Interview: Webroot's Dick Williams

The quality of life in Boulder – in contrast with the “hassles of the Valley” – attracts some of the industry’s best minds
The quality of life in Boulder – in contrast with the “hassles of the Valley” – attracts some of the industry’s best minds
Dick Williams, Webroot
Dick Williams, Webroot

Though born and raised in Fargo, North Dakota, Dick Williams has set-up home in many states over the years. He currently resides in Boulder, Colorado, and is more than happy with the quiet, sunshine – “we have more days of sunshine than any other state in the US” – and general quality of life.

When Williams got ‘the call’ to become CEO of Webroot in August 2009, the decision to move to the company’s headquarters was a natural one. While Webroot was founded in Colorado, a Silicon Valley office was opened four or five years ago, and Williams explains that the heart of the company has been compromised since.

“Over the last several years, the leadership of the company became a little confused as to where the heart of the company was. My predecessor, Peter Watkins, was actually located in Mountain View, California, as are Gerhard [Eschelbeck] and his development teams”. The ambiguity of the situation, explains Williams, resulted in a “developed ambivalence as to where [Webroot] was headquartered”.

Re-establishing the company’s headquarters in Colorado was one of the first challenges that Williams took up, and moving there himself seemed like an obvious step.

Far from considering a HQ outside of the Valley a disadvantage, Williams insists that the quality of life in Boulder – in contrast with the “hassles of the Valley” – attracts some of the industry’s best minds. “There are a number of significant technology centers outside of Silicon Valley, and Boulder’s one of the foremost. The cost of living [in Boulder] is dramatically lower, and the quality of life is a good deal better as well.”

There is also the University of Colorado, which Williams considers a great talent pool. “We are now recruiting straight off campus”, he says, explaining that the affordability of the Boulder area is often attractive to students.

The Valley

Despite firmly establishing its mountainous routes in Colorado once more, Williams insists that the Silicon Valley – home to more than 100 of Webroot’s 450 staff – continues to be integral to the company, due to the “significance of all the technology available there, and the quality of the people and everything else”.

In fact, Webroot’s Valley staff has recently been treated to a new office, right behind the building at the crossroads of 101 and 92. “A lot of success has occurred [in the building], so it’s great karma”, says Williams.

"I want Webroot to matter. I want the bad guys to know who the heck we are, and to fear it"

Calling Webroot’s former Valley home in Mountain View “a morgue”, Williams immediately concluded that a better environment was needed for the employees. “We moved to San Mateo because I want to be able to recruit those folks from Google. I really want to be able to hire and retain the very best and brightest that the marketplace has to offer. While facilities aren’t everything, they are part of that”, Williams insists.

So despite Williams’ efforts to re-establish Colorado as the company headquarters, he has no intention of backing away from the Valley. “We’ll continue to grow in the Valley, and in Boulder. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see us with a significant development centre in the UK before too long.”

Indeed, outside of the US, Webroot has a home in Reading, UK; Tokyo; Sydney, Australia; and the recently opened global operations headquarters in Dublin.

Let’s Take It Back to the Start

Webroot, though, is just the most recent chapter in Dick Williams’ life thus far. I was intrigued to learn how Williams’ math and physics bachelors of science degree from the University of North Dakota lead him to Webroot. It’s not a short story.

After attaining his degree in North Dakota, Williams studied numerical analysis and statistics at the University of Minnesota, but “didn’t actually get a degree”. In 1965 he joined IBM straight out of college, which would turn out to be his 9–5 home for the next 22 years. “I joined IBM, as an applied science representative and a systems engineer, with the ambition to learn ‘the computer industry’ ”.

Within a year, Williams recognized that “the real opportunity in IBM was in sales. I’ve been selling the rest of my life.” Williams’ roles at IBM included vice president of the data systems division, and vice president of the general products division in San Jose.

Williams has absolutely no regrets about giving such a big chunk of his working life to IBM, and describes his tenure there fondly.

A New Chapter

In 1987, Williams joined Digital Research, the original microcomputer operating systems company, as president and CEO “to do a turnaround”. It was a challenging role, “but we were successful in accomplishing it”, he recalls. Acquired by Novell in 1991, Williams stayed on to become executive vice president of worldwide field operations and sales for Novell.

His next move, however, was less of a challenge. “I retired, with no intention of going back to work”, laughs Williams. “Frankly, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. For 30 years I’d done nothing but work, and I hadn’t focused on my family or myself at all. My kids by then were teenagers, and I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me. My dad was turning 90 and for his birthday, my son – his first-born grandchild – and I, took my dad to the UK to trace his ancestry.” The time, and the experience, quotes Williams, was “absolutely priceless”.

This heart-warming story makes me wonder why I’m now sat opposite Williams, who far from being retired, is back in the driver’s seat at Webroot. “After two years, I was more rested and relaxed than I’d ever expected to be, and so I went back to work”, explains Williams, laughing.


And he didn’t go back half-heartedly. In the ‘second round’ of his career, one of Williams’ most memorable credits includes heading up Illustra, an object-relational database company – “recognized as the most influential company in the database industry within two years” – which was ultimately acquired by Informix. He also took positions at Accel and Altor Networks.

Other feathers in his cap post-retirement include angel investor and a mentor to small teams for about five years, the largest of which was Quokka Sports, a digital sports interactive company; and CEO of Wily Technology – a web application management company – acquired by CA in 2006. “We really didn’t want to sell Wily, but it was the right thing to do”, says Williams, who continued as head of division in CA for a year before joining Accel Partners, “as a CEO on residence”.

"For 30 years I’d done nothing but work, and I hadn’t focused on my family or myself at all. My kids by then were teenagers, and I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me"

Ticking alongside his day job are the numerous boards that Williams sits on, including Fortify, 3VR Security, and chairman of the board of Hyperic, an open-source web infrastructure management software company.

Until 2006, Williams had “done nothing in security”. While technology had been at the core of all of his roles, his entrance into security was through Fortify. “It just absolutely blew me away”, says Williams sincerely. “What’s going on [with cybercrime] is frightening and it’s totally all-engrossing. I walk out of every [Fortify] board meeting shaking my head, wondering why I do anything online.” Williams soon recognized that significant threats create a significant opportunity.

Which Brings Us to Webroot

Williams got a call from a recruitment agency in 2009, “when Webroot decided it was time to replace its CEO”. Founded in 1997, with initial products SpySweeper and Window Washer, Webroot continued to grow until it was acquired by three venture firms in 2005. “They bought out the founder, and then invested another $23 million in the company. The company did well, but I would say it plateaued. Webroot were doing some good things, but not as creatively or as aggressively as they could have”.

One of the company’s limitations, according to Williams, was the lack of common technology “between two totally separate business units – the consumer product, and the SaaS product line”. This, explains Williams, caused a lack of synergy. “So I’ve gone about building an extraordinary board of directors and team with a single common vision and set of strategies.”

Williams describes his objective within his role at Webroot as “building a great company”. He insists that technological innovation is at the absolute core of the industry and that “there is enormous growth opportunity, as cybercrime is the fastest growing industry in the world. It morphs about every six hours. If the criminals think it’s a growth opportunity, there’s a growth opportunity here to protect.” And thus lies Webroot’s business model, explains Williams, who describes the company as “really solid, with great investors”.

And the company is growing. “We’ve got a strong operation in the UK already; but now we’ve established our global operating centre in Dublin. There’s a great talent pool of development people in the UK that is largely untapped. The quality of the people in the UK, and the integrity and work ethic of the people is good.”

Despite his history of acquisitions and mergers, Williams denies that he’s got an exit strategy for Webroot. “What I do best is build great teams, and figure out how to turn them into highly focused, highly innovative technological leaders in their area. I have never built anything to be sold. I know how to do it, and I’ve helped a number of companies find homes, but my focus is building something scalable and sustainable with a significant value proposition that customers delight in participating with.”

Bigger and Better

One of Webroot’s challenges, explains Williams, “is that I don’t think they ever thought they would be this successful”. As a result, “they never put in place the processes and automation needed”. Williams and his team are working on this and are focused on what needs to be done to create and own leading intellectual property that will be important for the future.

Williams is focusing on broader global expansion, and increasing growth. “Webroot was growing about 5% a year when I joined. It’s growing nearly three times that now.”

"If you’re not finding more innovative, more creative, more enduring ways to do something, you’re going to fall by the wayside, and somebody else is going to overtake you"

Not content with this vast improvement, Williams insists there is further room for growth. “We can take that up substantially. We are in the process of defining markets that can have a transformative effect on the way people deal with security in their digital lives.

“We need to ‘develop’ a great deal more of our core technologies and our core IP”, answers Williams when I ask him what his main objective is for his tenure with Webroot. “I want to redefine the way people think about security, and are able to deal with the digital world environment. People care about [information security] passionately, everybody’s scared to death, and yet the problem hasn’t gone away.”

Security as a service, says Williams, is absolutely the way to go with this. “Increasingly, companies want somebody to just handle [their security] for them. This is the direction we’re going in – providing, facilitating and eradicating liabilities through the cloud.” Webroot’s desktop offering – version 7.0 – is to be released this summer. “It’s a hybrid client cloud solution. The focus has shifted to protecting you as the individual, or you as an individual within a company”, as opposed to the traditional focus on protecting the device. “The second paradigm shift is that it has moved from being a heavyweight desktop solution to being a combined client cloud solution.”

A Business and Its Beliefs

Despite emphasizing the importance of innovation and technology, Williams asserts that the most important characteristic of any company is the culture, “which is defined by its values and beliefs”. He references
A Business and its Beliefs, a book written by Thomas John Watson Jr., which he describes as “the best business book ever written”.

“When I joined IBM in 1965, IBM had three basic beliefs that had been established by Thomas J Watson Senior: Integrity, or ‘respect for the individual’; the best customer service in the world; and, lastly, doing everything you do in an excellent fashion.

“IBM absolutely lived up to these beliefs, which is why I joined. Over time, they’ve drifted away from these. All of a sudden those three basic beliefs became four, and then five and then seven, and by that point in time they didn’t bear that much resemblance to the former”.

The best customer service in the world, says Williams, is easy to achieve, yet very few practice it. He emphasizes the importance of constantly learning, growing, and “doing it better in the future. If you’re not finding more innovative, more creative, more enduring ways to do something, you’re going to fall by the wayside, and somebody else is going to overtake you”.

People, insists Williams, are the absolute core of business. “People screw it up, make it too complicated, get too involved with one thing or another. You have to start with those values and beliefs. That then defines your culture, and once you do that, then you can fully empower people.

“If you’re going to recruit the best and brightest people in the world, you’d better find a way to engage with them”, continues Williams. “You need to involve them in your goal and objective setting, you need to involve them in your strategy development, right on down to your mission and vision, and your strategic imperatives”.

To do this, explains Williams, means delegating as far down the organization as possible. “I am fearless in making decisions, and I don’t suffer indecision very long, but I’d much rather other people made those decisions, because then they’ll own it. But you can only give them full decision-making authority if you know how they’re going to react in any given situation, and the only way you can know that is if they share the same values and beliefs that you have.”

Building a Team

What becomes apparent in the time I spend with Williams is that his passion for building businesses and teams has dominated his career. “I love the feeling that I have turned companies into great companies, and built great teams. I love doing it from the inside out, advising and mentoring. It’s a lot of fun.”

But more than that, Williams is adamant that he wants to build a business that matters – that changes people’s lives. “I want Webroot to matter. I want the bad guys to know who the heck we are, and to fear it.” When Williams tells me that “he wants to do something of significance for mankind in general”, and that “a huge amount of that can be accomplished in the security industry”, I believe him. It’s not said in a way that demonstrates grandeur and delusion, but in a way that makes me buy into his words.

Despite all of his successes, he is not without regret. “Selling Illustra is a big regret. In retrospect, I wish I had done some things that would have allowed us to continue as a standalone company, and it would be a multi-billion dollar company today. Illustra was the one that really defined for me how you could develop, transform and empower an entire organization as a result of values and beliefs.”

Before I say goodbye to Williams, I reluctantly ask when he plans to retire – again. “I’ve retired three times before”, he laughs. “I’m 67 but am working harder – and having more fun – than I ever have in my life.”

Williams’ father retired at the ripe old age of 90, and Williams seems set to follow in his footsteps: “I don’t know that I’ll be leading companies full time [until 90], but I’ll be involved”. Somehow, once again, I believe him.

What’s hot on Infosecurity Magazine?