Frank Dimina on Splunk, Sandia and Goals for the Upcoming Year

Frank Dimina, Splunk

Frank Dimina has been vice president of public sector at Splunk for almost a year, but his journey into that position took him through a series of varying career trajectories.

Originally from New York City, Dimina began college studying computer science but switched to business halfway through and embarked upon a career as an engineer in government contracting. He later worked for the Defense Department as a system integrator, then pivoted into cybersecurity in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

After experience with some startups, Dimina landed a job that eventually led to him managing a security operations center.

“I spent a few years setting up SOCs for a big software company and then moved into the consulting world,” Dimina said.

Dimina later found himself back at a small company in which, by default, he filled new kinds of roles that stretched him in new ways. He began helping bring in business, writing proposals and dabbling in sales. After speaking with the CEO, it was decided the two would go on a sales call together.

“We were going to visit a bank in the Carolinas, and on my way to the airport — this is not a joke because I am just going there to support him from a technical perspective and fill in gaps — his house catches fire,” Dimina said. “His whole house is burning down, he can’t go on the trip, and he’s like, ‘You’ve got this. You’re going to go do your first solo sales call.’”

With no formal sales training, Dimina arrived and made his pitch to the board of directors, head of audit, CEO and every other major decision-maker at the bank. He was nervous, he said, and pretty much muddled his way through it.

“What they said to me at the end, I’ll never forget,” Dimina said. “They said, ‘First off, that’s the worst presentation we’ve ever seen,’ but they said it had the most amount of substance. When I go out, I try to be the person with the most substance, not the person with the most style in how I conduct my business.”

That day heralded another career shift. Some friends in the cyber world soon recruited him as a public sector sales representative, and he essentially launched a new career. In his first year with one software company in security, he became the No. 1 sales representative worldwide, he said.

“I started working my way up there to manager of a civilian team, director of all of federal, and eventually running all of public sector,” he said. “That was my journey into sales leadership, and actually I was there when Splunk called.”

That was three years ago, and Splunk then was much smaller than it is today. Dimina had kept an eye on Splunk for some time and after eight years at his old company decided to take on a new challenge of running a small team of just six people in the homeland security business. A year and a half later, he was promoted to assistant vice president of Splunk’s federal civilian business and then to his current position in late summer 2018 running all of public sector.

Splunk at Work

Splunk is a software platform that turns big data into actions, relying on machine data analytics —and Splunk is ubiquitous. Its platform is used in some capacity in every branch of government, all 15 cabinet-level departments, 43 states, half of the largest 25 cities and at 750 institutions of higher education.

“Machine data to us is the digital exhaust that comes from any computing device, whether it’s a computer, a server, a router, your mobile phone, your laptop, an application, or even a door sensor,” Dimina said. “All of that is generating information constantly, and our mission is to make machine data accessible, usable and valuable to everyone.”

Yet the amount of data from multiple sources is messy, chaotic and tricky to tie together.

“We say, ‘embrace that chaos,’” Dimina said. “What we try and do with (customers) is help them extract value from that data. We believe that there is incredible, untapped value in there for public sector agencies that can help them better deliver on their mission, or on citizen services, or just in managing the incredible resources of government. We like to call it ‘reaching a state of data leverage’ where organizations are getting insights and real value out of all of their machine data.”

There are many examples.

A facility under the Energy Department that uses laser beams for scientific research is leveraging Splunk’s analytical powers. Analysts there collect “digital exhaust” from the sensors and use the information to enhance their work.

“There’s so much machine data generated when you’re firing these lasers and collecting all that data — temperature, sensor data, laser voltage — it requires massive data sets and you need to be able to search across them and investigate all that data quickly,” Dimina said. “By using Splunk and our software platform to manage all that data, they can more effectively fire those lasers and fire them more often … and get better use of the tax dollars.”

Organizations also draw on Splunk’s leveraging of machine data to calculate the physically impossible.

“If I’m collecting cybersecurity data and I see that Frank physically badged in at a sensor in Arlington, Virginia, but on my computer network I’m logged in from Australia five hours later, there’s physically no way that I could move from my badge-in at Arlington to Australia in those five hours,” Dimina said. “That’s an area where historically when I started out 20 years ago would require some human intervention to look at some of those calculations.”

Now, Splunk leverages machine learning to automate those and other kinds of analyses so human analysts are free to go to work on higher-quality, higher-tier events.

“The outcome we’re trying to give (customers) is greater fidelity, that they have better, faster insight into (that information) so they can make smarter cybersecurity decisions,” Dimina said.

Sandia and HADES 

Sandia National Laboratories, which develops, engineers and tests the non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons, is another example of where Splunk is making a difference at the federal level.

Sandia developers built a proprietary system on top of Splunk to form the award-winning High-Fidelity Adaptive Deception & Emulation System. A deception network, HADES is designed to attract attackers so analysts can observe their techniques, tactics and procedures to inform cybersecurity decisions in the real network. The “honey pot” deception approach has been around for years, but HADES adds new layers of sophistication.

“A honey pot is a fake computer system you would want someone to attack so you can learn their techniques,” Dimina said. “The problem with honey pots many years ago is they were kind of static. They were based off of a script. Because of the flexibility of our underlying platform and what Sandia built on top of Splunk, they can actually change the environment very quickly in real time to make it look like a real world environment that’s changing all the time as employees do their work.

“Then, they can actually adapt and see how those attackers adapt their techniques as criteria in the environment changes. What Splunk does is help them connect all those dots and map all the relationships between the systems, the vulnerabilities and the techniques folks are using. We’re able to sequence together all the timestamps of all that machine data — those digital breadcrumbs.”

Another benefit of HADES? It flips the economic equation.

“When you think about it, we who are at work in cyber defense spend a great deal of time, effort and money in securing our environment and protecting it from the bad guys,” Dimina said. “What we’re doing now is making the adversary spend time on something that will go nowhere.”

For its impactful work, HADES was recently recognized with a Government Innovation Award alongside other celebrated public sector IT disruptors, innovators and emerging leaders.

Challenges and Goals 

“If I had to pick one target for the next year to year-and-a-half, I would say that my goal for Splunk in the public sector space is that we become the gold standard investigative data platform for powering the mission of public sector agencies,” Dimina said.

Collecting and managing big data is still a challenge, even in the age of automation and emerging technologies. Dimina refers to a “maturity curve” around how organizations handle large data sets with increasingly higher levels of maturity as they acquire capabilities to investigate, collect, manage, analyze and finally act on the data.

“In the past, we talked about being ‘data-driven’ and we talked about it in a binary way, but there are actually stages to that maturity curve,” he said. “It’s not yes or no. It’s where you are in becoming data driven. Are you collecting data? Are you able to analyze it? And that upper tier is being able to automate and act on it.”

The ability to take customers through increasingly higher stages of maturity makes Splunk unique to public sector agencies, he said.

“There are other folks who can do it in each one of those (stages), but there’s no one who can do it in all of those areas,” Dimina said. “My goal for public sector is that we become the gold standard data platform for enabling a mission to do all of those functions.”

Dimina lives in Northern Virginia with his wife of 20 years and their two children. When he isn’t working for Splunk, he can often be found taking his children to sporting events or enjoying live music. He especially likes heavy metal bands.

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