It's been a crazy year," says Tarah Wheeler, website security czar at Symantec. "Security is a really amazing place and is not often exposed to the independent hacker community," she says.
It's her efforts in fostering ties with the independent hacker community and her advocacy in encouraging women to enter the security marketplace that caught our attention. The lead author of the 2016 book Women In Tech, and the former CEO of Fizzmint, an employee management company, Wheeler helped found the world's largest tech mentorship initiative, Hack The People, which came out of a previous effort called LadyCoders.
Her recognition that one of the most important parts of the security field is figuring out where the field is going also stood out to us as we went about our selection of security thinkers. She's got her finger in a lot of pies, and that extends to the academic community as well as to her networking with researchers unconstrained by conventional thinking.
This year's projects involved looking into the technology used in Bluetooth coffeemakers and the Mirai botnet, for example; her agenda being to detect how things could be broken and hunt down the people who might disagree with her, but would be able to extend the research.
In the cybersecurity world, she says, the world is changing rapidly. This necessitates a flexibility of skills that she's become adept at encompassing. She even admits to learning to speak with corporate-level personnel in her quest to stay innovative.
And, in a field that seems nurtured on paranoia with a focus on defense, she works to make sure people see joy not just fear.
"I am always disarming people who have always thought of hackers as hoodie-wearing freaks," she says. "In America, we can now envision people of color and women, in particular, in positions of power."
Wheeler says she is someone who is willing to cheerfully smash up everything to get the job done and to explode parameters to solve problems. "Most of what we do is to encapsulate problems that we're working on. Boundaries don't matter. New talent can solve beautiful problems of such magnitude that can affect everyone on earth."
And environments matter less. Wheeler spoke this year to a class at the University of California at Berkeley that was using her book, Women In Tech (Sasquatch Books, 2016) in its coursework. She visited the classroom to talk to the students, she says, and, in particular, to encourage women to enter the tech field and to offer tips on how to get a job in the tech field, a prime theme in her book.
Her point, she says, was to ameliorate pressure so the field opened up as a non-threatening possibility. With students and at trade shows, as in her book, she offers inspirational stories of women in the tech field, not, she emphasizes, tech workers but women who work as programmers and developers.
Privacy is, and should be, a right of people that they should assume by default, she says. "I have seen that the reason security researchers often don't express joy is they find they're on the fringes of society. But we have extraordinary skills. As long as we feel the burden, we're headed in the right direction."