Anna Chung, the Principal Researcher at Unit 42 of Palo Alto Networks, speaks about her journey into the tech industry as her career choice
Can you share a little bit about what it is that you do and what a typical day for you is like?
I am a Principal Researcher at Unit 42, the global threat intelligence team at Palo Alto Networks. The mission of Unit 42 is to understand the cyber threat landscape of today’s digital age and provide intelligence assessments to help customers prioritise their actions, time, and resources.
My day-to-day is typically spent researching new malicious tools, tactics, and procedures discovered by the global security community. I use both internal and external tools to monitor cyber threats, and then transform the raw materials into actionable threat intelligence. The final research results are delivered through the Palo Alto Networks Unit 42 blog and feed into our products, as well as community sharing programmes.
What first got you interested in tech?
Not at all! I trained to be a diplomat at university, majoring in International Affairs, with a focus in International Political Economics, and minors in Business and Chinese Literature.
My interest in the cybersecurity sector truly developed based on how international affairs and security work in parallel. Whether it is regional cooperation or digital economy, technological transformation can disrupt a stable and productive state of affairs. We have the ability as individuals or small groups to drastically impact across national borders.
My professional career began in 2010 within the cybersecurity sector at iSIGHT FireEye as a translator, when I realised the strong connection between cybersecurity and international affairs. Two months later, I convinced my managers that I could be a researcher by doing open-source intelligence (OSINT). Following this tenure of around 5 years, I wanted to go beyond diagnosing and analysing security problems and joined Uber as a Technical Investigator and later lead the Global Fraud Intelligence Programme.
The journey within the cybersecurity field has been very exciting as it is such an ever-changing sector, offering the opportunity to work with law enforcement agencies, policymakers, researchers, and private sectors across the globe.
From a security point of view, there is great value in threat intelligence if it is shared rapidly on a wider level amongst vendors, governments, and commercial organisations – creating the best examples of how international corporations can address threats in real-time. When it comes to international affairs, it is interesting to witness the tremendous opportunities, soft power of public diplomacy, and influence of both non-governmental institutions and intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations.
Do you have a role model?
I have many role models but the most influential one is definitely my mother. Growing up in an era of uncertainty, my mother once had to discontinue her study, but she was determined to return to school and eventually became a pediatrician. She taught me to accept challenging moments in life. It is perfectly normal to feel like you’re on the edge of breaking down sometimes, but always have faith in your ability to make your own breakthroughs and overcome all the hurdles.
Would our world be different if more women were working in STEM?
Yes, there are many studies that show diversity, including gender diversity, effectively enhances creativity and problem-solving in teams, and serves as a resource to create a competitive advantage for STEM organizations. So yes, I am a firm believer that more diversity in STEM would bring very positive impacts to the industries.
What obstacles did you have to overcome?
At one point in my career, I did not realise I was in an aggressive environment until it was almost too late. I have reflected on two important values that will have a lasting impact for the rest of my career: one is the importance of work ethic and research integrity to me. The second is to recognise that even when fighting for a good cause, it is okay to take some rest so that we do not quit fighting for what is right.
What do you think is the best part of being a woman in the tech industry?
Many people might think of technology as being a cookie-cutter setting – they believe there is a mold you have to fit with a specific set of experience, behaviors, skills, and maybe even genders.
However, every individual brings unique qualities to a role. Cybersecurity is a field that benefits with newer ideas and out-of-the-box thinking, and we need people with different backgrounds to join the industry to foster further.
The technology sector is a rapid and fast-paced industry, with highly driven individuals meeting their goals, and showing their added value to the organisation. As a woman, it is exciting to be in an environment that challenges you to innovate and encourages you to see other ambitious women thrive and excel.
Do you notice a lack of women in technology?
There is no doubt that women are a minority in this industry, and it has always been such an important issue of discussion when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and equality within the workplace.
My personal outlook for women looking to start a career in cybersecurity is to not be put off by this fact, assuming that there is a high barrier to enter, or even by the scientific image it represents sometimes. If working in technology interests you, my advice is to just be yourself – as your personality, ideas, perspectives, and diverse experiences are welcome at the majority of the workplaces especially entities such as Palo Alto Networks.
What advice would you give to a woman considering a career in the tech industry? What do you wish you had known?
Cybersecurity is a young industry with tremendous potential in many fields. It is not just about being proficient in mathematics, engineering, or coding, but in fact, the job demands a much more robust and diverse skill set. Some key areas include threat actor profiling, underground economics, reverse engineering, incident response, digital forensic, statistics, malware analysis, artificial intelligence, data mining, privacy, legal framework, and cyber behaviour analysis.
Individuals interested in any of these subjects can consider opting for their career paths to the cybersecurity sector. Rather than making an immediate job shift, one can first start by attending local industry meetups or online training to learn more about cybersecurity.
We offer many learning platforms for women at Palo Alto Networks, for instance, the Partners in STEM Education – in collaboration with Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) – is a programme providing access to cybersecurity education for girls and eventually priming female candidates to fill vacancies in the technology, IT, and cybersecurity fields.
Palo Alto Networks also provides free online training on many cybersecurity topics and skills, in an effort to help young females protect their digital ways of life, but also give access and hands-on experiences of the industry at no cost.
In addition, I have also been coaching young women on a one-on-one mentorship basis for several years, to understand their career progression, dreams, and goals to reach their next desired step. One of my main coaching goals is inspiring young women to respect all elements within the industry, regardless of the hierarchy, as each role brings a unique value to the table.
What do you do to unwind after work?
By heart, I am a really big fan of art and cooking. I enjoy appreciating art and going to museums. In my spare time, I like to allow my thoughts the freedom to wander. I have found that the critical elements to inspiring creativity, innovation, and learning are by looking at things differently and having very honest conversations with yourself.
Overall, I encourage people to embrace their interests regardless of what they may be. I remember when I would talk to my colleagues and ask them what they are going to do for Christmas and they would say they were going to take an advanced course on Python or enroll in a coding class; at the time I was simply planning to have many great meals with my family and go to some exhibitions.
After being in the industry for 10 years, I feel comfortable with who I am and who I am not. It’s an important message to tell people that it’s okay to be who you are. You will still thrive in this industry regardless of your preferences and background.