Would you let a fear of math scare you away from a career in cybersecurity? Some people pursue a career in cybersecurity because they love math… others, like Palo Alto Network’s’ Ashley Richardson-Sequeira, got into cyber because she loves computers and has seen the movie Hackers just a few too many times. A military veteran, musician, and English major, Ashley’s journey to a successful career in cyber is far from what many perceive as the typical path. Her story underlines that there is always room in this dynamic field for someone dedicated to protecting friends and family from security threats — even if they are admittedly terrified of calculus (or at least used to be).
From a Sacramento community college, to attending Palo Alto Networks’ Cybersecurity Academy, to a romantic trip to DEFCON, here is a bit more about her journey to a career as a Senior Technical Trainer from Ashley herself.
What made you consider a career in IT and how did you get started?
So I definitely was a kid of the 90s. Computers were the new cool thing. I saw the movie Hackers way too many times to count, and loved Nintendo. I loved every movie that referenced anything from the 80s, I just was about it. Unfortunately, I was terrified of math, so when I enlisted in the Army as a reservist and went to my local community college in Sacramento — American River College — I actually focused on music instead. I eventually enrolled at UC Berkeley as an English Major — I was still completely obsessed with computers, but unfortunately, also still absolutely terrified of calculus. However, when the economy crashed it made me reconsider turning my passion for computers into a potential career. So it was at that point that I finally gave in and I let the military retrain me in IT — which was how I got my foot in the door — and I said, “Oh my gosh, this is awesome.”
But the final shove into the cybersecurity industry was actually my husband’s fault. We met in 2016, in the Army. We were in an IT unit as instructors and he took me to DEF CON, which is the biggest underground hacking conference in the world. And I was terrified, and fascinated, and I didn’t want to plug my laptop in anywhere, but I also wanted to know why I couldn’t plug in my laptop anywhere. It was so great. And so from there, I just did everything I could to get into cybersecurity. I knew I just had to work in this field.
What is your role at Palo Alto Networks and what does your day-to-day look like?
I am a senior technical trainer for Palo Alto Networks. So right now, when I’m teaching, I teach one of two classes. I teach our endpoint detection and response course, EDU-260 — which is a three day course — and then I also just helped launch our new four day security operations, automated response course.
I also help with continuous improvement, so if I’m not teaching, I’m working on that or I am working on the Veterans Employee Network for the company.
Do you have any tips for someone that’s not a STEM major, that’s trying to get started in cybersecurity?
Don’t discount your ability to breathe through some of the challenges you might face. Honestly, I have found that having some of that additional cultural context that you get from a liberal arts major like English or Sociology presents you with a unique perspective to solving cybersecurity problems.
When we’re dealing with cyber threats, we are really dealing with criminals; people. We have to keep that in mind and that trips everyone out. The perspective I bring to the table from my journey and education helps me see that when others might not make the connection. So don’t let the absence of a STEM major get in your way, use what you learned to offer another perspective.
What was your experience with the Cybersecurity Academy and how did you get started in it?
I first took an ethical hacking class. I took all these other classes and some of it was familiar, some of it was new. Then I got to a firewall class which gave me a bit of pause because I wasn’t too familiar with firewalls at that time. The course was taught by the Palo Alto firewall boss, and I heard all of these new things that I never knew — and all the interesting things Palo Alto Networks was doing — and I was like, “I need to work at this company,” and the rest is history.
So what about your veteran status? What about those skills and how they transferred over to the cybersecurity field?
Being in cybersecurity is a lot like being in the military. You always have to be “on.” You go to work every day, protect your organization, and then go home, and bring those cybersecurity best practices with you to protect yourself and your family, as well. There are definitely a lot of parallels.
What are some of the most rewarding aspects of the cybersecurity industry for you?
I love that there are so many folks that want to be in cybersecurity because they want to help protect one another, our country and our infrastructure. But for me, I also like having the peace of mind knowing that I can give my family and friends tips to make sure that they can identify cyberthreats and avoid falling into the traps set by bad actors as well.
What are some personality traits that you think work well in the cybersecurity field?
Honestly, having a sense of humor. A lot of folks in security are pretty funny. But beyond that, you actually have to be very patient to be in this field. In cybersecurity, you are responsible for millions or billions of infrastructure and when something goes wrong people are relying on you to have an answer and to explain what happened. This means, you could be answering a call, or researching, or doing an investigation for 40, 48 hours straight. So having patience and the ability to remain even-tempered is hugely important.
Are there any other bits of advice or tips you would like to share with someone who is potentially considering entering this space?
If you are a person that feels there isn’t a space for you, then absolutely come to the cybersecurity industry because there is a space for you. I’ve met some of the most unique, interesting, and awesome people since stepping into this industry and it has made me a better person because I’ve learned to be more compassionate and more understanding just overall, because you don’t know who you’re going to meet.
Ashley Richardson-Sequeira is Sr. Technical Trainer, Security Operations, at Palo Alto Networks. Before joining Palo Alto Networks, Ashley served in the US Army and is a graduate of the Palo Alto Networks’ Cybersecurity Academy, which offers entry-level through advanced courses on today’s cybersecurity landscape, threat prevention and next generation technology for cloud security, network security and security operations centers. In addition to her role as a technical trainer, Ashley is also the Global Lead for Palo Alto Networks’ Veterans Employee Network.