Drowning, Not Waving…

Last week I attended The European Information Security Summit 2019 and spoke on the closing keynote panel at the end of the second day. The topic was “Unacceptable personal pressure: How senior Cyber Security Executives safeguard their own mental health, and those of their teams”, and as a panel we were surprisingly open about our experiences. Afterwards a number of people spoke to us about how pleased they were that we had been open and honest about a subject that is so often swept under the carpet as too difficult to deal with or just plain embarrassing. I have also seen the LinkedIn articles written since get a huge amount of traction with every comment a positive and supportive one.

I briefly told my story last week, and so have decided to elaborate a little more to a larger audience here. This is not meant to be virtue signalling, or jumping on the bandwagon, but rather a message to everyone out there who has suffered in silence and felt they were the only one with these feelings. These are the “highlights”, and some parts of the story are just between me and, well me, but I am sure this will paint the correct picture.

My last role was challenging to say the least; as a  newly minted CISO I was tasked with building a security team from the ground up (again) in a large global organisation that was as politically charged as it was not interested in security. We did well, growing to over 60 people at last count before I left, and were considered a high performing team who collaborated and never said no. People enjoyed working with us and we took on more and more work and constantly delivered.

The cost though was an intense environment where my main role was PowerPoint and politics, and constant air support for the team. Combine a tough travel schedule and the global, always on element, I never truly switched off. That said, one of my mottos was “Work Hard, Play Hard” so evenings with teams, internal clients and their customers in different countries were long, hilarious and helped us bond even closer to perform even better. Frankly it was exhausting and my sleep suffered.

So I did what every self respecting professional does, and started to self medicate with alcohol. It was, for the most part free from British Airways and Hilton, or on expenses (see above). It wasn’t a problem as i had a good tolerance, was a happy (maybe even hilarious) drunk, and while stupid things were done, it only bought us closer and more effective as a team.

And it wasn’t a problem for a number of years… until it suddenly was.

2017 was a very difficult year for me. In that year I drank almost every single day to excess as a result. I would get up in the morning and carry on working until the end of the day and I would start again. I wasn’t an alcoholic as I didn’t need to drink 24 x 7, so that was OK. I also managed to spend thousands of my own money on nights out with friends and team mates, pushing myself seriously into debt. My anxiety, stress and depression were getting worse, but I was able to medicate for that myself, so no problem.

Then came Rome. I will save you, dear reader, from the gory details, suffice to say that at 5am on a Monday morning at the end of September I found myself at the top of a building incoherent with emotion, raging at the universe, and willing myself to jump off. I had lost my third phone that year from the nights entertainment, had driven myself further into debt and I just couldn’t do it anymore.

Thankfully, an ambulance turned up, I was talked down, hospitalised for a few hours and then discharged. With no phone, in a foreign country, no idea of where my hotel was or where I even was, I managed (in a complete blur) to get back to the hotel, call my wife, get to the airport and get home only to spend the next four weeks in the care of the NHS and my family and off work.

The irony of my situation wasn’t lost on me; here I was, a successful, well paid, C-Level Executive, ostensibly well known and regarded in the industry, and I am clinically depressed and suicidal. Therefore to say I was scared, lonely and emotional would be an understatement, and I decided to make some changes in my life.

Two of those changes are of direct relevance here;

  1. I stopped drinking alcohol. I was classed as a Non-Dependent Alcoholic and as a result was tasked with cutting down my intake dramatically. I decided to stop entirely, a choice I would have considered unthinkable, even laughable, just a few months before. I haven’t drunk alcohol since, not because I can’t allow myself to, but because it simply isn’t an important part of my life now.
  2. I decided to be more open about my mental health issues with not only my family, but my friends and work colleagues, and address them proactively.  I was not going to be defined by this event and lifestyle change, and I also wasn’t going to be held to ransom, mistakenly or maliciously, by the events I have just disclosed above. I have yet to discover anyone who I confided in who was at the very least supportive, if not understanding, be they family, friends and especially my team.

There is of course a damn good reason why I am sharing this with you. What follows is my takeaways for everyone who read the above and felt it resonated with them even just a little.

  1. Alcohol is a bad way to treat yourself for anything longer than a few days. Talk to a doctor or therapist sooner rather than later and save yourself a life threatening event to wake you up.
  2. There is no stigma in sharing your mental health struggles. I am constantly amazed at the overwhelmingly positive response from everyone I talk to about my personal experiences. If your friends and colleagues are not supportive of you, perhaps you should question why you are in the state of mental decline in the first place.
  3. If you work for a good company, and/or have a good team, your time out of the office will be dealt with and accommodated for allowing you to recover. When you come back, you will do so with more energy and vigour than most other members of the team. If you are not being supported, see point 2.
  4. If a member of your team is struggling, you don’t actually have to do much to help. Communicating to them that they should take whatever time they need to address their issues, and not asking questions is all that is needed. If your team can’t take up the slack, then how are they going to cope during an incident anyway?
  5. Be supportive if you can; it is difficult, but even small gestures like gifts of tea and chocolate (you know who you are…) or staying in touch over instant messenger to make sure someone is OK is also a great way to show your support. Humour helps too.

I’m going to close this with a call to action. This isn’t some virtue signalling programme that I will front up on twitter and Facebook, but rather a call for everyone to include mental health topics in their team meetings, their management reports and metrics, as well as face to face meetings. The financial losses to our industry are probably staggering because of mental health issues, so we should be tracking and probing on it in our organisations as much as gender or racial diversity.

I want to reiterate, again, that if you are feeling it, someone else is feeling it too. Now you know what I have been through, I hope it means you now you have someone you can reach out to as well, or have to courage to seek help and support when before you didn’t.

As for me, I have never been better these last 18 months or so. I sleep better, I work better, I manage stress better, and I am pretty sure my jokes are better too. Therefore, I leave you with this unattributed quote:

I wouldn’t recommend suicide, it’s bloody dangerous. I nearly killed myself…

 

Note: I am going to be at the RSA conference in San Francisco in a 
couple of weeks time, as well as at a variety of other conferences 
over the coming months. Please do say hello and let me know your 
thoughts on this topic. Should it be as mainstream as I suggest, 
or should we just stick with the stiff upper lip approach?
Can and should we be doing something else?

What, No Expense Account? My RSA 2019 Itinerary

Yes, you read it here first, I will not be jetting into San Francisco on my private jet and staying at a hotel I wouldn”t tell you plebs about anyway.

RSA 2019 will be a first for me in that I am representing myself and not expensing my trip on the company dime. I am attending in part, to the generosity of ITSP Magazine, (cheers, Sean and Marco!) and all I have to do in return is type a few words out for them. They may already be regretting that decision after seeing me insulting you, dear reader, in my first sentence of this blog.

I often attend RSA without a solid itinerary, getting a lot of value of the “hallway track” and the multitude of events that are thrown in and around the city during the conference proper. However, since I now have some of my personal cash invested in this trip (I am staying in an AirBnB with a shared bathroom for goodness sake), it is probably wise to get at least some kind of structure together. To wit:

dirty-bathroom

Oh, the inhumanity…

The Sessions

  • HUM-T06: Humans Are Awesome at Risk Management
  • DevOps Wine0ing (Not Whining) Cocktail Party
  • ID-T07: Studies of 2FA, Why Johnny Can’t Use 2FA and How We Can Change That
  • CXO-T09: How to Manage and Understand Your Human Risk
  • Information Security Magazine Breakfast Briefing
  • Threat Modelling Brunch with IriusRisk
  • Security Blogger Awards (is it still on this year?)
  • KEY-R02S: Burnout and You: Fireside Chat with Dr. Christina Maslach
  • CXO-R11: The Fine Art of Creating a Transformational Cybersecurity Strategy
  • PROF-F01: Five Secrets to Attract and Retain Top Tech Talent in Your Future Workplace
  • PROF-F02: Why the Role of the CISO Sucks and What We Should Do to Fix It!

In summary then, risk, stress, strategy and human beings; all the key ingredients of any information security function.

This is my first cut of the agenda, and I reserve the right to not attend these and attend others, especially if some of my friends, colleagues, old drinking buddies and interesting random strangers turn up. Because that is what RSA is really about; meeting, networking and swapping ideas and opinions in real time.

The educational element is excellent of cours,, but it is rare that they will address exactly the problems you are facing day to day. You will learn something, you will expand your knowledge and you will take fantastic advice away with you, but it is rare you will get an hour face to face with he speaker. Taking the opportunity to really network and chew the fat with your old chums, as well as new o9nes is an invaluable way of really focusing your efforts.

Of course I have some specific goals (remember my reason for staying in the AirBnB?); I will be networking to find potential consulting work in the future, looking for NED or advisory positions, and seeing what is coming on the horizon from the many vendors. I am also interested to see if Artificial Intelligence code has actually been written in anything other than PowerPoint, although I suspect I will be disappointed again on that front.. Meeting my old boss and mentor, my old Deputy,  a multitude of other pals, even the guy who reckons he is the sole founder of Host Unknown (when everyone knows that is me), is just icing on the cake. I am definitely looking forward to catching up with the person who said I could use their hotel room bathroom too.

There will also be a Host Unknown party, bought to you by the kind sponsorship of anyone who turns up, just like last year in Las Vegas during Black Hat and DefCon. I have heard at least two of the sole founders will be there to welcome the dollar bills of sponsorship from the attendees.

It’s going to be a long, endless week, but I do know that I will come back with more knowledge, more passion, more energy and more excitement for our industry than ever before.

And a whole lot less cash in the bank, so if you see me, don’t forget to offer food and drink.


The Art of the Presentation (Part 3 of 3)

It has been a while since part 2, we have had BSides and InfoSec Europe, and it has been a busy time in the day job. Nonetheless, here is the last part of three of “Art of the Presentation” (abridged version) for your edification and delight.

Part 3 is about the actual delivery of your presentation. This is where your deck and your practising come together in perfect harmony to deliver something that is memorable, engaging and above all educational. I believe there are seven key areas that need to be taken into account and addressed, either on the day or mentally before you deliver your presentation.

Presentation Aids

The simplest presentation aid you need is a is a ‘clicker’ remote. You can spend anything from £10 to over £100 on one of these. For your time, I would suggest something in between that, by Logitech or Targus who produce good solid devices. Cheaper devices are not always reliable and will often chew through batteries, the last thing you want live on stage. Personally, I use the Logi Spotlight presentation remote, which has a few bells and whistles such as a built in timer. Moving backwards and forwards from your presentation laptop looks amateurish and breaks the flow of your performance.

You may think you need notes or crib cards as well, my one word of advice is “Don’t”. As I have mentioned before they are a crutch that you will rely on far too much and they remove the natural flow of your presentation. If your nerves (see below) are getting the better of you  and you absolutely must have something just in case, have your notes typed up in a large font and very clear markings as to what slide relates to what notes fold them up and keep then on the lectern out of reach (again see below). Once more, avoid this if you can.

Technical Setup

Things to ascertain up front are if you are using your own laptop or the organisers. Using their laptop and sending your Powerpoint or Keynote in advance doesn’t guarantee that your deck will display correctly. Missing fonts, different versions of the software etc.. Making sure you check that your beautifully crafted deck still looks beautiful when up on the screen on stage means you won’t be surprised when you get on stage. Any decent organisers will work with you to find time to not only check if your deck looks good, but also to test your own laptop if need be. If using theirs, they should also provide presentation remotes for their own laptops as well.

If you are using your own laptop, make sure to bring every type of a/v adapter you need, but it boils down to three types:

  • VGA
  • DVI
  • HDMI

These are in increasing order of preference; VGA is an old standard now, but most commonly used. HDMI is the easiest to use and requires the least amount of setup as it operates around a strict standard. More often than I care to recall has the use of VGA and a misconfigured projector or LCD screen resulted in my slides looking stretched and distorted: Heartbroken!

Staging

This may not seem very obvious, but you also try and stand on the stage for a few minutes and walk around it while testing your slides. Set up your laptop if possible so you can see the screen for the next slide etc. and then walk the stage so you know where you can see your screen and where you can’t. The larger conferences will often have a comfort screen at the front that shows your on screen slide, and on rare occasions (when using their own equipment) even have it as a secondary screen.

Walking the stage also ensures your presentation remote will still work at the furthest distance from your laptop; the last thing you want is to lose connection while you are in the middle of your flow. Finally you can also ensure you are at least aware of any trip hazards on there such as loose carpeting or cable runs.

Nerves

man-looking-distressed-without-a-shirt

There is no getting away from it, but except in very rare cases you will be varying levels of nervous prior to your moment in the spotlight. Nerves are good as they will sharpen your performance, but too much and your performance will rapidly tail off. I recall early in my speaking career physically shaking and attempting to come up with an excuse to not present; it took all the energy I could muster to go on and deliver that day!

One exercise I do can be done very easily, either standing or sitting. Start by slowly clenching your fists until you are squeezing them as hard as you can. Hold this for as long as possible or up to 30 seconds, then very slowly start unclenching your hands. As your figures open, feel the tension release in your forearms and slowly breathe out. Do this 2 or three times and you should find the tension in your body ease a little, as well as feeling somewhat calmer. It isn’t a panacea, and you may well have your own trick for this, but I find it can help you prepare your body for the upcoming performance.

Movement and Oral Delivery

Depending on who you talk to, there is conflicting advice on how you should present from the stage. I was involved in some formal public speaking training a few years back, and their guidance was to stand still, and avoid any kind of arm movement. Not my style at all!

With that said, an movement around the stage should be paced and deliberate, as if you are consciously trying to address a different corner of the audience. Pacing backwards and forwards makes you look nervous, as does rocking on your heels, stepping backwards and forwards as if rocking, etc.. Identify a spot on the stage that is your “base” and plant your feet squarely in it. When you walk around, do so, especially when emphasising certain point, and especially when involving the audience. The return to your spot. The trick of course is to try and make sure you don’t look like a wind up toy, but rather a natural sequence of movements.

Using your hands is perfectly acceptable, as you can use them to emphasis you points, and even put across your emotions and feelings about certain areas. Be aware however, that sometimes you will need to use a handheld microphone, and if you haven’t practised not moving your arms it can very easily distract you, especially as your other hand will have a presentation remote in it.

Q&A

There are three things to remember here; firstly don’t expect to know the answer to every question, and say so when you get a question you can’t answer. Promise to follow up with the individual, and if you have social media accounts or other means of sharing further information with your audience then use it to publicly do so.

Secondly, always repeat the question. Not everyone will have heard it and your repeating of it through the microphone will help. This also has the added bonus of giving you more time to consider your answer.

Finally, always do your best to call out “more of a comment than a question” type of questions. depending on your style either call it out as not a question, or say it is too complex to answer easily now so you will catch up with them afterwards. These types of questions will almost always derail any Q&A session.

When it all Goes Wrong

What if you freeze, or your slides stop working, or you get lost in the presentation, or your trousers fall down or something awful happens?, well, always make sure you have a plan. It may be as simple as always going back to the previous slide to pick up where you last knew what you were talking about, or even having your slides on an iPad (with he correct A/V adapters if possible, or having a routine to check your clothing before you walk on stage.

Remember, there will be very few people in the audience willing you to fail. Virtually everyone is on your side, and hoping you will educate and entertain them. They will be very accommodating and accepting of mistakes. This accommodation does not last forever however. If you constantly fail to deliver in subsequent talks because you haven’t learnt anything g or failed to seek help, your reputation will precede you.

Take every mistake as  a learning experience, and over time, you will find yourself learning less and even teaching more.

The Golden Rule

This is part eight of my seven part list. Bear with me.

Never, ever, run over time. Anything more than 30 seconds is going to affect the timings of the rest of the day. Unless an organiser explicitly asks you to continue past your time you need to get off stage so the next speaker can get on.

You can however finish early; a good conference will find ways of filling the gap, either stepping up to ask questions when no one else will, or even filling the space themselves.

So there it is, three parts to help you in your public speaking career. I hope some of you found it useful, and as always you can reach out to argue with me or come up with other tips. Thanks for listening!


The New Home of TandTSEC, the blog

Fairford Airshow 2011I am in the early days of setting up this site as the formal blogging site of TandTSEC. It has been almost a year since I set up the original site, and after an initial flurry of blogs they dried up quite quickly. I have come a long way in my professional development since then, significantly catalysed during the RSA Europe conference last year.

Moving to this site will allow me to overcome one problem in particular, namely that of being able to update my blog from anywhere and on any of my mobile devices. My hope is that I will be able to post an update when the mood hits me rather than when I get back to my desk at home. Given the amount I find myself traveling this was a problem!

I am also starting on the speaking circuit. I am in the middle of preparing my first presentation ready for delivery this coming Tuesday at the RANT forum in London. With that in mind I am challenging myself to come up with more frequent updates, opinions and thoughts to act as the “manure” for new presentations, articles, and hopefully a book!

Here is to a new chapter in my InfoSec career!