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How a data hack led Heather Adkins to her career

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Editor’s note: Two-factor authentication, not using my pet’s name for a password, surfing the web on a secure browser—I do what I can to keep my data safe online. But thanks to the work of Heather Adkins—Google’s Director of Information Security—and her team, I don’t have to worry about my account getting hacked on a daily basis. I caught up with her for this latest She Word to learn about her career path in information security, her love for medieval history, her advice on how we can all protect ourselves online and more.

How do you explain your job at a dinner party?

I keep the hackers out of Google.

How did you get into information security field?

In college, I had a job at a small ISP (internet service provider) and we got hacked. When most people get hacked for the first time, there’s helplessness, fear and panic—you feel like you’re having your house burgled. Instead, I felt a sense of curiosity: How did the hackers possibly manage that? What do they know that I don’t?

I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: get hacked—or at least study the techniques hackers use, and find ways to defend against it. My career found me, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

There are high-stakes and stressful situations when you’re investigating potential security threats. How do you stay focused and calm?

One of the most important things is to make it a team effort. This responsibility doesn’t fall on any one person’s shoulders; it falls on a set of people who can support each other. It helps to distribute the stress—without a team, it would be too much.

My team has a heavy focus on trying to maintain work-life balance. Since our work is 24/7, we use a “follow the sun” model, moving responsibility of a project along with offices’ daytime working hours. This gives people a sense of closure at the end of their day, knowing that their work isn’t going to get dropped.

You’ve been at Google for 16 years—how many different roles have you had? How have you seen online security change during that time?

I’m one of the founding members of the security team. It’s changed so much—there was no Gmail when I joined Google! As the company has grown over time, so has our responsibility as a security team. But a lot of fundamental things are the same: Google was really committed  to security before I got here. And the passion of people who work in security hasn’t changed—they love technology and they care about keeping people safe online.

What’s one thing everyone should do right now to better protect themselves online?

Two-factor authentication, where it’s offered, and use a security key if you’re a Google user.

My career found me, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

What’s one habit that makes you successful?

I like to read lots of different things. When I started in the industry, I would get up and read Bugtraq (an electronic mailing list covering issues about computer security). When I wake up today, however, I want to know what the trade relationship is between the U.S. and other countries. The security industry is as much driven by geopolitical trends as anything. I find inspiration for solutions in all kinds of places; I’m reading books about quantum physics and civilizations at the moment.

What are you passionate about outside of work?

I study medieval history as a hobby. We know very little about this period of time in history because nobody kept what we would consider to be good records. It’s similar to what interests me when it comes to working on a system compromise—it’s a desire to put the picture back together, and figure out what happened.

Who has been a strong female influence in your life?

There are numerous luminaries I admire like Admiral Grace Hopper but they loom large at a distance (I’ve never met them). In my professional life, there haven't been many—I knew maybe five women in the field when I joined. In my personal life, my mom has been my biggest influence.

What advice do you have for women starting out in their careers?

Build resiliency in yourself. Finding a way to be resilient through tough times and come out the other side—having grown a little—means that you’re going to be able to go farther. To do that, you have to make sure you have joy elsewhere in your life to offset the difficult moments. It’s an engineering job: you have to be able to engineer your own happiness. You can get through anything in life if you can do that.

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