Home Technology For Michelle Zatlyn, This Past Year--and a War in Gaza--

For Michelle Zatlyn, This Past Year--and a War in Gaza--

Pushed Her as a Leader. Geopolitical instability. Cyber-landscape complications. Fiscal constraints. A hack. A viral firing. And the most inspiring work of the Cloudflare co-founder's career.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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Almost immediately after the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel that led to the war in Gaza, another battle was brewing. Hackers first went after the Israeli internet with DDoS attacks, deluging websites that provide critical alerts and information to civilians. Cyberattackers then went after Palestinian sites, too--particularly in the banking sector.

Michelle Zatlyn, 44, was on the virtual frontlines. Within 12 minutes of the initial rocket assaults, the San Francisco-based company she co-founded, Cloudflare, detected and began mitigating attacks from hackers, presumed to be state actors, as well as civilians and so-called hacktivists, according to legal experts. In the weeks that followed, the company, which provides cybersecurity services to about 20 percent of the world's websites, automatically identified and stopped DDoS attacks that amounted to five billion site requests.

For Zatlyn, taking sides in the conflict wasn't an option. "Whether sites were run by Palestinians or Israelis, we said, 'Hey, if you need cybersecurity, we are here to help you,' " she says. "Organizations, schools, governments were under attack; our employees were onboarding them in a very quick fashion and making sure that they could securely stay online."

The company has for years applied its "better-internet" mission to giving away its services to groups in need; it runs three major internal programs that help protect and provide free security to schools and humanitarian aid organizations, among others. Together, they guard more than 2,900 web properties, and Cloudflare estimates it has invested $48.5 million in the initiatives over the past six years. But the team's effort in the past year had never felt more urgent.

A solutions engineer who has worked for six years at Cloudflare was leading first-response teams tasked with ­onboarding organizations--often at no cost--trying to help civilians access infor­ma­tion or medical aid during the initial attacks in Israel and Gaza. It was intense work. "Many of my colleagues had personal connections to the region, and were volunteering to help," said the engineer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of Cloudflare's security concerns. He said the critical need fueled his teams through the trying month: "We knew if those organizations couldn't survive, more people would be hurt."

Indeed, its impact in Israel and Gaza--as well as the company's efforts in Ukraine--forced Zatlyn and her company to the foreground amid seemingly intractable circumstances. Few entrepreneurs can say they've done more to support groups that aid civilians during this crisis--and it pushed her as a leader.

"It was something people could ­really rally around," Zatlyn says. But geopolitical and security events are emotional to people; they can cause a leader to question their words, the frequency of messaging, and cadence. "I think these things are the new age of leadership in 2024. It's more to navigate these deep-rooted issues.

You're constantly saying: 'OK, how could we have done this better? Did we say enough? Or did we not say enough?' That reflection is an important part of being a leader today."

Zatlyn and her Cloudflare co-­founders, Matthew Prince and Lee Holloway, weren't thinking about geopolitics when they launched Cloudflare out of Harvard Business School in 2009. Zatlyn wrote the business plan, and by creating a cloud-based firewall to thwart attacks, Cloudflare within years was also helping clients improve the efficiency of their networks. Soon the company added tech-stack modernization and data-­com­pli­ance solutions, as well as cloud services that rival AWS's CloudFront. Now, with data centers in 310 cities, more than 3,600 employees around the globe, and about 190,000 paying customers, revenue totaled $1.3 billion in 2023.

Cloudflare went public in 2019, and while it isn't a household name, it gets more than its fair share of business press--in part because it stands at the nexus of so many types of industries. Its customers span utilities, banking, tech, public service, you name it. "I feel like we get outsize coverage for a company our size," Zatlyn says. "Which is wonderful," she continues. Though the attention hasn't always been positive. In the wake of the tech-sector doldrums of 2023, the company says it let go about 60 sales employees after a performance-review process. It ­attracted unwanted attention when an employee posted a TikTok of herself being fired after less than six months on the job.

Prince, Cloudflare's CEO, posted twice on X saying, "We don't always get it right." Then the company went mum about the viral situation. "There are two sides to every story; this was not the time to tell our side," Zatlyn tells Inc. But internally, the founders offered more transparency: They talked about it at a weekly all-hands and opened up a chat thread so employees could stay in the loop.

This wasn't Cloudflare's first dustup in the media. In 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Cloudflare drew criticism for continuing to do business in Russia, where it still maintains multiple data centers. The company blogged through the criticism, noting it was complying with sanctions that involved moving customer-encryption keys out of data centers in the region and, later, cutting off customers, particularly in banking. Zatlyn, who grew up in a small town in Saskatchewan, Canada, and has a friendly, easy-to-smile demeanor, still gets frustrated by cries to "cut off" Russia from the internet: "You actually want more internet in Russia," she says, "because there's a bunch of Russian citizens who are trying to get access to information­--rather than very filtered, censored information." In March 2022, proponents of open internet access, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Internet Society, issued statements supporting that premise.

That desire to ensure open access to the inter­net extends to the rest of the world--and is in particular focus this year. In 2024, 64 countries, whose populations amount to almost exactly half of the world, are ­going to vote in national elections. Squashing hack attacks is only one piece of the puzzle of ensuring fair elections. But it's an important one, as candidates and governments themselves, from Arizona to Singapore, use Cloudflare's services.

Back in San Francisco, Zatlyn often works at company headquarters, with its throwbacks to the startup days at Cloudflare, including a wall of about 100 lava lamps; not only do they provide a retro dorm-room vibe, but their unpredictable internal movements form the basis for secure-encryption keys as well.

There, she is known to her staffers as both the voice of the company's mission and a co-founder who isn't too busy to lead weekly all-hands meetings, reading out more than a dozen kudos that have been submitted from one teammate thanking or praising the work of another. "The thing Michelle always reminds us is: We're just getting started," says Rita Kozlov, a senior product director at Cloudflare. "It helps remind us of the mission and why we are here." Knowing they are working on the core infrastructure of the internet is a useful anchor for employees, Kozlov says.

Zatlyn is also known to some as chief salesperson: She hosts many of the company's client conferences--up to four a year--and says she makes a point of talking directly to customers most workdays. Indeed, in 2023, she met with 150 customers across seven markets. "I'm always happy when I'm spending time with them. You become a better leader when you spend time with your customers," Zatlyn says. "They tell you exactly what they need and how they perceive you."

Even when describing the extreme challenges Cloudflare faced over the past year, Zatlyn does seem content--even pleased. The more restrictive financ­ing climate seems to have kicked in an instinct from the lava-lamp ­startup days. "We almost went back to our roots of being a small private company, when we were used to doing a lot with a little," she says. "That's where we came from--and we were happy to flex that muscle again."

Photography by Alex G. Harper

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