Build Your Career: Interviews 


BIO: DEBORAH COOPER

Title: Computer security consultant
Academic degree: B.S. University of California Los Angeles

CS Activities:
- IEEE Division Director V (2008-2009)
- Committees: IEEE and TAB Strategic Planning, IEEE Alternative Membership Model, MGA Society Membership Marketing, IEEE Public Visibility Initiatives
- Coordinator for the IEEE Fellows and Information Technology Transition Ad Hoc Committees
- IEEE Computer Society 2006 president, 2002 secretary.
- Former member IEEE Computer Society Board of Governors; Executive, Audit, and Security & Privacy committees; Conferences and Tutorial, Technical Activities, Press Activities, and Publications boards
-- Guest editor, IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering and IEEE Software; editorial board member, IEEE Security & Privacy
 

 

Reaching the Under-Represented

An interview with Deborah Cooper

DP: Where you are in career right now?

DC: In terms of my career—in terms of number of years in my career—I am most senior. I am not really looking for lots more advancement up any particular ladders. But I’ve been in my profession for so many years that I am now looking for what I call the ‘last hurrah,’ something to focus on that will make a lasting difference. That is what I’m doing in my consulting company. And, to some extent, it’s what I’m doing with my volunteer support as well.

DP: So what is your day job about?

DC: My consulting firm specializes in computer security and information assurance. I got into computer security about 30 years ago at a time when it conjured up images of razor wire and guard dogs. There were very few people who were doing computer security. I happened to be at a company called Systems Development Corp. that was receiving research and development funding from the United States government to do research into making our cyber systems more secure. I was involved in building some of the first secure systems. For example, I worked on a project that created the first virtual private network—that was back in the 80s.

DP: So even before that when you were—let’s say, high school and just starting college—what drew you into this general field?

DC: I didn’t plan to get into computer security, let alone computer science. I was actually a mathematical logic major, in analytic philosophy at UCLA. Then, I did some work between my undergraduate and graduate years for the vice chancellor at UCLA.
As a result of that work, my boss gave me a programming language book. It was in PL1. She gave me a copy of two sample PL1 programs on Friday and told me to read the book over the weekend and write a program: “This is what I want you to do next,” she said. So I became a programmer.I turned out to be a pretty good hacker, which was a compliment in those days. It meant that you could really hack code. So I ended up writing programs specifically to build large databases for the vice chancellor. I ended up writing a program that eventually got accepted at all the University of California campuses. I really liked programming and I stayed with it.
As I continued to work on my PhD, eventually I found that I liked it so much and there were interesting job opportunities, so I ended up continuing to work as a programmer. From there, I ended up at SDC and launched my interest in computer security.

DP: So when you were in analytic philosophy, did you have other career paths in mind?

DC: Well, when you’re a philosophy major, typically what comes to mind is teaching. And I did do some teaching and enjoyed teaching very much—and still enjoy teaching when I give seminars and such. But the foundation in math logic is also excellent for branching off into lots of different areas. I also considered a career in law, but eventually, as I said, ended up in computer science—at that time there weren’t very many degrees in computer science. There weren’t departments of computer science and so my background was a solid foundation.

DP: During those years in college and graduate school who or what had the most influence on you?

DC: I think certainly my parents, who were, for the most part, overachievers and very supportive. The most memorable people from my early career were probably the women that I worked for, who were very supportive. I was given opportunities to think outside the window to do things that I had no apparent background in and was able to succeed.

DP: Does one woman in particular stand out in your memory?

DC: Probably several. I think the woman that I worked for part-time when I was a graduate student—the person who just gave me a book and some programs and said, “Go home over the weekend write a program.” She never led me to believe that her request was an unusual thing to do. Later on, when I was at SDC, many of the branch managers were outstanding women and very supportive. It was a group of driven and very, very bright people. The women in particular stood out. I still stay in touch with many of them. They are friends.

DP: What was it about your parents that was especially inspiring?

DC: Several things. One was, ‘Never accept defeat—never assume that you can’t do something. You don’t really know if you don’t try it.’ Second was, ‘Don’t let other people discourage you since you know yourself better in most instances than they will.’ And then just by their example.

DP: So as you moved through your career from UCLA onward, is there some decision you made that strikes you as your smartest?

DC: I’ve made a lot of dumb decisions.

DP: That’s coming up next. How about a smart one?

DC: My smartest decision probably was to stay the course and not let fear of failure discourage me. I also made smart decisions in some of my job choices and even when I chose to start my own consulting firm. Everyone thought that that was extremely chancy, but it has worked out very well.

DP: Any decisions strike you as your dumbest?

DC: Oh, several. I turned down offers from several small companies that have gone on to do IPOs. Some of my good friends made a couple of million bucks that I didn’t make, which I could have turned around and invested in some charities—which some of them have done. But I believe that you’re given a bag of bad choices. I think I’ve gotten pretty much to the bottom of my bag, so I’m not too discouraged.

DP: You mentioned that you were the recent past president of the Computer Society. I know that you’ve been involved for many years with various parts of the Computer Society at various levels. Now, you have leadership roles at the IEEE as well. Of those many activities, is there one that was your most personally rewarding for you?

DC: The year as president was both challenging and rewarding. Also, the people who got involved in my outreach initiative were so heartwarming. So I would say that working with some of the outstanding volunteers in the Computer Society has been probably the high point, even during some of the frustrations. The Computer Society has some outstanding staff members; working with them has also been the high point. And then, of course, there have been some low points.

DP: You and others worked on outreach efforts—during your presidential year and since. That was the hallmark of your presidential year. Would you like to describe some of those activities and say what is going to happen to them next?

DC: The point of the outreach imitative was to reach out to under-represented demographic sectors, including women and minorities. The intent was not to create a charitable foundation but rather to ultimately make these individuals lifelong members of the Computer Society—providing them with something of value, something that would help them choose a career, shape their careers, advance in their careers.
We came up with dozens of suggestions from various volunteers. Part of the problem in a volunteer organization is that a lot of the work has to be done by volunteers. So the volunteer with a fire in his or her belly is most likely to lead something on to implementation. We—the group—considered various proposals and in the end narrowed it down to about a half dozen. Over time we are considering now three or four to push forward. And we continued the outreach initiative under my successor, President Mike Williams, with his blessing. Now that I am at the IEEE level, what I would like to do and what people like you and other volunteers have expressed interest in doing is getting more IEEE support because the IEEE is a much larger organization with a much broader base. That could improve our chances of success.

DP: Could you describe them in a sentence or two?

DC: One of them is ‘Building Tomorrow’s IT Workforce.’ That came out of reports that originally went back to work done by the National Science Foundation and reports published by the Computing Research Association. Their findings from a few years ago continue to hold. In fact, the situation has become exacerbated.
Mainly there has been a declining interest in careers in the computing and engineering sciences on the part of women and minorities in United States. So the Building Tomorrow’s IT Workforce project is intended to address that by reaching beyond our traditional base, which is the college-level person. Starting at K-12 grades—initially, perhaps, at the high school and middle school levels—by providing teachers with materials, information, networking opportunities so that we can create an affinity with the individual. Help them make career choices, provide them with some tools, stimulate interest in choosing a career in the computing sciences. And then support them throughout their lifetimes.

DP: As the father of a 15-year-old daughter who is way into computers, way into technology, way into computer games, I know as a parent that people would appreciate some guidance along those lines for their children. Then there is also our friend Ann Gates at University of Texas, El Paso, who has a plan in the works.

DC: Ann has been involved in the National Science Foundation’s Broadening Diversity in Computing program for quite awhile. Her idea is to provide support that would make college-level students more familiar with what would be expected of them in the workplace. In particular, we would have Computer Society member volunteers who would provide seminars—very informal seminars in a casual environment on some particular topics. The initial topic we looked at would be proposal writing because that is not something that computer science students are taught in school but it’s something that many are expected to know once they get into the marketplace. We talked to some members of industry—at Microsoft, for example—who told us that that is one of the biggest problems they have. When people come to them out of school they’re not really prepared for the job. They have the textbook knowledge that they were taught but they don’t have the other skills that would be valuable in the workplace.

DP: All right. And then I know there was one about bringing first-world expertise to African students.

DC: Exactly. That also grew out of experiences of one of our Computer Society volunteers—Al Davis, the former editor in chief of IEEE Software magazine. He used his sabbatical time to teach a course at one of the universities in Africa. We looked at that and thought about how we might be expand that to provide support to an emerging African country—to expand our Computer Society offerings and membership values to them. We don’t have a lot of members in Africa. There are always economic issues in the emerging countries. But also we tend to focus a lot on the United States because that is where most members reside. “Outreach to Africa” would find members who would volunteer their sabbatical time to teach a course or seminar at an African university. We were really looking into Sub-Saharan Africa, where we had several countries in mind. That is also a project where the IEEE could help us quite a bit.

DP: What advice would you give a recent graduate who would like to pursue a career something like yours?

DC: There are several recommendations I would have—several bits of advice. One is, before you graduate if you are a computer science major, don’t avoid all the hard logic courses because they will serve you well in your career. You will find that they’ll serve you better than some of the other courses because they will give you a foundation that will subsequently make learning other things a lot easier. Second, if you pick a particular area that interests you, make sure that you are prepared for that area. For example, in terms of computer security, it really helps to have an analytic background of some sort—to have taken some sort of analytic study course. If you can reason logically, you can make significant contributions. I would also say that you should look around for the particular area that you think you want to focus on. Initially, if you feel that you would like to dabble in a few areas, that is not necessarily a bad thing to do.
Finally, don’t be afraid to make career changes. If you’re not happy at what you are doing, find something else that you can be happy doing and that you can also be successful doing.

DP: Excellent. So here in the United States many are pretty excited that Barrack Obama has come on the scene as President. I wondered if you had thoughts on what scientific or technological policy his administration should peruse?

DC: Well everybody is giving President Obama advice, so I doubt he needs more advice from me. I am aware of a push from our community to encourage him to hire a cyber czar. I heard a rumor recently that actually an invitation was extended to one individual who declined. So it sounds like he is going to take that recommendation seriously. It would be useful if he were to continue—at the very least continue the support of some cybersecurity infrastructure initiatives because our infrastructure really is not that secure and we’re still quite vulnerable. He seems to have already expressed an interest in education. I think that’s marvelous because if we have an educated populace, we will have a better country.

DP: The Computer Society and the IEEE are going through times of growth and change or certainly change. What do you envision for the Computer Society 10 years down the road?

DC: I see a different Society. I see a more diverse Society. I see a more agile Society. I see a Society that is less US-centric. And I see a Society that understands that its members may have different needs—that they may value different benefits—and that we are nimble enough to proactively respond to their needs. If we don’t change, we simply will become a relic.

DP: Do you have any last words you would like to share?

DC: Only that we can never get too many bright, active volunteers. So anyone who has any further thoughts, we would love to hear them. Anyone who wants to jump in and actually give hands-on support, we would love that as well. CW (10 February, 2009)

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