Okta CEO Todd McKinnon and the importance of digital identity

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez November 20, 2016
Okta is growing in popularity as a secure identity management layer for digital services. CEO Todd McKinnon talks us through the challenges of scaling the company.

Todd McKinnon, Okta CEO
Todd McKinnon, Okta CEO

Okta is quickly establishing itself as the go-to cloud service for identity management. And whilst identity may sound like a fringe purchase to some, when you consider that it sits at the centre of any security strategy - and, perhaps, any integration strategy across digital services - it’s easy to understand how Okta can play a crucial role.

Take a look at our recent case study of how Oxfam is using Okta to integrate a number of cloud services for its employees globally. This will give you an idea of how important the tool is in tying together a variety of cloud products.

Okta also provides an obvious use case. Identity management is something that every company will need, but won’t be something that they will necessarily want to build themselves. There is an obvious ROI, and as long as the integrations are there, it makes little sense to attempt to go it alone.

I got the chance to sit down with CEO Todd McKinnon at the opening of the company’s new London HQ in Farringdon last week, where he explained that digital business creates an obvious conversation for ID management, security an integration for buyers. He said:

I think that on the digital businesses side, there is just a simple fact that there are more applications. More applications means the building blocks of those applications are required more. If there are more applications, there is more demand for developer tools, there is more demand for services. There is more demand for identity tools. More people building stuff, more people need tools to build identity into that stuff.

Coupled with that, I think the cost and the benefit of getting it right is very high. If you build a new website or a new app, and you have to build a password page, and a password reset page, and a password confirmation - it’s okay if it’s a one off thing, but if it’s a product and a service and a big part of your business, getting the security right from an ease of use and security perspective, is very important.

The massive number of new applications and services being built, plus the cost and benefit of getting it right or wrong, getting identity right or wrong, it’s a huge thing.

Competitive edge

In addition to this, McKinnon said that when companies are attempting to build these new digital services at speed, time to market can be critically important. Time is money. If identity can be procured quickly and easily, it’s not a differentiator that should require necessary time and dollars. He said:

They’re in this competitive environment where they have to launch a new service and they have to get it out fast. They look at the project list and identity is not an important part. The identity is not at the top of the list, the feature they’re trying to build is at the top of the list. They’re just asking - what can we buy?

This is particularly true of companies using a lot of cloud services. The buy versus build argument becomes a lot more important, and Okta can often win out in this environment, according to McKinnon. He said:

You’re seeing this trend where developers aren’t building everything themselves. They’re composing these applications from various sources. You look at Uber, if you look at the tech, they’ve used a lot of services in there. They didn’t build all that stuff. There is a lot of innovation in the core, sure, but that mash-up trend is a big trend.

Because identity has the ability to sit across all services, tying everything together, there is theoretically a role for Okta as a cloud integration layer beyond identity management. What about cloud services management? Data integration? It seems that McKinnon and Okta are focusing on the identity/security/easy of use use case first and foremost. He said:

There's integration and then there’s integration. So we think that the integration of identity as a uniform security layer across all applications and having that be integrated is very important. That’s what we are focused on.

You could stretch the concept of integration to data integration. You could stretch the concept to systems monitoring integration, to management integration. We are focused on identity now. And some of the other things we are focused on is management. General data integration is a whole different industry - it’s very different and very complex. The tools you have to build to solve that use case are highly architected.

But that might not always be the case. He quipped:

Once we get the identity done we will start looking at that.

I was also interested to find out from McKinnon how Okta manages to integrate across legacy and cloud solutions. It’s rare that a company goes all-in with cloud, particularly if they’re more of a traditional buyer. Okta, according to McKinnon, can integrate across both legacy and cloud. But if a company is predominantly cloud, then again, time to market is much quicker. He said:

I think it’s all bi-modal. People are adopting new solutions in the cloud, they’re adopting to rip and replace, and they’re keeping old things and integrating . Our DNA is dealing with complexity. Our DNA is connecting to lots of things, it’s built into the product from the first day. So it’s not easy or hard, it just is what it is. The benefit of having a bunch of cloud stuff, is that you get live and value faster. If you have a bunch of legacy stuff you have to integrate, it takes longer.



Given that Okta was announcing its London HQ opening, it seemed necessary to ask McKinnon about the company’s decision to invest in London in the wake of Brexit. McKinnon said that whilst the Brexit decision will obviously play a role in investment decisions, he said that there are other more important factors at play.

We consider all the conditions, the macro conditions in the regulatory environment. We think about where to invest and where to put money. It’s definitely something that we are considering and looking at, but it’s a very small variable. The much bigger variables are: how big is the UK market? What kind of people are in the UK? Does the UK have common language and common business practices that can help us establish a beta and jump off into Europe?

Those are far bigger variables. From my selfish perspective, I would have been for remain. But because it went the other way, it’s just a small variable. There are much bigger variables.

And of course, we had to ask about the result of the US election. How is Okta taking the Trump victory and does McKinnon foresee an impact on his business? McKinnon’s primary concern, as with most west coast companies, is that of immigration. He said:

Trump was a surprise. For us, for Okta, the biggest thing is diversity. It’s so hard for all big tech companies is getting great people. Our biggest concern is that this will somehow lead to more difficulty with immigration, less tolerance - that would be very bad for us. We are really committed for not letting that happen. Whatever we can do. 35% of our technology people are on work visas, which is a lot. We need them.


Finally, McKinnon shared details on what he perceives to be Okta’s main challenges as it begins to scale up. Understandably, the primary challenge is going to be growth itself. He said that everyone in the company’s job is going to change dramatically - including his. He said:

“You’ve got to make sure people are up for that job as it changes. That’s not trivial.”

But more importantly, Okta has to focus. It has to decide what is important and to execute. McKinnon said:

We sit in the middle of a lot of a lot of interesting things. We are security, we are ease of use, we are a development platform, we are enabling all these technologies. And there are so many different things we could touch and so many different directions we could go, picking the right bets is critical.

It’s as much as what we do do, it’s as much as what we don’t do. We could die from spreading ourselves too thin. We have 1,000 people, not 10,000. We are the best platform for developers building this next generation of digital business, making sure that as that is dynamic, new and evolves, that we are the best thing.

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