Sunday, June 17, 2007

How I Got Started in Security and the Value of a Mentor

So, A few people out there have been blogging about how they got their start in security. I figured I'm exactly the sort of exhibitionist that would post that sort of thing, so here goes.

Warning: This entry is long and probably more than a little boring and self-indulgent. You've been warned..

I've been doing paid IT work for roughly 14 years. I got my start doing it for pay as a student at the University of Chicago in the main student computing lab. I was doing basic PC, Mac, and later Unix administration. I had a pretty strong Unix background from a few years I spent as a student at RPI where student computing was an exclusively Unix affair.

After working at the University computing lab as a regular worker I was put in charge along with a colleague of running a new cluster of SGI Indy machines. Our job was pure Unix system administration of 9 SGI machines. We were responsible for all aspects of system administration and I learned very early on that doing system administration at a University is rather different than doing it in most other environments...
  • Permissive culture and lack of definitive policies
  • Security not a priority except insofar as it caused the machines to be unavailable.
  • Insider attacks are at least as prevalent as outsiders
So, I cut my security teeth in that environment. Even though I was officially a Unix admin, I spent 50%+ of my time on security concerns. I even brought up one of the first semi-official kerberos realms at the UofC. Only about 5 of us used it at the time, but it sure did teach me a lot about distributed authentication.

One person I'd like to single out for how much he helped me in learning about security is Bob Bartlett. When I first started doing sysadmin at the UofC Bob was relatively new to the main computing group. Part of the University ethos and culture is a respect to educating, training, and mentoring. When I was just a student I used to go and hang out in Bob's cube area when I had some free time to see what sorts of things I could pick up on. Bob was the most amazingly patient guy I ever met. No matter how many stupid questions I asked, crazy schemes I came up with, he weathered the storm and never told me to stop coming around. I learned a lot about Unix security, the value of lots of layered defenses, how to do forensics of a compromised machine, etc.

Its amazing how much value you can get out of a good mentor. How they can show you ways of thinking, ways of working, how to interact with other people, etc. I can't say I learned all of those lessons and I'm certainly not a Bob clone, but of all people he's probably most to blame for me being in security today.

I spent two more years working at the UofC maintaining the main interactive unix machines for the campus. I talked a bit in an earlier post about how I don't think we've come that far in the last 15 years, but maybe I'm just jaded.

I then spent 4 years at Abbott Laboratories working in the pharmaceutical research division doing Unix admin. I wasn't officially in charge of security but since I was roughly the only person in the whole group that knew a lot about the subject I became the firewall administrator, ACE server administrator, in charge of network security monitoring and forensics, etc. I brought up the first network IDS there using first Shadow and then NFR.

The area I worked in was highly regulated so I got my full dose of filling out logbooks, worrying about audits, etc. It helped in our paranoia that Abbott had a quite a number of adverse regulatory issues during those times which made us that much more serious about security. That said the regulations that apply to the pharmaceutical business aren't that different that other regulations such as PCI. They are supposed to guarantee a certain level of security, but half the time they just result in a lot more paperwork, etc.

After 4 years at Abbott I left to go work for a software company in downtown Chicago to be the sole security person. I was responsible for all aspects of security except physical. I spent 5 years at CCC working on pretty much everything security - Policies, Procedures, SOX, Firewalls, IDS, Application Security (coding standards, threat modeling, application pen testing), vendor relationships and contracts, etc.

The scope of the job was great but unfortunately the industry they were in wasn't in need of the kind of serious security I was really looking to do. So, I started looking and eventually moved to the Bay Area to take a job with a large financial services firm. I don't like to talk about who it is, but if you use google and linkedin it can't be that hard to figure it out.

I think one of the main skills I bring to the table is my background doing a lot of different IT work for a lot of different types of environments. I worked for a University, a heavily regulated pharmeceutcal, a software company, and a financial services firm. I've done everything form desktop support to large system unix admin to software security work. I think its both breadth and depth that are to be valued in Information Security. Hopefully I've got some of both but I guess you be the judge.

1 comment:

DM said...

Bob is a great mentor. He taught me a lot about both Systems Administration and Security. I wouldn't be where I am without him.