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Zeroing in on what clients really need allowed Wyatt to determine which priorities to tackle when she took over the company

President and CEO of Absolute Software, Christy Wyatt, photographed at the Sparkling Hill Resort in Vernon, BCLucas Oleniuk/The Globe and Mail

When Christy Wyatt became CEO of Absolute Software Corp., she realized few people outside the cybersecurity company seemed to understand what it did. One shareholder would ask why Absolute wasn’t more focused on profitability; the next would want to know why the company was so focused on profitability. Some peppered her with questions about services Absolute no longer offered.

The firm was undervalued on the stock market in her view, too. “It was very confusing to me, because here was a company that was just shy of $100-million in recurring revenue, was profitable and was paying a dividend,” Wyatt says. “So why was this company not getting the credit I thought it deserved?” Absolute’s scattershot approach in the past has something to do with it. The Vancouver-based operation had gone through several iterations since it was founded in 1993 and hadn’t done enough to differentiate itself from its competitors. Somewhere along the way, Absolute’s story got muddled.

In her two years at the helm, Wyatt has brought a renewed focus, zeroing in on what makes Absolute unique and improving the messaging to customers and investors. She’s the rare executive who has both a background in technology and the ability to talk about it in a way people can understand. Wyatt, 48, rarely lapses into jargon and catches herself when she does. And her work is starting to show results. “From a financial perspective, we’ve seen margins jump significantly in a very short period of time,” says David Kwan, an analyst at PI Financial Corp. Profit margins have grown to around 10 per cent, and revenue was up 12 per cent between fiscal 2018 and 2020. The company has added about 1,000 customers since Wyatt joined, bringing the total to 13,000.

Those metrics are important, of course, but Wyatt measures the company by what it’s doing for its customers. That approach helped her determine which priorities to tackle when she arrived in November 2018. Absolute got its start tracking lost and stolen laptops, but the value of that service waned as laptop prices fell and information moved to the cloud, so the firm pivoted to securing data. Starting in the 2000s, Absolute began working with manufacturers, such as Dell and Lenovo, to directly embed its products into devices, making it nearly impossible to remove. Its software is on some 500 million devices to date but is only activated when an organization decides to become a customer.

That affords Absolute some unique advantages, though it took time to fully realize that strategy. Any employee laptop or desktop contains numerous security applications and other tools, but those apps can fail, go offline or miss important updates. Absolute can detect if something is off, and remotely repair or reinstall an application—without requiring an IT manager to physically access the device.

The concept, which Absolute refers to as self-healing, wasn’t new when Wyatt arrived, but it also wasn’t front and centre. “It had been announced as a feature along with 50 other features when I came in to the company,” she says. In her view, there are three ways a company can stand out: It can be the first, it can be the best, or it can be the only. It was obvious to Wyatt that Absolute’s self-healing feature was unique—and that it should be prioritized.

The focus has resonated with analysts and investors. “Christy very quickly realized that its privileged position could be leveraged to do a lot more than what Absolute had done previously,” says Doug Taylor, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity.

Wyatt’s entrance into the tech industry was a bit of a whim. She grew up in Coldstream, B.C., about an hour’s drive north of Kelowna, and married young to a man in the Canadian military. They ended up on the east coast, and Wyatt started to think about going back to school. The nearest university was about two hours away from her home. She toured the school one day with a friend, and on the way back, drove past the Centre for Geographic Sciences, part of Nova Scotia Community College. Located in Lawrencetown, the school was much closer to where she lived. Wyatt asked her friend about it, who told her the school was only for smart kids. “That’s just the sort of comment that makes me go, ‘Wait, hold on a second here,’” Wyatt says. She called the school the next day, and at 19, enrolled in a program called scientific computer programming, despite having no coding experience.

On one of her first days, the students gathered in an auditorium while an instructor warned that some people wouldn’t make it through to the end of the program. Wyatt felt especially self-conscious; not only did she lack the technical background of some of the other students, but she was also one of the few women in the room. Still, the foreboding diatribe was invigorating. “That fired me up. By Christmas, I was doing fine,” she says.

Wyatt took a job with Sun Microsystems in Markham, Ont., in 1995 and was asked to relocate to Cupertino, Calif., to help roll out Java, the company’s new software platform. She ended up staying in state, completing stints at Apple and Motorola before taking on her first CEO role at a company called Good Technology in 2013. “If you had asked me when I first moved to the Valley, whether I would eventually be a CEO, I probably would have been too humble to say yes out loud,” she says. When she was initially approached about the job, she said no. Good’s outgoing CEO, King Lee, later cornered her at an event and laid out the reasons he wanted Wyatt to be his successor, including her experience with corporate customers. With that nudge, she said yes.

Good provided services to help corporations and other institutions manage the smartphones and tablets used by employees, and it competed directly with BlackBerry in that market. The two had a tense relationship; BlackBerry would cattily annotate and “fact-check” Good’s news releases. But in 2015, BlackBerry ended up purchasing its rival for US$425-million. “It was bittersweet,” Wyatt says. “I felt like we landed the plane, and that was not an easy task. But did I love it? No, I didn’t.”

Afterward, she took a year off to spend time with her family (Wyatt has two adult children from her first marriage and later adopted two young children after remarrying) and returned to work as CEO of a cyberintelligence firm called Dtex Systems in 2016. It wasn’t long before Absolute approached her.

The company’s board of directors wanted to find someone to boost growth and do so profitably, which required an understanding of both product strategy and sales, and experience with enterprise clients. (Absolute had been skewing more heavily toward the education sector.) “We weren’t growing fast, and we were inconsistent,” says Daniel Ryan, chair of the board. “It was not very long into my time with Christy when I came to the conclusion that she was the first person I met that really does check those boxes.”

The pandemic has opened up new opportunities for Absolute, but when it hit, Wyatt was immediately concerned about existing customers. Corporations had to determine which devices had been taken home by employees, and then it had to figure out how to manage them. To help, Absolute offered customers a temporarily free feature that allows them to remotely address any vulnerabilities.

There is no clear end in sight for our work-from-home reality, and many organizations are starting to realize the importance of being able to remotely secure and manage employee devices—everything Wyatt has been talking about for two years. “All of that just validates that this is the moment,” she says confidently, “and we’re incredibly well-positioned.”

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