Former White House CIO Theresa Payton. Photo: Cybercrime Magazine.

Theresa Payton: Cybersecurity And A System Called The Five Fs

Former White House CIO on Faith, Family, Friends, Fellowship, and What You Are Fighting For

Di Freeze, Managing Editor

Northport, N.Y. – Jun. 8, 2020

Theresa Payton has worn many white hats. She was the first female White House CIO, had a starring role on the reality show “Hunted,” founded and now runs Fortalice Solutions, a leading cybersecurity company, and authored her latest book, “Manipulation: Inside the Cyberwar to Hijack Elections and Distort The Truth.” Payton is also a proud wife and mother, with a family history she’s equally proud of.

“My family is comprised of a long line of U.S. military and law enforcement professionals. We all have a call to serve, to defend, and to protect the public proactively, by taking preventative security measures, as opposed to a reactive approach,” she said. “Serving and protecting is in the DNA and fabric of my family on both sides, and for my husband’s family as well.”

Payton’s parents encouraged her to get good grades and focus on academic scholarships to fund college. She recalls catching the “cyber bug” in her early years in school as a military kid.

“I went to high school at Quantico Marine Corps Base, and a class in computer programming was mandatory,” she said. “I am so grateful that the U.S. Marine Corp and the Department of Defense saw the value in us learning new technologies and made this non-negotiable.”

That resulted in her love for computer programming.

“I went on to do my undergraduate studies at Immaculata University with a double major in economics and business administration,” she said. “My school had a certificate program in computer programming. My number one question to myself was ‘how can I be as employable as possible?’”

She received an MS in Management of Information Systems at the University of Virginia, where she studied expert systems, artificial intelligence and code generators, always thinking of a career in technology. Still, she admits that she did think about becoming an officer in the military, but God and life had other plans for her.

“I married a U.S. naval officer and supported his vocation!” she said.

Payton started her career in the financial services industry. She was senior manager at Barnett Banks before becoming senior vice present at Wachovia and later at Bank of America. During that period, she had the opportunity to work on cutting edge technologies and had responsibility for fraud and security, which gave her a unique perspective.

“I had to build technology that customers loved to interact with while also holding accountability to fight the fraudsters and keep the data safe,” she said.

Payton said she was fortunate to be involved in the creation of cutting-edge technology to fight fraud and cybercrime.

“Oftentimes, if you’re on the leading edge of creating these alternative service deliveries, whether it’s the internet, branches, ATM or the phone channel, you end up being on the leading edge of preventing new fraud schemes, money laundering, and terrorist financing,” she said.

Payton was SVP at Bank of America when she came to the attention of President George W. Bush, who wanted to see “new faces, new names, new types of resumes, more minorities and more women” in his administration.

Although she’s not allowed to share the details of how her appointment as CIO at the White House happened, she can say that her present chief operating officer, Bridget O’Connor, was at the Executive Office of the President when the recruiting was underway.

“She had a hand in that research and selection process,” she said.

Most of her interesting stories about her time at the White House, from May 2006 to September 2008, will “go to the grave” with her, but there were some things she got to do that she can talk about.

“I never had it on my bucket list to testify on the Hill, but I did get to do that,” she said. “It was also quite an honor to be on the South Lawn when the pope visited the White House. I’ll never forget it.”

With her combined experience in the financial services industry and at the White House, Payton wanted to take what she had learned and create a security and intelligence company that offered leading edge advice and innovative intelligence operations.

“I wanted to create the kind of company that I always wished was out there supporting me and I could never find — the best technology but with a white glove approach,” she said.

She founded Fortalice Solutions in 2008 and serves as president and CEO. She explained how she came up with her company name.

“In medieval times, the kings would often build a fortalice, a small sturdy fort on the outskirts of the kingdom. The fort would have two purposes. One was to look out across the horizon and advise the king of what the other kingdoms were up to, and the other was to offensively gather intelligence, and if needed, vigorously defend the kingdom until the larger army arrived. It’s actually mentioned in 1819, Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: ‘Tell them whatever thou hast a mind of the weakness of this fortalice, or aught else that can detain them before it for twenty-four hours.’”

In keeping with her company’s name, she describes Fortalice as “fortified security.”

“Our goal is to make sure our clients are prepared for an attack and resilient to future threats,” she said. “We give them the tools and confidence to fortify their interests and maintain a strategic advantage over adversaries.”

Payton is happy that her vision for the company resonates with their clients.

“We hear all the time, ‘We’ve hired other well-known names, but we haven’t been taken care of in this way before,’” she said.

Payton said that the culture of Fortalice Solutions makes the company unique.

“We keep digital assets safe and secure through our brand promise of being professional secret keepers,” she said. “We love to share knowledge and collaborate. We promote that the best learnings are from failing small, fast, and openly internally and not to be afraid to try something. Failure is a big milestone to breakthrough innovation.”

Fortalice has a skilled team of industry practitioners that has worked in a broad range of public and private sectors.

“We’ve assembled a team of cybersecurity experts from the disciplines of security engineering, incident response and intelligence, ethical hacking/red teaming, risk and compliance, and strategic communications,” she said.

Payton is proud that Fortalice continues to be a pure-play cybersecurity and intelligence solutions company. At its core, she says that Fortalice Solutions is also “generous and gives back.”

“Fortalice donates significant time to pro-bono work, whether it’s talking to schools or training or investigative work to combat human trafficking and online childhood sexual exploitation,” she said. “We donate time, talent, and treasure to veterans’ charities. We show up to work every day wanting to make an impact by stopping the bad guys.”

Payton received the FBI’s 2018 Director’s Community Leadership Award (DCLA) for her community service.

“I was honored to get that award,” she said. “We work a lot with law enforcement to fight cybercrime.”

She’s also proud that in a male-dominated workforce, Fortalice is “woman owned and woman led.”

“Our C-Suite is female, and our workforce is roughly 40 percent female,” she said. “The industry average is less than that. Google and Facebook work really hard on this, and I beat their average!”

Fortalice believes that diversity is a key component to innovative thinking and problem-solving skills.

“We work really hard to make sure candidates of all backgrounds and personalities are recruited — veterans, minorities, different educational backgrounds, etc.,” she said.

In 2014, Payton founded another company, Dark Cubed, as an incubator company.

“It was funded initially by Fortalice Solutions through services work, and many of the staff, including myself, worked on the design, algorithm, and process,” she said. “It spun off as an independent company, and although I am no longer involved in the day to day, I am still an investor and cheering them on from the sidelines.”

The product anonymizes data and allows smaller and midmarket companies to figure out how best to secure their data when they don’t have a full cyber capability on staff.

Payton has also starred in “Hunted,” a reality show in which a group of hunters with military and law enforcement backgrounds tried to catch contestants who had gone off the grid.

“I never thought I’d end up on a reality show, but it was so fun!” she said. “The show talked to many people in law enforcement and technology about their idea, and my name came up enough that we started talking. After a lot of prayer and with my family’s blessing, I joined the cast.”

She describes the experience as “a wild ride!”

“I’m so pleased about the work we did and how authentic the show was to what real cyber security intelligence operations looks like,” she said. “The TV crew and the cast, the operations center, ground hunters, and even the fugitives are people I count as friends and colleagues today.”

Payton’s Five Fs

Over the years, Payton has learned that what is extremely important to her is valuing her time.

“When I first started working, I had a mentor say to me, ‘Theresa, I know you’re going to go all-in. However, what gets measured gets done, and you’ve got to make sure you have a compass to hold yourself accountable to how you spend your time.’ And so, I created a system that I still use today called my five Fs.”

The first four Fs are Faith, Family, Friends and Fellowship.

“The fifth one is what are you Fighting for,” she said. “For me, I’m fighting to protect people, businesses, our country and our allies.”

Payton color codes her calendar based on those five Fs.

“And then at the end of the month and the end of the quarter, I look at the calendar, and I can see which color is dominating and whether I need to course correct,” she said. “I’m a better CEO, I’m a better mother, I’m a better wife, I’m better at the roles that the world needs me to play when I hold myself accountable to the five Fs.”

As a wife, Payton describes marriage as an incredibly rewarding experience, but she admits that it does take work from both sides.

“I married absolutely the right person for me,” she said. Payton and her husband have three children.

“I am really proud of my kids and how they’re thinking about life, what they believe God’s calling them to do, and what their contributions to the world will be,” she said.

Her children love the fact that she helps “companies and people protect themselves,” and in the terrible cases that hit her desk, “get their lives back.”

“I don’t share with them the company names or client names, but they have been around me when I get the late night or holiday call that a client is having a digital disaster,” she said. “They’re proud to know we help organizations and people during their times of need.”

Her children have all worked for her since the age of 10 in a variety of ways over the years, conducting research and other miscellaneous tasks.

“They know the world is full of great people but hiding among them in the digital shadows are fraudsters, criminals, and nation-state cyber operatives,” she said.

All three of her children have indicated an interest in working in the field of cybersecurity. Her oldest is graduating from high school and will head off to college in the fall with a plan to earn a degree in cybersecurity and to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps.

“My middle has a few more years of high school before he decides,” she said. “My youngest heads off to middle school and has already indicated she’d like to be both a hacker and a chef, so as she says, ‘she can earn two incomes, and besides, everyone knows that people are always happiest after they have a good meal.’”

Due to COVID-19, Payton is presently co-working with her spouse at their house. Their kids are online now for school, which means they’re online a lot more than normal. That brings up the subject of what parenting involves today.

“Parents need to know where their children are going and what they’re doing there,” she said. “The best line of defense against any dangers lurking is you ― the parent.”

She says that means you need to be where your kids are.

“You would never throw them the keys to the car before showing them how to drive,” she said. “You would never let them go on a vacation with another family you have not met or run a background check on. Be where they are, play on their gaming platform, join their social media networks, make them tell you their accounts and passwords. Make a commitment that you will not spy, but you will trust but verify.”

She recommends using a paid service that allows parents to monitor their children’s online activity.

“My family and I use a paid app, Life360, which monitors our whereabouts and even tracks the speed traveled in cars,” she said. “It has a private check-in and messaging feature, so I know when my kids arrive at (and are still at) the agreed-upon location.”

She said that parents who keep up with what their kids are doing online are doing the right thing.

“Kids may claim to see this as intrusive surveillance, which is why setting family ground rules early on is essential ― and the younger, the better,” she said. “Let your kids know that you want to share their experience of learning about the internet just as you help them with homework, and not invade their privacy.”

She advises that parents make sure all their home systems stay up to date: Internet-of-Things devices, computers, tablets, smartphones, and more.

“I recommend turning off all devices and powering down your internet once a week,” she said. “Your family may scream a little. Then power the internet back up and the devices. The forced shutdown may ensure that your home router and devices download the latest and greatest security patches.”

She also advises use of two factor authentication on all devices and accounts wherever possible.

“Avoid clicking on links and attachments, but if you must, try cutting and pasting them into first to do a safety check,” she said. “It’s not foolproof but it catches a lot of malicious links and attachments.”

Speaking of family, Payton isn’t the only one in hers who caught the cyber bug. Her sister works at a large bank in its cybersecurity department.

“I am incredibly proud of her and the work that she does,” she said. “I’m glad she made the move over to cybersecurity!”

Mentoring and Staying Connected

Since many of us are grounded right now due to COVID-19, Payton has some suggestions for staying connected, such as participating in free webinars.

“There is RSA, TED Talks and even YouTube videos that include speeches from veteran cybersecurity professionals discussing their careers, their advice on how to succeed in the cyber industry and new skills to keep you competitive in the workplace,” she said. “There are also free cybersecurity online courses, excellent security frameworks and guidance available for free online such as the NIST framework, CIS Critical Security Controls, SSAE 16 and discussions on CMMC and GDPR.”

She suggests leveraging social media to hear what’s on the minds of security experts.

“In this field, we need to be a constant student of our profession,” she said.

That includes accepting guidance from mentors. Payton believes mentoring is very important, although she doesn’t always use that term.

“I prefer to call the people I seek advice from my ‘kitchen cabinet,’ and I seek advice from different people on different topics,” she said. She also believes that you shouldn’t feel that you need to search for the “perfect” mentor.

When it comes to women in cybersecurity, Payton said she’s seeing something very positive happening now at many virtual and in-person conferences, with dedicated women social hours and mindful tracks of networking.

“We don’t want to create a separation of men vs. women, but I highly recommend young talent take advantage of these events for the opportunity to network and meet with prospective mentors and prospective employers,” she said.

She acknowledges that with the present state of the job market, even in security, it’s been difficult for more senior women who are looking for a career change. She says there are opportunities though.

“Don’t be afraid to explore freelance work if you’re looking to get into the field,” she said. “And if you already have a full-time job, look for opportunities to serve on volunteer committees or projects.”

Theresa Payton is featured in “Women Know Cyber: 100 Fascinating Females Fighting Cybercrime.” Pick up a copy to learn about more women fighting cybercrime.

Women Know Cyber Archives

Di Freeze is Managing Editor at Cybersecurity Ventures.