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Founder in Five: Q&A with James Hadley of Immersive Labs

Immersive Labs founder James Hadley

James Hadley is the founder and CEO of Immersive Labs, a cybersecurity training platform used by organisations to teach practical IT security skills.

The Bristol-based company has raised $123m (£92.5m) in funding, with £53m of that coming in a Series C round last June.

Prior to founding Immersive Labs in 2017, Hadley worked as an analyst and security consultant for British intelligence agency GCHQ.

In the latest Founder in Five Q&A, Hadley reveals his most important early hire, shares why the Immersive Labs hiring process focuses on passion over academia, and explains why AI is “exacerbating” the cybersecurity skills shortage.

1. What was the most important early hire you made?

James Hadley: When I first founded Immersive Labs I hired Greg Craft, my VP of people and talent. When starting a company, it is important to get the culture right from the outset and he helped us understand how we did that – and how we could ensure inclusivity and agility in everything we do.

As a startup you have to hit the ground running and everyone has to muck in. Greg helps our entire workforce work as effectively as we can, whilst also ensuring we never compromise on health, both mental and physical.

2. Has sustainability changed any of your business processes?

JH: Yes, absolutely. Many people don’t realise it, but the tech industry can do a lot to help address environmental concerns. In terms of wider initiatives, we’ve signed up to be a TechZero company, making the pledge to be net-zero by 2050. We are also architecting our technology to be smarter so it uses fewer resources when running.

A good example of this is our recent acquisition of Snap Labs, which allows us to only spin up immersive environments for our customers when required, instead of having them continually run. This significantly reduces our carbon footprint.

3. What’s the best way to promote diversity in the workplace?

JH: Start at the hiring stage. So many organisations have such a long list of mandatory prerequisites for a candidate to adhere to that they only bring in a specific type of person. Hiring people based purely on their certifications and CVs doesn’t promote diversity.

What’s more, the interview process needs to change so there’s less of a focus on academic background and more on someone’s passions and skills as well as their creativity and willingness to do the job. Technical skills can be taught and developed, attitude and culture not so much.

4. What’s a fact about yourself that people might find surprising?

JH: Despite being a CEO and running my own company now, I really struggled at school. I went straight into work at 18 rather than going to university.

But that’s what has shaped the way I run Immersive Labs. My overall aim is to democratise access to cybersecurity, and focus, as I mentioned above, on passion, creativity, and skill – not background.

5. Is there a technology that the world would be better without?

JH: AI and machine learning. As someone focused on democratising cybersecurity, I find AI/machine learning technology is exacerbating the skills shortage. When humans carry out cybersecurity work alone, there’s a key element of learning and upskilling yourself involved.

With AI looking to automate that base level of cybersecurity, rather than augment the workforce, it’s replacing the natural learning curve that those in technical roles benefit so heavily from.

We used to learn to fix cars by opening the bonnet, now we need a laptop. And that reliance on technology is going to cause real issues for us in the long term.

Founder in Five – a UKTN Q&A series with the entrepreneurs behind the UK’s innovative startups, scaleups, unicorns and tech companies – is published every Friday.