An interview with Alex Graham – the future of cyber security
Last year, Alex Graham undertook a cyber placement with Atkins. Having accepted a permanent role as a Junior Consultant with the business in September 2020, she here explores the cyber industry’s skills shortage; the UK’s north/south divide; and why she encourages others to get involved with placements and other initiatives for industry exposure.
Was there a definitive moment that steered you towards a career in the cyber industry?
Despite studying chemistry, I completed various cyber placements throughout my degree, which is where my interest developed. I realised that the realms of cyber are far reaching and go beyond the deeply technical. This was cemented during my cyber summer placement last year, which involved a research and development project centred around producing an operational technology honeypot; a system or device specifically designed to entice would-be hackers and learn more about their tools, tactics and procedures. The project was fascinating and gave me exposure to numerous clients and additional training. I took on the role of project manager, which enabled my development of leadership and organisational skills within a cyber context. The role seemed the perfect way for me to apply my interest in cyber while developing other skills such as project management and analytics.
Why do you think it’s important to work in and learn about this industry?
It’s no longer a question of if, but when a cyber security breach will occur. Fast-paced technological advancements and digitalisation across society and industry mean we’re seeing an increased demand to protect our assets, be that critical national infrastructure or our own personal data. As consultants, we help clients understand cyber security risks, how to mitigate them, and how to promote cyber resilience in the design stages. Beyond the risks, cyber is an exciting industry to be a part of due to innovative technologies and advancements which provide new challenges and opportunities, from the Internet of Things (IoT) to artificial intelligence. Despite this, the cyber skills shortage is predicted to reach more than 3 million by next year, proving that more needs to be done to promote such an interesting and vital sector.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also stressed more than ever the importance of cyber security, with an increasing number of services moving into the digital realm and the majority of the population working remotely from home; placing technology at the heart of both our working and personal lives in a bid to stay connected. This has created new challenges for businesses, as they respond to the ‘new normal’, holding almost all meetings virtually and looking to accelerate digital transformation, making cyber security and risks a major concern. Attackers have used the pandemic to exploit the vulnerability and greater exposure of employees working from home without the protection and security measures that a more conventional working environment provides, meaning a new threat landscape has emerged.
Have you had to overcome any hurdles or unique challenges in your career?
The main hurdle I faced was around location and opportunities in the North. Traditionally, the cyber market has been South/South West centric. After completing my summer placement, I was offered a position in the development programme, however the programme’s office locations were London and Bristol based. I put forward a case to highlight the opportunities available in the North West within the cyber security industry. The team were receptive and extremely supportive, and I’ve been able to remain in northern England.
Now, I have joined Atkins as the first graduate in my division that’s based in Manchester. Joining during the Covid-19 pandemic and the advent of virtual working has meant that I’ve been able to overcome the geographical barrier and felt more connected to colleagues and clients working across various other locations. The realisation that successful remote working is possible has caused a shift and generated confidence around new ways of working. This has begun to break down previous location barriers and demonstrated the importance of a flexible approach. I have already found this has provided me with more opportunities than challenges: I’m not in isolation, rather I’m in a unique position to help shape the future of the company and expansion across the country. Other industries, and government through their ‘levelling-up agenda’, are beginning to tackle geographic inequality and recognise that people from different backgrounds bring different perspectives and boost diversity of thought, so harnessing talent in the North could be a key turning point. This is particularly relevant to the cyber industry, as Manchester is recognised as the digital innovation hub of the North and champions multiple cyber security initiatives.