partners to identify a solution, and develop and release a software patch in 48 hours!

On the heels of addressing the urgent matters, focus on systemic improvements you need to make and prioritize them appropriately with resources, investments, and focus. “Secure By Design” became our team’s focus.

We became intensely focused on ways we can further enhance our internal practices and protocols. We’re doing this through what we call Secure by Design, a top-to-bottom guiding set of principles we believe will make SolarWinds a model for enterprise software security.

Be transparent with customers  

While the incident impacted less than 100 customers, we did not know that until later in our months-long investigation. From the start, we shared everything we knew as soon as possible with all our customers. This meant a lot of meetings with clients who rightly had a lot of questions that we always answered transparently.

Prioritizing honest and open communication helped us regain their trust, and I’m happy to now be able to share that the vast majority of customers have remained with us. Many now even come to us to help them strengthen their own systems based on what we have learned.

When I answered the phone that evening in December 2020, I had no idea what awaited me and my new team.

While there was no blueprint or roadmap for us to follow, by focusing on the key principles of transparency, urgency, humility, and a willingness to learn, our entire leadership team was able to not only diligently rebuild customer trust but also motivate and engage employees so we could move forward together.  

Sudhakar Ramakrishna is the president and CEO of SolarWinds

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