Stellar Cyber Founder Aimei Wei. Photo: Stellar Cyber.

Building A Cybersecurity Company And Lessons Learned From Being A Mom

Aimei Wei on starting up, employee development, and women in cyber

Di Freeze, Managing Editor

Northport, N.Y. – Jun. 23, 2020

Aimei Wei is a woman who loves to solve problems. That’s one reason she’s passionate about her role in cybersecurity.

“Solving cybersecurity problems is challenging, but it’s also a fascinating industry and career,” said Wei, founder and VP of Engineering at Stellar Cyber, a provider of security solutions, software and analysis tools. “It’s like you are a detective.”

Wei laughs and says that besides being challenging, cybersecurity is also “very fun.”

“We are on the defense side, and when you beat ever-evolving attackers and protect people in the digital world, it gives you joy and a sense of achievement,” she said.

Being a cybercrime fighter and detective wasn’t something Wei dreamed about while growing up in Tsingshui, a small town in Gansu province, Northwest China. An avid reader who particularly enjoyed science fiction novels, Wei thought she might like to be a scientist or professor.

When she was 15, she went to boarding school in Tianshui, a nearby city, for high school. After graduation, she attended Tsinghua University in Beijing. Although she was also interested in biology, she eventually chose computer science.

“It was the 1980s, and computer science was relatively new to the people in China,” she said. “I was very curious about it. Math was one of my favorite subjects. I wanted to know how machines can do computing. At that time, I knew nothing about the application of computers.”

During her sophomore year in college, Wei had an English teacher from the U.S. who was instrumental in the next step of her education.

“We became very good friends,” Wei said. “Cindy inspired me to go study abroad. Again, my curiosity of wanting to know more about the outside world and learn drove me to apply for graduate school in the U.S. and Canada. Queen’s University was the first one that offered me a scholarship. In those days, it was impossible to study abroad without a scholarship.”

While she was taking computer science courses, Wei imagined creating software that would solve real world problems.

“At the college, I developed some automation control software for a flour mill,” she said.

Wei worked for Nortel Networks, in Ottawa, Canada, for seven years, as a technical lead for software development for MDX wireless switch. She said that when she started her career, she learned a lot from a mentor at Nortel, both from the technical side and career-wise.

“We became lifelong friends,” she said.

She returned the favor by becoming a mentor to a group of younger engineers, including several women, a couple of years later. One of the women she mentored later became the head of software engineering at Bloomberg L.P.

“We also had a lot fun together,” she said. “I remember somebody brought up this idea of a lunch box club. We got very excited and did it for a few months. There were five of us ladies; each day, one of us would cook and bring to the office five lunch boxes. So, we only needed to cook once every week, but we could enjoy great food of different styles every day. Everyone cooked such good food. We had to stop after a few months since we all gained weight!” 

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Protecting applications and data

In 1999, Wei joined Nuera Communications, a startup Voice over IP company.

“I moved from Ottawa, Canada, to Silicon Valley,” she recalled. “I was absolutely amazed by the experience of a group of people sharing the same passion working together to solve problems in such a fast-paced fashion. I got a taste of Silicon Valley with its startup spirit of innovation and agility.”

Wei next served as lead software engineer for Ciena and Kineto Wireless — another startup — before joining Cisco Networks in 2006, where she actively developed Software Defined Networks solutions. She was with Cisco for eight years.

Wei recalled that when she was working for startups early in her career, she didn’t have a chance to fully immerse in the experience, since she was also raising two young daughters.

“I remember picking them up from school, getting them settled and then going back to work, continuing until supper,” she said.

That changed when her oldest daughter was finishing college and her younger one was heading off to college.

“I could focus on a startup because I had more time,” she said.

However, this time it would be her own company. She laughs and says that a startup is really like another child — if not more dependent. She refers to Stellar Cyber as her “third child.”

In 2015, Wei founded Aella Data, which was rebranded as Steller Cyber in 2019. She explains that when Aella Data first launched, the idea was to explore technologies mainly from a data collection point of view.

“Because of my networking background, I knew about data deep packet inspection (DPI),” she said. “You can get a lot of information out of packets to develop applications. That inspired me to see that there might be a gap between the tools of today and the problems we try to solve.”

Although Wei was involved with SDN OpenFlow switching development at Cisco, she said she was also exposed to cybersecurity.

“I was also following the industry, like firewalls, IDS, sandbox and other technologies that are helping to secure the IT infrastructure,” she said.

Beyond that exposure, Wei has also personally been impacted by cybercrime.

“My Yahoo email got hacked,” she said. “My information is out there in the wild.”

She said that cybersecurity is such a critical issue because the IP world has changed.

“Nowadays, people move to the cloud,” she said. “They have a variety of environments: private cloud, public cloud, hybrid cloud. Also, because of wireless mobility, people carry their laptops around. They might work at Starbucks and then bring the laptop to the office, so this attack surface has increased.”

Wei says that as attack surfaces have increased, attacks have become more complicated.

“The traditional security tools create silos,” she said. “Usually enterprises have multiple tools, each which gives them alerts that are mainly false positives. A security professional must look through each one and then manually connect them together to try to figure out what’s going on.”

She says that since people continually fight fires, they’re always behind and can’t be proactive in examining their defense infrastructure and detecting early signs of attacks.

“They’re always overloaded and not efficient,” she said. “They cannot strategically look at what’s happening overall. They cannot detect complex advanced attacks.”

She explains that individual weak signals may not trigger an alert. That’s where Stellar Cyber steps in.

“Our Open-XDR platform collects any security-related data from any environment and then uses multiple detection techniques to combine what would individually be weak signals into strong evidence of malicious activity,” Wei said. “The platform then provides automated response to thwart the attack before damage is done or data is lost.”

She uses this scenario as an example.

“When somebody buys a gun, he may be going hunting. If he also buys a mask, that looks more suspicious, and if he is also driving around a bank, then it is very likely that he is planning to rob a bank. By connecting these seemingly normal behaviors, a detective can prevent a robbery.”

Stellar Cyber’s platform focuses on the most important, high-fidelity threat and then takes actions.

“We also use machine learning to detect deviations of anonymous behavior,” Wei said. “Hackers have become smarter. They can evade your signature-based detection. But if we profile the normal behavior, then anything deviating from that will trigger an alert. We put pieces together that alone don’t cause alarm, but together show a clear danger.”

Stellar Cyber also gives employees opportunities to learn what might interest them the most within cybersecurity.

“When people come in, they aren’t just hired to do one thing,” Wei said. “They’re everywhere, so they can pitch in to help, and then they discover something they may be good at that they never knew before.”

As an example, she says that one of Stellar Cyber’s UI engineers was an artist until another opportunity presented itself.

“She was supposed to design the UX for us,” Wei said. “We were shorthanded. She started to not only design but also implement. Now she’s one of our best coders in the UI team. She’s very fast. She would have never thought she’d be in high tech doing coding for security. It’s so wonderful to see people discover their potential.”

Stellar Cyber has several women engineers in the development and QA areas, and Wei says that the field of cybersecurity is an area where women can thrive.

“Cybersecurity is an ever-growing field because attackers are evolving all the time,” she said. “There is a shortage of security professionals in today’s world. It’s a great field for women to get into. Our attention to details, patience and persistence are all critical to be successful. Also, gaining security knowledge will help us to keep our families safe in the digital world.”

Wei said that two-thirds of Stellar Cyber’s design team are women engineers.

“They came out with this design that is very intuitive, very easy to use, and attractive to the eyes,” she said. “Our UI always catches people’s attention when we go out to do a demo or something.”

Although Wei is happy to see so many women involved in her company, she points out that Stellar Cyber’s company culture embraces both genders equally.

“Our whole company read the book Principles, by Ray Dalio. Basically, we practice meritocracy — it doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or if you’re a man. If your opinion makes sense, or if you have a brilliant idea, people will respect that. It’s the idea that makes people marvel.”

Lessons Learned From Being A Mom

Wei says that being a mom taught her many lessons about helping people reach their potential.

“With kids, first you need to help them discover their passion and then provide them the environment and the tools so they can develop and reach their potential,” she said.

She talks about how she helped her daughters, who are very different, to do that.

“My oldest daughter is also in cybersecurity,” she said. “She’s an engineer in a security company. I remember in high school when she was first learning computer science, walking through the recursive algorithm with me on the whiteboard. It was a pretty complicated concept for the computer science class. I was surprised that she got it very clearly and quickly.”

Her younger daughter didn’t have the same experience.

“After she completed AP computer science, she told me, ‘Mom, this is the last line of code that I will ever write,’” Wei said. “What she enjoys is reading and writing articles and papers. It’s a natural thing for her. I supported her to discover the passion, to thrive, and to reach that potential. She is pursuing an English literature major.”

When Wei isn’t solving problems, she loves to hike.

“I hike with family, friends and colleagues,” she says. “Along the way, we have interesting conversations. Sometimes we come up with great ideas. Other times, we simply enjoy some light-hearted topics or share fun experiences and jokes.”

She said that appreciating the beautiful scenery of nature is also an important aspect.

“In the spring of 2019, we drove to Antelope Valley to see the California poppy,” she said. “The view was spectacular. As I was climbing up the mountain, at different levels, the view is different. People stopped at certain points. I kept going. At the top of the mountain, what I saw was stunning — the snow-capped mountain in the distance, the valley with the sea of poppies and colorful other flowers. It is truly like God’s spilled color palette. I pondered and realized this is so similar to the journey of life. It is sometimes hard, but if you keep going, you will see something amazing.”

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Di Freeze is Managing Editor at Cybersecurity Ventures.