‘In the cybersecurity world, you have to expect the unexpected’

5 Mar 2018

Mary O’Brien, vice-president of engineering at IBM Security. Image: IBM

Mary O’Brien of IBM Security tells us how her love of maths led her to a career in the infosec industry, protecting customers in the age of cyber.

Mary O’Brien is the vice-president of engineering at IBM Security.

With more than 30 years of industry experience and a bachelor’s in engineering from Dublin City University, O’Brien is a lifelong engineer, and has worked for such global brands as Motorola.

She joined IBM in 2007 before moving to IBM Security as the director of infrastructure, growing her portfolio over the following years.

O’Brien leads a global team of 2,000 research and development professionals focused on delivering IBM’s extensive security product portfolio. Her mission is to incubate new ideas while partnering with IBM Research to study and understand the evolution of technology and the ever-changing threat landscape.

Describe your role and what you do.

I manage a global team of research and development engineers responsible for the innovation, development and evolution of the IBM Security portfolio of products. We work in conjunction with IBM Research, identifying, proving and evolving state-of-the-art capability to solve cybersecurity problems today and in the future.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

With the help of very talented support staff, I divide my attention between new innovations, current developments in flight and products in the customer base. In the cybersecurity world, you have to always expect and be able to react to the unexpected. Cyber-criminals don’t give advance notice of their intentions. My world and priorities can change day to day and hour to hour.

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

The shortage of skilled cybersecurity professionals is a big problem for this whole sector. I am tackling this problem in several ways. I am looking for new sources of talent to train and bring up to speed; developing methods and means of improving knowledge of evolving cybersecurity and technology. I am ensuring that we are taking full advantage of the vast trove of IBM research and IP in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning to infuse this capability through our products, allowing our clients to overcome this skills gap problem.

What are the key industry opportunities youre capitalising on?

Unfortunately, the opportunity to do business in the cybersecurity industry is vast, and these opportunities are rapidly growing as technology evolves and the attack surface available to cyber-criminals increases. Protecting our clients, their business, their clients and their data is what we are about at IBM Security; always acknowledging and respecting that our clients’ data is theirs, not ours.

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

A love of maths and all things technical set me on the road to a technical career. Cybersecurity was just so fascinating that I couldn’t help but stick my toe in the water.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I didn’t plan the early years of my career, and although I drifted from one good position to another, I realise now that might not have been. I have learned that one needs to be purposeful. Even staying in your comfort zone or not pushing for the next challenge for a time is OK as long as it’s a decision you make and not something that ‘just happens’.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I treat them with respect. I communicate openly and honestly. I ensure that they understand what is expected of them and I communicate results, good or bad, without dressing them up.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to effect change?

I spent the early years of my career never considering diversity to be an issue. Perhaps naively, I didn’t recognise the issue. My experiences through the years have changed this, however, and today, as I have the privilege of managing a large global organisation, I can see the benefits of diversity of thought and action every day.

I believe this problem needs to be tackled in the early years of education so that a diverse population becomes educated and available to the STEM sectors as they hire.

I think the problem needs to be addressed with the educators of current students and with the organisations preparing the educators of tomorrow. Teachers and lecturers have such an influence on the paths their students take.

Who is your business hero and why?

Bill Gates.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Transforming the Telco – Developing the Instinct for Survival in the Digital Economy by Martin Creaner.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

A good admin, exercise, good food, a happy home and a sense of humour.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Updated, 10.20am, 7 March 2018: This article was updated to include an additional response from Mary O’Brien.