Power players

Unit 42’s Wendi Whitmore: Proving her competency every step of the way

Wendi Whitmore

Wendi Whitmore, senior vice president at Palo Alto Networks, heads up Unit 42, a team of top threat researchers and incident responders who help the world’s largest organizations prepare for, detect, and respond to dangerous cyberthreats. Whitmore has spent more than 20 years in the cybersecurity industry building incident response teams and fighting against the toughest cybercrimes.

After graduating with a degree in computer science from the University of San Diego, Whitmore went on to work from 2002 to 2006 as a special agent in the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigation (OSI) where she focused on computer crime investigations. Whitmore said when she first applied to the OSI, she encountered some roadblocks.

“I was told that it wasn’t a role for people who look like me,” said Whitmore. “I felt it was implied that it was more of a man’s role and that a 21-year-old woman probably shouldn’t apply. The reality is, I’ve had to advocate for myself every step of the way. I’m trying to break down barriers and advocate so others don’t have to face those same hurdles. In all the roles I’ve held throughout my career, I’ve had to constantly prove that I’m competent in every step of the way to earn trust.”

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After leaving the Air Force, where she also earned a master’s degree in management information systems from Webster University, Whitmore went on to work for Mandiant and then IBM’s X-Force Threat Intelligence team. Whitmore finally landed at Palo Alto Networks Unit 42 a little more than two years ago in February 2021.

Today, Whitmore’s team at Unit 42 responds to more than 1,000 cybersecurity incidents each year. She has coached organizations through some of the toughest days their businesses have ever faced, helping resolve the strenuous challenges that come with a security incident.

“I get a lot of fulfillment in knowing the job we do is helping our clients and plays a bigger part in national security and the intelligence mission in terms of keeping hackers out of networks,” said Whitmore. “There can be some long days, but I get excited when we’re working a big case and see the impact of that has on an organization.”

Industry expert and advocate for women

Over the years, Whitmore has also gotten involved in many industrywide activities. Whitmore serves as an inaugural member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cyber Safety Review Board (CSRB), where this year she worked on two reports investigating threat actor activity critical to many security teams: the Log4j and Lapsus$ cases. The CSRB reports are delivered to the president and general public to further secure the cybersecurity ecosystem.

Whitmore also belongs to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Future Council on Cybersecurity, where she meets with cybersecurity peers around the globe to discuss critical issues, and generate insights and analysis. And Whitmore is a founding member of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISAs) Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative, a group formed in 2022 to conduct threat intel sharing.

An advocate for women in cyber, Whitmore helped create a hands-on associate program at Palo Alto Networks to train the next generation of incident responders fresh out of college. When considering applications, her team ensures that each class is at least 50% female.

Whitmore also serves on the industry advisory board for the Duke University Master of Engineering in Cybersecurity (MECS), and at her alma mater, on the board for the University of San Diego Master’s in Cyber Security Engineering program. Both of these boards focus on bringing in new, diverse talent into the security industry.

After more than two decades in cybersecurity, Whitmore has earned SC Media’s designation as a Power Player. While Whtimore admits she’s not always the first one or loudest one on a panel, people who have worked with her know that when she speaks Whitemore aims to deliver a clear takeaway.

When asked how she copes with the day-to-day pressures of being a female cybersecurity leader, Whitmore frequently references her Dad’s best advice and applies it daily to her high-stress job with Unit 42: “never let them see you sweat.”

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