AWS Security Profile: Ron Cully, Principal Product Manager, AWS Identity
September 12, 2022: This blog post has been updated to reflect the new name of AWS Single Sign-On (SSO) – AWS IAM Identity Center. Read more about the name change here.
In the weeks leading up to re:Invent, we’ll share conversations we’ve had with people at AWS who will be presenting at the event so you can learn more about them and some of the interesting work that they’re doing.
How long have you been at AWS, and what do you do in your current role?
I’ve been with AWS for nearly four years. I’m a Principal Product Manager in AWS Identity. I spent most of my time covering our Managed Active Directory products, and over the past year I’ve taken on management for AWS IAM Identity Center and AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM).
How do you explain your job to non-tech friends?
Identity is what people use when they sign in to their services. What we work on is the back-end systems that authenticate and manage access so that people have secure access to their services.
What are you currently working on that you’re excited about?
Wow, it’s hard to pick just one. So, I’d say I’m most excited about the work that we’re doing so that customers can use identities that they already have across all of AWS.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Making sure that we deliver the most important features that customers want, in the right sequence, as quickly as possible. To do that, we need to focus on the key pain points customers have right now and resolve those pain points in ways that are the most meaningful to them. We also need to make sure that we have the right roadmap and keep doing that on an iterative basis.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I get to work with some really incredibly smart people inside and outside of Amazon. It’s a really interesting space to be in. There’s a lot happening at the industry level, and we’re trying to sort out the puzzle of how we bring things together given what customers have and use today. Customers have all of this existing technology that they want to use, and they have a lot of investments in it. We want to make it possible for them to use those investments in new innovative ways that make their lives easier.
The AWS Identity team is growing rapidly. What are some of the biggest challenges that teams face during rapid growth?
One key challenge is hiring. How do we find great people? Amazon has some pretty high bars, and we need to find the right people that can ramp up quickly to help us solve the challenges that we want to go fix. The other thing is making sure that we stay on the same page. There’s a lot of work that we’re doing across a lot of different areas. So it’s important to stay in coordination so that we deliver the most important things that solve our customers’ current pain points.
What advice would you give to people coming on board the AWS Identity team?
Make sure that you’re highly customer focused. Dive deep because we really need to understand the details of what’s going on and what customers are trying to accomplish. Be a really effective communicator by breaking things down into the simplest terms. I find that often, people get so caught up in technology that they get lost in the technology. It’s really important to remember that we’re solving problems that are very visceral to human beings. In order to get the correct results, you need to be able to communicate in a way that makes sense to anybody.
Which Amazon leadership principles have you relied on the most in your own career at AWS?
Certainly Customer Obsession. That’s absolutely imperative. Dive Deep of course. Learn and Be Curious is huge. But also a less popular principle: Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit. It’s important that we have healthy discussions. This principle isn’t about being confrontational. It’s about being smart about how you synthesize the information that you learn from your customers and bring forth your ideas and opinions in a respectful way. It’s important to have a healthy conversational debate about what’s right for customers, so that we can drive important things forward when they need to be done. At the same time, we must recognize that not all ideas or their timing are right. It’s important to understand the bigger picture of what’s going on, understand that a different approach might be better in that particular moment, and commit to moving forward as a team after the debate is finished.
What’s the most common misperception you encounter about AWS Identity?
I think there’s a huge amount of confusion in the Active Directory area about what you can and can’t do, and how it relates to what customers are doing with Azure AD. We probably have the best managed active directory in the cloud. But, people sometimes confuse Active Directory with Azure AD, which are completely different technologies. So, we try to help customers understand how our product works relative to Azure AD. They are complementary; they can work together.
Another area that’s confusing for customers is choosing which AWS identity system to use today. AWS identity systems have grown organically over time. We’ve listened to customers and added features, and so now we have a couple of different ways of approaching identity. We started out with IAM users and groups. Then over the past few years, we’ve made it possible to use Active Directory identities in AWS. We’ve also been embracing the use of standards-based federation. Federation enables customers who use identity systems like Okta, Ping, Google, or Azure AD, to use those identities to sign into AWS. Due to this organic change, customers can choose between managing identities as IAM, create them in AWS IAM Identity Center, bring them in from Active Directory by using AWS IAM Identity Center, or use SAML federation through IAM. We also have the Cognito product that people have been adapting to use with IAM federation. Based on the state of where the technologies are now, it can be confusing for customers to know which identity system is the right one to use right now so they are on the right path going into the future. This is an area we are working hard to simplify and clarify for our customers.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the identity space right now?
I think it’s helping customers understand how to use the identity system that they have now—broadly, across all of the applications and services that they want to use—and how to provide them with a consistent experience. I think that’s one of the key industry challenges. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a lot of road ahead of us to make that all possible at the industry level.
Looking to the future, how do you think the authorization and authentication landscape will evolve?
I think we’ll start to see more convergence on interoperable technologies for authentication. There’s some evolution already happening between the SAML model of authentication and OIDC (OpenID Connect). And I think we’ll start to see more convergence. One sticky spot in the industry right now is how to set up federation. It can be complicated and time consuming to set up, and there’s work that we’re doing in this space to help make it easier. We did a technology demonstration at identiverse last June using the Fast Federation standards draft to connect IDPs and service providers together. In our demonstration, we showed how Fast Fed could make it possible to connect AWS IAM Identity Center to Google in a couple of clicks. I think Fast Fed will really help customers because today it’s so complicated to try and connect identity providers to tens or hundreds of applications.
What does identity mean to you on a personal level?
When I think about identity, it’s about who I am, and there are different contexts for that, such as who I am as a consumer or who I am as an employee. Let’s focus on who I am as an employee: Today I may have different user identities and credentials, each to a different system. I also have to manage my passwords for each of those identities. If I make a mistake and use the wrong sign-in or password, I get blocked, and I might get locked out. These things get in the way of focusing on my job. Another example is that if I change my role within a company, I need access to new resources, and there are old resources that I should no longer be able to access. It’s really a pain today for people to navigate getting my access to resources set up correctly. It can take a month before you have all of the different permissions to access the things you need. So when I look at what I want to do for customers, it’s about “how do I make it really easy for people to get access to the things they need without compromising security?” I want to make it so that people can have one identity to use, and when there’s a change to their identity, the system automatically gives them access to what they need and removes access to what they don’t need. People shouldn’t have to go through all the painful processes of going to websites and talking to managers to get them to change group membership.
Will you be doing anything at re:Invent this year?
I’m involved in a few sessions.
I’ll be talking about our single sign-on product, AWS IAM Identity Center. It enables customers to centrally manage access to the AWS Console, accounts, roles, and applications using identities from their Active Directory, or identities they create in AWS IAM Identity Center. We’ll be talking about some exciting new features that we’ve released in that product area since the last re:Invent.
I’m also involved in a session about how enterprises can use Active Directory in the cloud. Customers have a lot of investment in their Windows environments on premises, and they’re migrating their workloads into the cloud. As they do that, those Windows workloads in the cloud need access to Active Directory. Customers often don’t want to manage the Active Directory infrastructure in the cloud. The operational pain of doing that detracts from what they’re trying to do, which is to get to the cloud and actually convert into server-less technologies where they get better economies of scale and more flexibility. AWS offers a managed Active Directory solution that customers can use with their Windows workloads while eliminating the overhead of operating Active Directory domain controllers in the cloud.
What are you hoping that your audience will do differently as a result of attending?
I would love to see customers realize they can take advantage of the services we offer in new ways, and then go home and deploy them. I would hope that they go back and do a proof of concept—go play with it and understand what it can do, see what kind of value it can bring, and then build out from there. Armed with the right information I think customers can streamline some processes in terms of how to get on to the cloud and take advantage of the cloud faster.
What do you recommend that first-time attendees do at Re:Invent?
There’s so much amazing content that’s there, you won’t be able to get it all. So, get clear about what information you’re after, go through the session list, and get registered for the sessions. Sometimes these fill up fast! If you’re coming with a team, divide and conquer. But also leave some time to learn something new in an area you’re less familiar with. Also, take advantage of the presenters. Ask us questions! We’re here to help customers learn as much as they can. If you see me there, stop me and ask your questions!
If you had to pick any other job, what would you want to do with your life?
I would probably want to be in food safety. I used to not care about food at all. Then, I went to an event where I made a life decision that made me think about my health and made me think about my food. So I started understanding more about food. I began realizing how much happens with our food today that we just don’t know about. There are a lot of things that I really don’t align with. I would love to see more transparency about our food so that we could have the ability to pick and choose what we want to eat based upon our values. If it wasn’t food safety, maybe politics.
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