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CIO interview: Simon Liste, chief information technology officer, Pension Protection Fund



CIO interview: Simon Liste, chief information technology officer, Pension Protection Fund

Simon Liste, chief information technology officer (CITO) at the Pension Protection Fund (PPF), looks back on the progress his team has made over the past two years with satisfaction. When he last spoke with Computer Weekly in May 2020, Liste was using his organisation’s commitment to the cloud to overcome the challenges of a rapid shift to remote working.

The PPF protects the financial futures of close to 10 million people who belong to more than 5,200 UK defined benefit pension schemes. One of Liste’s key roles since assuming the CITO role at the organisation towards the end of 2018 has been delivering a three-year strategic plan to support this work, including a move to the cloud, disaggregation of the PPF’s support model and a tougher stance on cyber security.

Now, with most of that work complete, the PPF is entering a new three-year strategic plan. Liste says his organisation is using the strong foundations it’s already built to help prepare for a new wave of digital-led services.

“We’ve come a long way from where we were,” he says. “We were transforming and changing, but we were doing that while the plane was still in the air. But it’s been really good. I think everybody’s embraced the change.”

Liste says that while the past three years have been focused on transforming the perception of IT across the business, including how it’s used by the organisation and how it could benefit its members, the new plan aims to take digital transformation to the next stage.

“There was always a bridge opportunity for the next three years,” he says. “Our work now is about interconnecting. And technology and digital is one of the strategic pillars for the business going forward.”

Embracing the cloud

When Liste last spoke with Computer Weekly, he explained how he’d brought IT management back in-house. He’d disaggregated the support model to spread provision across a series of suppliers, reducing the level of potential risk from being over-reliant on one provider.

Liste also outlined his desire for a cloud-first approach to IT implementation, using technologies and providers such as Microsoft 365, Azure, Teams, Zoom and VMware. He says the pace of the shift to the cloud has quickened considerably during the past two years.

“We’re about 90% there now – and that’s not just testing and development, that includes production,” he says. “We’ve got live critical enterprise resource planning systems sitting in the cloud.”

Many of the PPF’s cloud services are based on Microsoft applications. Liste says using the Microsoft stack, including its data analytics tool Power BI, gives his business on-demand access to trusted tools that support ongoing digital transformation.

“There’s no point reinventing the wheel when you have very successful services and solutions out there,” he says.

“Technology is now about enabling the business as opposed to just being a-side-of-the-table conversation. It’s at the forefront of discussions about the future of the business across all of our services”

Simon Liste, Pension Protection Fund

“Our focus is the appropriateness of services. Everything’s always about value. The digital platform we’re building is quite an investment for the business, but we also believe the return on investment is going to come back pretty quick.”

Liste says the perception of technology has been boosted during the past two years. While responding to the coronavirus pandemic was a significant challenge, he says the executive team has seen first-hand how a combination of cloud-based services and the tactical use of data can provide big benefits for the PPF, its workers and its members.

“The technology came into its own during Covid-19 by supporting the organisation,” he says. “Luckily, our employees were able to work from home, to collaborate well with internal stakeholders and the quality of the service for our members was maintained.”

Picking good partners

While the PPF is a heavy user of Microsoft products, Liste is keen to ensure his organisation is not hemmed into an over-reliance on a single provider. Having already overseen a shift to a disaggregated hybrid model managed by the company’s internal technology team, Liste says any potential new provider must meet some key criteria.

“It’s all about engagement,” he says. “Any vendor we work with must buy into our values. After all, it’s not just about what you do, it’s about how you do it as well. So, we’re constantly reviewing who we’re working with. We’re always challenging our partners and making sure they understand it’s a partnership.”

The PPF recently onboarded three strategic partners in security and network design. One of the key requirements for that work covered values and ethics. Liste says sustainability is at the core of his business principles. Any partners must also have a strong diversity and inclusion (D&I) commitment.

“We’re very selective about who we work with and we make sure they mirror our values around what we deliver internally within the organisation. We do a vendor assurance programme as well, where we check our partners. If you say you abide by D&I, show us that commitment,” he says.

“What’s your actual plan for sustainability? How will you adhere to our security requirements? We know what we believe. We’re not perfect, but we do expect the partners we work with to drive that same agenda. There’s a responsibility for companies to hold their partners to account and make sure they’re doing what they say they will.”

Strengthening cyber defences

Liste has also spent the past two years helping to bolster the PPF’s cyber defences. One key element has been meeting the requirements associated to Cyber Essentials Plus, the extended version of the National Cyber Security Centre’s (NCSC) certification programme, which includes a hands-on technical verification.

“When we last spoke, we were looking at maturing our security profile,” he says. “NCSC changed the requirements last year and so we recertified. All our efforts here are about supporting and securing collaboration internally and externally. Access to data is being made easier, safer and more seamless.”

“All our efforts here are about supporting and securing collaboration internally and externally. Access to data is being made easier, safer and more seamless”
Simon Liste, Pension Protection Fund

As part of the PPF’s efforts to make the most of data, the organisation continues to rationalise internal hardware and storage. Liste says moving to the cloud and reducing the commitment to traditional in-house IT also helps the organisation meet sustainability targets.

“We’ve rationalised and we’re really lowering the footprint. We’ve moved away from the traditional way of looking at datacentres and disaster recovery. Because we’re moving so much to the cloud, we’re getting rid of one of our datacentres. And that ties into our commitments around sustainability,” he says.  

“We’ve focused on bring your own device and giving options around portability and accessibility, but securely. So, technology is now about enabling the business as opposed to just being a-side-of-the-table conversation. It’s at the forefront of discussions about the future of the business across all of our services.”

Providing digital services

While the progress the PPF has made in many areas over the past two years is impressive, Liste recognises the movement forward has been slower in others. Back in 2020, he mentioned long-term plans for the digitisation of services and the creation of multi-channel options. Two years on and Liste says there’s still much work to do here.

“If I’m honest, we’re not where we wanted to be, because I wanted to introduce automation and artificial intelligence (AI) – so things like web chat and chatbots – to lead and guide the members a lot more,” he says.

Liste says the challenge of delivering the magnitude of change projects relating to cloud services, plus the issues connected to dealing with Covid-19, mean some of those multi-channel capabilities are going to be delivered during the next 12 months.

“We’re not that far behind where we need to be, but there was a lot of legacy code and technical debt that we had to address. We’ve rationalised – so now, if you’re a member, it’s easier to engage with us and contact us through digital forms. There’s now a lot more to do in terms of workflows and automation,” he says.

“But we’re going to be really pushing AI and chatbots. And that’s the focus for the next 12 months and beyond. We want a chatbot that can help our members get the answers to their questions automatically. So, putting AI-led intelligence into our back-end will be the next stage of the services we’re providing for our members.”

Building enthusiasm for IT

Liste says the objective for the next three years is to shift the IT operating model and to improve the digital capability that sits outside the technology department.

The PPF’s new strategic plan aims to change how the organisation uses data. While the IT team will focus on developing the right platforms to support this approach, there will also be a large amount of work to ensure people across the business are comfortable with new ways of working.

“Like anything, change is a personal thing, so some people are much more adaptive, and others take a little bit more time to adapt. But from a value-generation side, I think there’ll be efficiencies and time savings, and there’ll be excitement,” he says.

“We’ve been holding town hall meetings with people outside the IT department to build their enthusiasm. What we’re seeing is they want to use more technology because they know it’s going to make their working life easier and more productive.”

As people across the business become comfortable with digital and data, Liste hopes line-of-business units start making some of their own IT decisions, with support from a core technology unit. Liste’s vision, therefore, is to put data at the core of the way that the PPF operates – without causing complex challenges.

“We’re not just talking about technology as a separate conversation,” he says. “By the end of this three-year plan, I hope we’ll see that there’ll be technical functions that are sitting outside of technology. The governance controls are still centrally managed, but you’ll see the use of data and digital will have grown across the business itself.”

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Why trusted execution environments will be integral to proof-of-stake blockchains



Why trusted execution environments will be integral to proof-of-stake blockchains

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Ever since the invention of Bitcoin, we have seen a tremendous outpouring of computer science creativity in the open community. Despite its obvious success, Bitcoin has several shortcomings. It is too slow, too expensive, the price is too volatile and the transactions are too public.

Various cryptocurrency projects in the public space have tried to solve these challenges. There is particular interest in the community to solve the scalability challenge. Bitcoin’s proof-of-work consensus algorithm supports only seven transactions per second throughput. Other blockchains such as Ethereum 1.0, which also relies on the proof-of-work consensus algorithm, also demonstrate mediocre performance. This has an adverse impact on transaction fees. Transaction fees vary with the amount of traffic on the network. Sometimes the fees may be lower than $1 and at other times higher than $50.

Proof-of-work blockchains are also very energy-intensive. As of this writing, the process of creating Bitcoin consumes around 91 terawatt-hours of electricity annually. This is more energy than used by Finland, a nation of about 5.5 million.

While there is a section of commentators that think of this as a necessary cost of protecting the entire financial system securely, rather than just the cost of running a digital payment system, there is another section that thinks that this cost could be done away with by developing proof-of-stake consensus protocols. Proof-of-stake consensus protocols also deliver much higher throughputs. Some blockchain projects are aiming at delivering upwards of 100,000 transactions per second. At this performance level, blockchains could rival centralized payment processors like Visa.  

Figure 1: Validators

The shift toward proof-of-stake consensus is quite significant. Tendermint is a popular proof-of-stake consensus framework. Several projects such as Binance DEX, Oasis Network, Secret Network, Provenance Blockchain, and many more use the Tendermint framework. Ethereum is transitioning toward becoming a proof-of-stake-based network. Ethereum 2.0 is likely to launch in 2022 but already the network has over 300,000 validators. After Ethereum makes the transition, it is likely that several Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) based blockchains will follow suit. In addition, there are several non-EVM blockchains such as Cardano, Solana, Algorand, Tezos and Celo which use proof-of-stake consensus.  

Proof-of-stake blockchains introduce new requirements

As proof-of-stake blockchains take hold, it is important to dig deeper into the changes that are unfolding.  

First, there is no more “mining.” Instead, there is “staking.” Staking is a process of putting at stake the native blockchain currency to obtain the right to validate transactions. The staked cryptocurrency is made unusable for transactions, i.e., it cannot be used for making payments or interacting with smart contracts. Validators that stake cryptocurrency and process transactions earn a fraction of the fees that are paid by entities that submit transactions to the blockchain. Staking yields are often in the range of 5% to 15%.  

Second, unlike proof-of-work, proof-of-stake is a voting-based consensus protocol. Once a validator stakes cryptocurrency, it is committing to staying online and voting on transactions. If for some reason, a substantial number of validators go offline, transaction processing would stop entirely. This is because a supermajority of votes are required to add new blocks to the blockchain. This is quite a departure from proof-of-work blockchains where miners could come and go as they pleased, and their long-term rewards would depend on the amount of work they did while participating in the consensus protocol. In proof-of-stake blockchains, validator nodes are penalized, and a part of their stake is taken away if they do not stay online and vote on transactions.  

Figure 2: Honest voting vs. dishonest voting.

Third, in proof-of-work blockchains, if a miner misbehaves, for example, by trying to fork the blockchain, it ends up hurting itself. Mining on top of an incorrect block is a waste of effort. This is not true in proof-of-stake blockchains. If there is a fork in the blockchain, a validator node is in fact incentivized to support both the main chain and the fork. This is because there is always some small chance that the forked chain turns out to be the main chain in the long term. 

Punishing blockchain misbehavior

Early proof-of-stake blockchains ignored this problem and relied on validator nodes participating in consensus without misbehaving. But this is not a good assumption to make in the long term and so newer designs introduce a concept called “slashing.” In case a validator node observes that another node has misbehaved, for example by voting for two separate blocks at the same height, then the observer can slash the malicious node. The slashed node loses part of its staked cryptocurrency. The magnitude of a slashed cryptocurrency depends on the specific blockchain. Each blockchain has its own rules.  

Figure 3: Misbehaving validators are slashed by other validators for reasons such as “Attestation rule offense” and “Proposer rule offense”

Fourth, in proof-of-stake blockchains, misconfigurations can lead to slashing. A typical misconfiguration is one where multiple validators, which may be owned or operated by the same entity, end up using the same key for validating transactions. It is easy to see how this can lead to slashing.  

Finally, early proof-of-stake blockchains had a hard limit on how many validators could participate in consensus. This is because each validator signs a block two times, once during the prepare phase of the protocol and once during the commit phase. These signatures add up and could take up quite a bit of space in the block. This meant that proof-of-stake blockchains were more centralized than proof-of-work blockchains. This is a grave issue for proponents of decentralization and consequently, newer proof-of-stake blockchains are shifting towards newer crypto systems that support signature aggregation. For example, the Boneh-Lynn-Shacham (BLS) cryptosystem supports signature aggregation. Using the BLS cryptosystem, thousands of signatures can be aggregated in such a way that the aggregated signature occupies the space of only a single signature.  

How trusted execution environments can be integral to proof-of-stake blockchains  

While the core philosophy of blockchains revolves around the concept of trustlessness, trusted execution environments can be integral to proof-of-stake blockchains.  

Secure management of long-lived validator keys  

For proof-of-stake blockchains, validator keys need to be managed securely. Ideally, such keys should never be available in clear text. They should be generated and used inside trusted execution environments. Also, trusted execution environments need to ensure disaster recovery, and high availability. They need to be always online to cater to the demands of validator nodes.  

Secure execution of critical code

Trusted execution environments today are capable of more than secure key management. They can also be used to deploy critical code that operates with high integrity. In the case of proof-of-stake validators, it is important that conflicting messages are not signed. Signing conflicting messages can lead to economic penalties according to several proof-of-stake blockchain protocols. The code that tracks blockchain state and ensures that validators do not sign conflicting messages needs to be executed with high integrity.  


The blockchain ecosystem is changing in very fundamental ways. There is a large shift toward using proof-of-stake consensus because it offers higher performance and a lower energy footprint as compared to a proof-of-work consensus algorithm. This is not an insignificant change. 

Validator nodes must remain online and are penalized for going offline. Managing keys securely and always online is a challenge. 

To make the protocol work at scale, several blockchains have introduced punishments for misbehavior. Validator nodes continue to suffer these punishments because of misconfigurations or malicious attacks on them. To retain the large-scale distributed nature of blockchains, new cryptosystems are being adopted. Trusted execution environments that offer disaster recovery, high availability, support new cryptosystems such as BLS and allow for the execution of custom code with high integrity are likely to be an integral part of this shift from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake blockchains.

Pralhad Deshpande, Ph.D., is senior solutions architect at Fortanix.


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How NFTs in the metaverse can improve the value of physical assets in the real world



How NFTs in the metaverse can improve the value of physical assets in the real world

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The metaverse has become inseparable from Web3 culture. Companies are racing to put out their own metaverses, from small startups to Mark Cuban and, of course, Meta. Before companies race to put out a metaverse, it’s important to understand what the metaverse actually is.

Or what it should be.

The prefix “meta” generally means both ”self-referential” or “about.” In other words, a meta-level is something about a lower level. From dictionary.com: 

“-a prefix added to the name of a subject and designating another subject that analyzes the original one but at a more abstract, higher level:

metaphilosophy; metalinguistics.

a prefix added to the name of something that consciously references or comments upon its own subject or features:

a meta-painting of an artist painting a canvas.

The key aspect of both definitions is self-reference. Logically, the term “metaverse” then should be “a universe that analyzes the original one, but at an abstracted level.” In other words, the metaverse will be an abstraction layer that describes our current physical world. 

The metaverse should be an extended reality, not a whole new one. 

And that’s why the trend has been heading toward a metaverse that’s built on crypto. Crypto, just like the world, has a kind of physical nature to it. You can’t copy a Bitcoin or an NFT. Just like the coffee cup on your desk can’t occupy the same physical space as the cup next to it. The space itself is singular and immutable and can’t be copied. Even if you make a 3D-printed replica, it’s not the same cup. So crypto is very well suited to building an immutable layer that describes the real world. In crypto, we can build models of the real world that carry over many of its properties.

The natural opportunity will be in digital twins. Digital twins create a universe of information about buildings or other physical assets and are tied to the physical world. In other words, they are that meta-layer. By integrating blockchain technology, in the form of NFTs, all data and information surrounding the physical twin can be verified and saved, forever, all tracked with the asset itself. When you think about it, digital twins are the metaverse versions of the physical twins, and the technology enhances features of the real world. 

Validation is the key to metaverse truth

When evaluating crypto/blockchain’s relationship to the metaverse, it’s important to remember that crypto is about verification and validation. So when considering blockchain’s relationship to the metaverse, it makes sense to think about it as a digital space that can be validated. 

So in the metaverse, it’s time to expand on what an NFT is and what it can hold. NFTs cannot be copied because they are tied to the validation and verification process in time, which is what makes them nonfungible. As the capabilities of NFTs grow, they are becoming a new information dimension that is tied to the real world.

NFT domains are going to be core to this idea. They become a nonfungible data space, uniquely tied to us and our activity on Web3. In the metaverse, these domain NFTs can represent a house; recording and validating every visitor, repair, event, etc. And that record and that infrastructure can be sold not just with the house but as a core component of the house, increasing the value.

By clearly defining what a true metaverse is, both for developers and investors, we can start to move toward a meaningful version of it. 

Leonard Kish is cofounder of Cortex App, based on YouBase’s distributed date protocol.


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Protecting the modern workforce requires a new approach to third-party security



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Ask any HR leader: they’ll tell you that attracting and retaining employees continues to be a top challenge. While this has never been easy, there’s little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic (and distributed workforces) have made things even more complex. As you read this article, many workers are actively considering leaving their current roles, which don’t support their long-term goals or desired work-life balance. While organizations attempt to navigate this “Great Resignation,” more than 4 million workers are still resigning every month.

As 2022 marches on, hiring teams face another massive obstacle: global talent shortages. These trends have companies rushing to find creative stop-gap solutions to ensure business continuity in difficult times. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that more companies are relying on third-party vendors, suppliers and partners to meet short-term needs, reduce costs and keep innovation humming. In addition, the rise of the gig economy has more employees entering into nontraditional or temporary working relationships. This trend is particularly prevalent in the healthcare industry, but as many as 36% of American employees have a gig work arrangement in some form, either alongside or instead of a full-time job. 

What’s more, the corporate supplier ecosystem has become exponentially more complex. Amidst the supply chain vulnerabilities revealed by the pandemic, organizations are expanding and diversifying the number of supplier relationships they’re engaging in. Meanwhile, regulators have stepped up efforts to manage these business ecosystems.

In many cases, outsourcing to temporary workers or external partners makes good business sense. Sometimes, given the constraints of the talent pool, there’s simply no other option for a company. Either way, organizations should be aware of the security risks that third parties bring — and the steps they can take to minimize the chances of a breach occurring. 

Third-party security challenges remain prevalent

Bringing a third-party workforce onboard in a rushed way – and without proper governance or security controls in place – leaves organizations open to significant cyber risk. These risks can stem from the third-party users or suppliers themselves or those third parties’ access becoming compromised and used as a conduit for lateral movement, enabling attackers to access the company’s most sensitive data. Sadly, a lack of centralized control over suppliers and partners is all too common, no matter the industry. In many organizations, unlike full-time employees, third-party users are managed on an ad hoc basis by individual departments using manual processes or custom-built solutions. This is a recipe for increased cyber risk.

Take the now-infamous Target breach, which remains among the largest-scale third-party security breaches in history. In this incident, attackers made their way onto the retail giant’s network after compromising login credentials belonging to an employee of an HVAC contractor, eventually stealing 110 million customers’ payment information. 

In today’s world, where outsourcing and remote work are now the norm, third parties require corporate network access to get their jobs done. If companies don’t reconsider third-party security controls – and take action by addressing the root of the problem – they’ll remain open to cyber vulnerabilities that can devastate their business and its reputation.

A pervasive lack of visibility and control

Although reliance on third-party workers and technology is widespread in nearly every industry (and in some, it’s common for an organization to have more third-party users than employees), most organizations still don’t know exactly how many third-party relationships they have. Even worse, most don’t even grasp precisely how many employees each vendor, supplier or partner brings into the relationship or their level of risk. According to one survey conducted by the Ponemon Institute, 66% of respondents have no idea how many third-party relationships their organization has, even though 61% of those surveyed had experienced a breach attributable to a third party. 

Grasping the full extent of third-party access can be particularly challenging when there’s collaboration with outsiders through cloud-based applications like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Drive or Dropbox. Of course, the adoption of these platforms skyrocketed with the large-scale shift to remote and hybrid work that has come about over the last two years.

Another challenge is that although an organization may try to maintain a supplier database, it can be near-impossible to ensure that it’s both current and accurate with current technical capabilities. Because of processes like self-registration and guest invites, external identities remain disconnected from the security controls applied to employees. 

Growing regulatory interest and contractual obligations

As incidents and breaches attributable to third parties continue to rise, regulators are taking notice. For instance, Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) now includes several controls targeted explicitly at managing third-party risk. Even the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) explicitly targets improving the cybersecurity maturity of third parties that serve the federal government. The ultimate goal of such regulations is to bring all third-party access under the same compliance controls required for employees so that there’s consistency across the entire workforce and violations can be mitigated quickly.

Today, we expect companies to push their suppliers, vendors and partners to implement more stringent security controls. In the long run, however, such approaches are unsustainable, since it’s difficult, if not impossible, to enforce standards across a third-party organization. Hence, the focus will need to shift to ensuring that identity-based perimeters are robust enough to identify and manage threats that third parties may pose.

Currently, decentralized identity solutions are moving into the mainstream. As these technologies become more widely accepted, they’ll continue to mature. This will help many organizations streamline third-party management in the future. It will also assist companies on their journey toward zero trust-compatible identity postures. Incorporating ongoing security monitoring and implementing continuous identity verification systems will also become increasingly important. 

Five steps to mitigate third-party risk today

Today’s challenges are complex but not unsolvable. Here are five steps organizations can take to improve third-party access governance over the short term.

1) Consolidate third-party management. This process can begin with finance and procurement. Anyone with any contract to provide services to any department in the company should be identified and cataloged in an authoritative system of record that includes information on the access privileges assigned to external users. 

Security teams should test for stale accounts and deprovision any that are no longer needed or in use. In addition, they should assign sponsorship and joint accountability to third-party administrators.

2) Institute vetting and risk-aware onboarding processes. Both the organization and its supplier/vendor need to determine workflows for vetting and onboarding third-party users to ensure they are who they say they are — and that their onboarding process follows the principle of least privilege. Implementing a self-service portal where third-party users can request access and provide required documentation can smooth the path to productivity. Access decisions should be based on risk.  

3) Define and refine policies and controls. The organization — and its vendors and suppliers — should continuously optimize policies and controls to identify potential violations and reduce false positives. Policies and controls must be tested periodically, and security teams should also review employees’ access. Over time, auto-remediation can minimize administrative overhead further.

4) Institute compliance controls for your entire workforce. Look for a third-party access governance solution that will enable consistency across employees and third-party users, especially since regulators increasingly require this. Having access to out-of-the-box compliance reports for SOX, GDPR, HIPAA and other relevant regulations makes it easier to enforce the appropriate controls and provide necessary audit documentation.

5) Implement privileged access management (PAM). Another critical step that organizations can take to boost their cybersecurity maturity is implementing a PAM solution. This will enable the organization to enforce least privileged access and zero-standing privilege automatically across all relevant accounts. 

The world of work will never again look like it did in 2019. The flexibility, agility and access to first-rate talent that businesses gain from embracing modern ways of working make the changes more than worthwhile. And enterprises can realize enormous value within today’s complex and dynamic business relationship and supplier ecosystems. They need to ensure their cybersecurity strategies can keep up by strengthening identity and third-party access governance.

Paul Mezzera is VP of Strategy at Saviynt.


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