Keenan Skelly knows a little bit (O.K., a whole lot) about security threats. As an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the U.S. Army, she defused more than a few dangerous situations.
“It’s the only place they allow you to blow things up and then hang out with the president,” Skelly says of the military stint that landed her in a unit at the White House protecting the president and focusing on weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). which eventually sparked a keen interest in cybersecurity.
“I got exposed to a lot of things, it opened my eyes to threats, cyber threats,” she says. Because Skelly was on the team at the White House on 9/11, she got “a view of national response at a high level, which fed her interest in disaster response.
She was brought over to the newly created Department of Homeland Security first as a contractor than as a government worker, assigned to the directorate in charge of protecting critical infrastructure. The group shared its very small office footprint with “a guy who did bird flu research,” Skelly says. “I went from blowing up stuff to becoming a government worker.”
Part of her job included traveling to nuclear, chemical and water sites, among others, to conduct comprehensive reviews and help them get federal funding to beef up security. “We would do full-on assessments of security,” she says, “and we really found early on the information security was a single point of failure.”
With no solution to use or class to attend, “there was not much we could do about that,” Skelly says, which inspired her to go back to school and learn about information security.
It comes as no surprise that in the last two decades the Circadence executive has often found herself one of the few – or even the only – woman on a team, in a class or part of a unit. “Throughout my career it’s been interesting,” she says. “I have not had a difficult transition to security because I spent so much of my time in an all-male environment.”
She’s also had strong mentors to inspire, push and lead her through.
It was a mentor early on during her White House assignment who gave her the authority and confidence to order former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld from his office during a presidential protection detail. Rumsfeld good-naturedly agreed to take his lunch during the sweep and then a few months later came to her aid when she was trying to get a difficult colonel to move the perimeter back while her squad detonated a suspicious bag at the Pentagon gym.
He said told the officer “‘if she can kick me out of my office, she can kick you back 100 meters to protect these people,’” Skelly says.
She tries to be that kind of mentor and helper to the employees she hires and the young people she works with as a Cyber Patriot in an Air Force Association program and at a Girls Who Code group, she says.