Dr Jay, CISO Ambassador. PHOTO: Cybercrime Magazine.

Math Is A Second Language For Cybersecurity Visionary And Mother Of Six

Dr Jay plays defense in her role as Cybercrime Magazine’s CISO Ambassador

Di Freeze, Managing Editor

Northport, N.Y. – Feb. 16, 2020

Alissa (Dr Jay) Abdullah, Ph.D., one of the experts featured in “Women Know Cyber, 100 Females Fighting Cybercrime,” is Cybercrime Magazine’s CISO Ambassador. Women have historically been directed toward certain jobs and skills, but that didn’t stop her from choosing her own path.

Now that women have broken into cybersecurity, she says there may be unconscious biases that we have to address that still direct us into certain types of positions. She advises women wanting to get involved in cybersecurity not to wait or overthink it.

“Just do it!” she says. “There are so many different opportunities that it is quite simple to find your passion in a cybersecurity theme. Take the time to be real about who you are and what you enjoy, and then look and see how that marries with cybersecurity opportunities.  There is an opportunity for EVERYONE.”

When she says everyone, she means everyone.

“There are so many diverse needs in the field,” Dr Jay says. “In fact, the diversity of thought is one of the strongest requirements in finding effective solutions. In order to have that diversity of thought, we have to hear and acknowledge the diverse approaches from all age groups, genders, and fields. The more diverse perspectives we have, the better our solutions will be in fighting the adversary. The adversary isn’t targeting just males. The adversary isn’t targeting just teenagers. We are all at risk and so all have to think about how we can protect ourselves. That goes from teaching a 5-year-old about protecting his or her iPad to teaching older adults about protecting their 401K.”

To get to know Dr Jay, and what she stands for, it’s helpful to know why she’s “Dr Jay.”

“I coined the name as I was getting my Ph.D.,” she says. “I told myself that I wanted to make my mark on technology and cybersecurity just like the basketball player “Dr J” made his mark on basketball. The same creativity that he used in basketball is something I wanted to use in creating technology solutions.”

Going back further, when Dr Jay enrolled at Savannah State University, her major was Mass Communications. She’s always been thankful that someone planted another idea in her mind.

“Dr. Lara Brewer convinced me to change my major to Mathematics,” she said. “She was my math professor. It was during her hardest math classes that I realized mathematics was easy for me. It was a second language that I had learned and continue to fall in love with.”

After getting her B.S., she got an M.S. in Telecommunications and Computer Networks and then a Ph.D. in Information Technology Management. When George Washington University began an accelerated master’s degree program in Telecommunications and Computers, with a cohort at the Department of Defense, she was accepted into that program.

She said her role as a cryptologic engineer for the Department of Defense exposed her to the world.

“I was a small-town southern girl who had not traveled or really had not explored GA outside of a Disney vacation or road trip to grandparents,” she said. “My role with the Department of Defense opened my mind to the world, the possibilities, and the opportunities available, and I immediately saw those opportunities as limitless.”

Her career includes four years with Lockheed Martin as deputy chief technology officer, and deputy chief information officer, Executive Office of the President, The White House.

“Those roles allowed me to grow,” she said. “It was at Lockheed Martin that I first heard the phrase, ‘Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.’ Those opportunities allowed me to be uncomfortable. That level of discomfort mixed with my own aggressive nature to achieve was a combination for a lot of growth and learning. Both of those roles had me visible at the highest levels, so while there was pressure to succeed, there was also support for me to be me.”

Dr Jay served three years as CISO and VP at Xerox Corporation. She describes the role of CISO as a challenging role in any organization.

“You are constantly defending against the knowns and chasing the unknowns,” she said. “The biggest challenge is translating the security initiatives into terms that relate to all of the users so that they grasp their role in helping to keep an environment secure.”

She recently became SVP of Cybersecurity Technology and deputy CSO for Mastercard. She took the role because she loves challenges.

“Here, I look at implementing new technology solutions and evaluate how emerging, effective, and efficient they are so that Mastercard security solutions can continue to evolve. That really defines the essence of cybersecurity leadership. At its core, it is about evolution. What are you putting in place, as the technology landscape evolves, to ensure that your security landscape evolves to anticipate the threats and challenges? Roles in cybersecurity allow you to reinvent yourself because the opportunities and challenges are endless.”

Mastercard and Dr Jay utilize “escape rooms” to teach cybersecurity.

“We set up challenges in the rooms,” she explains. “Teams work together to solve a set of challenges and escape from the room. We create these rooms to be thematic. For example, one is a Gone Phishing room where employees work to solve the puzzles centered around spear phishing. The escape room is a different level of engagement and interaction. The more we expand the different ways to learn, the more people we will reach.”

As a CISO, Dr Jay says there isn’t one answer for how companies can fill that role or other top security-related roles.

“The requirements at one company may not apply to another company,” she says. “Companies have to assess their risk appetite, their level of tolerable consumption, their goals and objectives, along with the threats across their environment. Then companies can find a person who has the depth and breadth of experience to coordinate solutions that enable the goals and objectives to be met in a secure way. The fact of the matter is that cybersecurity is just as much an art as it is a science. Diversity of experience leads to strong leadership and insight to tackle problems and provide effective solutions.”

Trying to solve security issues can cause stress, and when asked what she does to relax, Dr Jay takes a moment to think about it.

“My husband and I just bought a farm. We raise goats, sheep, and chickens. I still question whether this allows me to relax, but it does help me take my mind off my day job,” she says. “My husband is a technologist as well, so we are building technology into the farm from the hardware used for processes and automation.”

Dr Jay isn’t just trying to solve security issues for Mastercard. She has six children, in various stages of life, and she makes sure they understand dangers as well. She smiles and says they might not follow her career path, but they are “definitely cyber aware, which is good for them as they navigate the cyber-sphere.”

To learn about more women fighting cybercrime, pick up a copy of “Women Know Cyber: 100 Fascinating Females Fighting Cybercrime.”

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Di Freeze is Managing Editor at Cybersecurity Ventures.