Internet security

The unpredictable career of a high-flying exec

February 9, 2012: 10:28 AM ET

Val Rahmani left an executive gig at IBM to head malware-fighting startup Damballa. Such a move may seem risky, but it doesn't compare to the CEO's hobby: aerobatic flying.

Interview by Colleen Leahey, reporter

Val Rahmani

Val Rahmani, CEO of Damballa

FORTUNE -- Val Rahmani's career path is almost as difficult to follow as a plane barrel-rolling and humpty-bumping during an air show. Though she's now the CEO of Damballa, a startup that protects companies like Comcast from nasty online hackers and bots, Rahmani wasn't always so sure where she was headed. Hailing from England, she came to the States in the mid-90s to work as Lou Gerstner's executive assistant at IBM.

From there, Rahmani became a bit of an entrepreneur within the corporation. She managed team after team, focusing on new frontiers like open systems (then back to mainframes), global wireless, and the company's UNIX server software business. After overseeing IBM's (IBM) $1.3 billion acquisition of Internet Security Systems, Rahmani became the general manager of that department -- only to leave two years later for Damballa. Under her leadership, the startup secured $12 million in funding last February.

This all seems humdrum compared to Rahmani's extracurriculars: She's taking "rap dance" lessons, she's a skilled ice dancer, and she's a member of the British Aerobatic Team. Much like her career, Rahmani loves the excitement that accompanies a challenge. "I often find myself taking risky things and making them as safe as possible," she says. Here, Rahmani tells Fortune about her personal career path and her take on risk.

Fortune: You've jumped around quite a bit, getting a PhD in chemistry from Oxford and ending up as an engineer and then in sales at IBM. What came next?

Rahmani: I was on a ski vacation in the U.S. while I was heading the Unix business in England and I got a call from my boss saying, "Can you reroute from Breckenridge to New York? We want you to interview to be executive assistant to Lou Gerstner." I'm like, "Oh really? But I like what I'm doing!" But, Lou had been there a couple of years and who turns down working for Lou Gerstner, when the whole world was talking about him? I interviewed with him on a Thursday and he said, "When will you start?" I started the following Monday.

You eventually moved back to Europe to run IBM's mainframe division. How was the transition?

I must have been 40 and this is about 95% over 50-year old males. So I've got these 300 people in front of me and they're all 50-year old males. And they must have wondered what was going on. I stood up and said, "We're going to reinvent mainframe. Mainframe's going to be the cool thing again. And you could see half of them thinking this is amazing and the other half going, "Oh my god, I've got to get out of here. She's smoking something." But I was in charge, so they all had no choice but to listen to me. More

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