First up we have Aireal, instagram handle @girlswhohack. I discovered her account a few months ago and have been hooked since. She promotes good mental health/self care in the tech industry (something we should all take note of!) and always teaches me something new about cyber security. Her information is well written and easy to understand for newbies like me and it is information that is paramount to staying safe online! Many of us have no idea how to properly stay safe online, or how our information is targeted by malicious code. When I received my first laptop at 18, I remember my dad spending many a night, tearing his hair out, trying to “clean-up” the mess left by malware from all the (coughillegalcough) songs I had tried to download (sorry dad). She does all of this while looking fabulous in a red dress, using a kick-ass pink keyboard (that lights up all sorts of colours!) and encouraging others to learn/ be a part of the conversation! Take it away Aireal …
Who are you and what do you do?
“Hi! I’m Aireal and I’m extremely passionate about cybersecurity. Right now, I’m juggling the life of a systems & security administrator at my day job and wearing about a hundred different hats at the cybersecurity start up, Blackbot, that I’m helping to build.”
Where did it all start?
“I’ve been passionate about technology for as long as I can remember. I can’t pinpoint a set time and place when it started. However, the first actual technology class I elected to take in school was one for HTML. I really enjoyed it and it made me want to dig deeper. I had the opportunity to go to a technology trade school once I hit high school. A lot of people seemed to look down on trade schools where I was from, but I was bored with my standard high school classes and I thought it was a perfect escape. Little did I know that would end up changing everything for me. At the trade school I was able to go through Cisco’s networking curriculum at no cost, get my first IT certification (Comptia A+) and land my first job as a network engineer at 17 before most of my classmates had even begun looking into colleges.”
Give us a snapshot of your day to day work?
“This is tough since my day to day changes day to day! I’m typically researching new things to help protect our company from cyber threats. Some of the projects I’ve personally spearheaded include implementing a spam filter, multi-factor authentication and a new anti-virus and EDR program. Currently I’m working on moving our environment to a cloud hosted solution and dark web monitoring. At Blackbot, since we are start-up, my tasks vary depending on what role we need filled at that point in time. Recently I’ve created content for our website and soon I’ll will be working on our cloud infrastructure over there.”
Is there someone that encouraged you to do this?
“No one has ever really encouraged me by saying anything like “hey, go work in cybersecurity” but my mom has always encouraged me to do whatever makes me happy. It’s like how I mentioned that a lot of parents looked down on trade schools where I was from and wouldn’t let their kids go to them. My mom just wanted me to be happy and told me to pursue whatever path felt right. I remember being 15 years old and studying for my A+ certification. She sat there and helped me study even though she didn’t have a clue what any of it meant. Now she always asks me if I need help studying for my other certifications as well.”
“My husband has also been really encouraging through my journey as well. He isn’t great with technology. Actually, he’s downright bad with technology. But he still makes sure to let me know that he thinks I’m doing a good job and that I should pursue whatever makes me happy.”
(I love the support!)
What motivates you/what do you find motivating?
“I like proving people wrong. Everyone loves a good Cinderella/underdog story. And I know that you’re not supposed to say money motivates you…but doesn’t money motivate everyone? We didn’t have much money growing up, so being able to have enough and not have to worry is a huge plus of working in a lucrative industry like this one. I’m working towards a goal of being able to retire early and buy my mom a nice cosy house.”
What advice do you have for people pursuing/aspiring to your career?
“Learn what you can from open source materials. Don’t be afraid to build a lab and get your hands dirty. Technology is one of those fields where you can’t just learn by reading about it – you’ve got to actually do it.”
If you could go back in time, what is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself? (hindsight is a wonderful thing!)
“Don’t let men walk all over you because you’re a woman or you are young. I came into this field at 17 and I had those things working against me. Representation is key, and I didn’t see people like me in this field. Instead of embracing my femininity and womanhood, I tried to change and make myself likeable to what I thought would make my male colleagues happy. I’m a bad ass woman in tech and I wish I would have embraced it sooner.”
Can your work be stressful? What do you do to manage stress? Do you have any helpful day to day practices?
“Ha! Yes, it can be very stressful. But stress isn’t always a bad thing. There are good types of stress and bad types. If you are stressed because you are busy or because the work challenges you – this is good stress. Find ways to decompress by doing things you like. For me, hanging out with my husband and playing video games helps me clear my head and relax. If you are feeling stressed because you are in a toxic work environment where people put you down and don’t appreciate your worth – that’s bad stress – and it’s probably time to look for a different opportunity.”
What is your favourite thing about your job? What excites you most?
“My favourite thing is that I’m constantly learning and there is always a new topic to dive into. Technology is ever-changing and I embrace that. I’ll never know everything about it. I’ll always be able to gain more knowledge. The idea of understanding how to break into things excites me. Not because I want to use it for nefarious purposes, but because I can stop attackers and help companies who need to be protected.”
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
“I’m an avid gamer. I love playing video games and tabletop games with my friends. I used to play a lot of Starcraft II and Magic the Gathering when I had more free time. Now I’m more casual about it and mostly play Xbox One games. Red Dead Redemption Online is my current game of choice. Other than that, I just love spending time with the people I love and also with my 3 super adorable cats.”
What’s your favourite color?
“I like most colors so I don’t know if I have real favorite. If I had to name one it’s probably be burnt orange.”
The Texans would be happy to hear this is your favourite colour (Go Longhorns!)
What is your favourite film just now and why?
“Okay, this is going to sound silly, but I recently saw the old western movie Tombstone from 1993 (The same year I was born!) and I got pretty obsessed with it. I just want to go up to everyone I meet and say “I’m your huckleberry.””
If you could be anyone for a day, who would it be and why? (from any time period!)
“Well I’m a really big fan of being myself. But if it were just for one day, I’d want to be a strong powerful female CEO. Someone like Virginia Rometty (CEO for IBM). I think I could learn a lot about running a company in a day and it would help me progress in my own endeavours.”
Is there anything else you would like us to know?
Just follow your dreams and be nice to all the cats. That’s all I’ve got.
Thanks for taking the time to share some facts about yourself Aireal! I love that you are motivated to prove people wrong, it’s something I personally find motivating too!