Veteran Renews Commitment to Security with MSST, Now COO of a Cybersecurity Company | Technological Leadership Institute
From military to cybersecurity operations: Matt Vatter, a veteran and 2018 M.S. in Security Technologies alumnus, made it his life's mission to enhance the security of governments, communities and businesses alike
When Matt Vatter first heard about the Technological Leadership Institute, he was standing in a camo uniform adorned with badges telling the story of a 30+-year military career, and discussing cyber defense tactics with foreign and domestic leaders.
A colonel with the National Guard, Vatter already had a master’s, foreign deployment and retail management experience. When he learned some of the people on his team taught in the M.S. in Security Technologies (MSST) program, his passion for learning and academic rigor reignited.
For him, it was another mission: to learn new ways to make communities safer.
Today, the MSST 2018 alumnus is doing just that as Chief Operations Officer for Protocol 46, a veteran-owned cybersecurity company catering to small to mid-sized businesses. After three decades with the military, Vatter is still committed to security, just through a different lens.
Where Vatter has proven himself exceptional is in seeing, taking and making the most of opportunities.
Born in West Allis, Wisconsin and raised in a farming community just outside of West Bend, Vatter was the oldest of four kids in a working-class family. His father was a public school teacher and his mother worked in a factory.
“There was no money for college,” said Vatter, who joined the army full-time after graduating from high school. “For a kid like me, the army was an opportunity: three years of active duty with the intent of saving money up for college.”
He went on to earn a B.S. in Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1988. He dabbled in a variety of jobs to support himself and gain experience, working in the service industry and managing three Play It Again Sports stores in the Twin Cities.
Eventually, duty called.
In 2003, the 34th infantry headquarters sent Vatter and roughly 400 service members from the Minnesota National Guard to Bosnia and Herzegovina during stabilization force mission number 14 following the Bosnian War. During this seven-month deployment, Vatter served as the senior planner for the G3 plans for the division headquarters.
Upon returning, in his role as special projects officer, he helped create a reintegration program to ease National Guard members back into civilian life. From this stemmed the Yellow Ribbon Program, a federal program that is now replicated in all 50 states and territories.
And if that wasn’t enough, he went on to earn a Master’s of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 2012.
The end of his time there coincided with starting a director of strategic plans and policy role, and one of his responsibilities was overseeing the state partnership with Croatia. This would ultimately lead him to TLI.
“When I joined the team, Col. Stefanie Horvath, the MN National Guards Chief Information Officer, was putting together a cyber-defense and collaboration program with Croatian armed forces,” said Vatter. “She was connected with some faculty at TLI and, in this process, I met Brian Isle, Karl Mattson and some other folks.”
Working alongside some of our faculty, many of whom are active in their respective fields, Vatter learned about TLI’s graduate programs.
“I grew interested in the MSST program because of some of my experiences in the Guard,” he said. “Specifically, I was interested in studying the gap between institutional technological knowledge and leadership’s understanding of how technology influences operations within an organization.”
This directly impacted how he approached his job responsibilities. As he analyzed the MSST curriculum and connected with faculty, he became convinced the program would be a good opportunity to gain the skills and leadership he wanted to be effective at his job.
“In order to be better at my job as the chief planner, it was important to figure out how to bridge that gap and hone my understanding of technology,” said Vatter, who was especially interested in applying his new-found knowledge from MSST to cyber defense. “I also felt if I understood cyber security in relation to business and the military environment, I could be more effective in helping our technological experts get the important items to non-technical leadership in a way they can understand.”
He attributes growing into a more effective leader to a change in thinking. He says MSST teaches you to be strategic, regardless of industry.
“What TLI does is it teaches you how to find the answers that are particular to the problems you’re facing,” he said. “The effectiveness of the program is that it does not teach you what to think, but how to think; you learn to discover who experts are, where to find information, how to identify problems and overcome them. TLI gave me the toolset to be able to do all that.”
Like many professionals seeking advanced degrees, Vatter at one point debated an MBA. He says it is the most popular graduate program for National Guard members, and that he believes it is a valuable degree. But for him, it wasn’t the right fit.
“I always figured once I left the Guard, I’d be in a leadership role for a company. But how does an MBA set you apart from everyone else who has it? If virtually every senior military leader has that degree, you won’t stand out.”
MSST solved this problem for him. MSST, he says, allows technology professionals to fit into many different industries because security is important to every organization.
“I’ve found that my operational experience in the military and my technological experience from MSST, I’m in a unique position from an operational perspective within company leadership because I can offer something in a leadership role that might bridge some of those gaps between IT and OT.”
During their third and fourth terms of the program, MSST students complete an independent applied investigation on a relevant issue in an area of security technologies or homeland security that is of interest to them. Vatter’s capstone focused on using distributed energy resources and microgrid technology to increase energy security and resiliency. He says something that helped him with the project was the connections he made with industry leaders.
“TLI opened up a ton of avenues with research for the capstone and other parts of the curriculum,” said Vatter, who met senior leadership from many companies, including Xcel Energy, Minnesota Power and Great River Energy. “That networking and relationship building has been very valuable.”
Those connections extend to the faculty and cohort as well.
“As an MSST student, you get to meet so many people that represent a variety of different industries,” he said. “Take Michael Rozin, a leader in the physical security world. You see him on the news whenever something happens. Or Ken Kasprisin, the first director of the TSA in Minnesota. It’s very impressive to be able to spend time with people like them and learn from them first-hand. These all become people you can reach out to at any time.”
He says the networking and exposure to diverse professionals are immeasurable.
“You don’t really understand it until you experience it first-hand,” he said. “And it’s incredible when you look back at all the opportunities you had simply because it began with this academic experience.”
And since then, the Croatia partnership that introduced him to TLI faculty and programs by chance has become more robust.
In October 2017, Vatter and TLI Senior Fellow Michael Johnson, who directs the very program from which Vatter graduated, were honored by the Minnesota National Guard and the Croatian Ministry of Defense. They received the Order of the Croatian Interlace award, which recognizes individuals advancing the progress and reputation of the small Balkan nation.
“Michael Johnson has become a key partner in the National Guard’s program for Cybersecurity Training,” said Vatter. “He was able to fill the leadership training component and has traveled to Croatia with us to teach several courses. He’s also been able to identify technical experts we could develop partnerships with.”
The program consists of 2 one-week sessions: The first week focuses on the leadership level, while the second is aimed at practitioners who tackle the technical issues on a network as related to cyber defense.
After a long military career and many contributions domestically and abroad, Vatter has hung up his uniform. He officially retired from military service in August.
But his passion for serving and protecting? Endless.
Since September, he has been exercising this passion as the Chief Executive Officer of Protocol46, which was started by two of his friends, fellow veterans and members of the National Guard.
Their goal is to provide a "plug-and-play" solution in the cybersecurity marketspace. Since many organizations cannot afford to hire cybersecurity staff on top of IT, they often leave the work up to the IT team.
Vatter says there’s only so much the IT folks can do. Protocol46 analyzes an organization’s business needs and provides a flexible suite of products and services at a cost that’s less than hiring internal professionals.
“My goals as a leader are to ensure the professionals we have as employees are well-positioned to serve the markets.”
For right now, he’s focusing on supply chain issues, such as staying domestic in order to limit outsourcing and to use Minnesota-based manufacturers whenever possible. He also plans to create a pipeline through the National Guard to provide gainful employment to the cybersecurity professionals that they have.
In order to achieve his goals, he’s relying on his military experience and cyber knowledge from MSST.
“There’s no such thing as impossible in the cyber realm because we’re an interconnected world,” said Vatter. “Business, too, is interconnected. And, like in warfare, soft-access points are vulnerabilities.”
He says the challenges around cyber security can seem daunting but he encourages technology professionals that the field “is not just for geeks.”
“For anybody who is looking at getting into a leadership position in an organization or company that has a technological focus or works with tech, MSST can provide experience and insight into a wide variety of different aspects of senior-level leadership. The program explores so many implications of tech and security and, most importantly, the human factor.”
The effectiveness of the program is that it does not teach you what to think, but how to think; you learn to discover who experts are, where to find information, how to identify problems and overcome them. TLI gave me the toolset to be able to do all that.