AWS Security Profiles: Megan O’Neil, Sr. Security Solutions Architect
In the week leading up to AWS re:Invent 2021, we’ll share conversations we’ve had with people at AWS who will be presenting, and get a sneak peek at their work.


How long have you been at Amazon Web Services (AWS), and what do you do in your current role?

I’ve been at AWS nearly 4 years, and in IT security over 15 years. I’m a solutions architect with a specialty in security. I work with commercial customers in North America, helping them solve security problems and build out secure foundations for their AWS workloads.

How did you get started in security?

I took part in a Boeing internship for three summers starting my junior year of high school. This internship gave me the opportunity to work with mechanical engineers at Boeing. The specific team I worked with were engineers responsible for building digital tools and robots for the 767-400 line at the Everett plant in Washington state. The purpose of these custom tools and robots was to help build the planes more efficiently and accurately. I had a lot of fun and learned a lot from my time working with them. I asked the group for career advice during lunch one day, and they all pointed me towards computer science (CS) instead of mechanical engineering. Because of their strong support for CS, I took the first course, Intro to Computer Science, and was excited that something that I previously thought was intimidating was actually approachable and a subject I really enjoyed.

During my sophomore year there was a new elective class offered called Digital Security, which piqued my interest and influenced my senior project. I built (coded) an intrusion detection program that identified nefarious network traffic. I also worked on campus during college in the sound services department and participated in the Dance Ensemble Program, where I met the IT manager for a local hospital in Washington state, Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup. He was helping mix music at the studio I worked in. After showing him my senior project, he told me about a job opening for a network security specialist at the hospital. No one else had applied for the role. I then interviewed with the team, which was made up of only three engineers including the manager. They were responsible for the all-backend systems including the hospital information system, patient telemetry and clinic systems, the hospital network, etc. The group of people I worked with at the hospital is still very special to me, we are all still friends.

How do you explain your job to non-tech friends?

I’m in tech, and I help companies protect their websites and their customers’ data.

What are you currently working on that you’re excited about?

I’m very excited about re:Invent. It’s the 10th anniversary, we’re back in person, and I’ve got quite a few sessions I’m delivering.

Speaking of AWS re:Invent 2021 – can you give readers a sneak peek at what you’re covering?

The first is a session I’m delivering is called Use AWS to improve your security posture against ransomware (SEC308) with Merritt Baer, Principal in the Office of the CISO. We’re discussing what AWS services and features you can use to help you protect your systems from ransomware.

The second is a chalk talk, Automating and evidencing key compliance security controls (STP211-R1 and STP211-R2), I’m delivering with Kristin Haught, Principal Security TPM, and we’re discussing strategies for automating, monitoring, and evidencing common controls required for multiple compliance standards.

The third session is a builder session called Grant least privilege temporary access securely at scale (WPS304). We’ll use AWS Secrets Manager, AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM), and the isolated compute functionality provided by AWS Nitro Enclaves to allow system administrators to request and retrieve narrowly scoped and limited-time access.

The fourth session is another builder session called Detecting security threats with Amazon GuardDuty (SEC213-R1 and SEC213-R2). It includes several simulated scenarios, representing just a small sample of the threats that GuardDuty can detect. We will review how to view and analyze GuardDuty findings, how to send alerts based on the findings, and, finally, how to remediate findings.

From your perspective, what’s the most important thing to know about ransomware?

Whenever we see a security event continue to make news, it’s a call to action and an opportunity for customers to analyze their security programs including operations and controls. There’s no silver bullet when it comes to protection from ransomware, but it’s time to level up your security operations and controls. This means minimize human access, translate security policies into code, build mechanism and measure them, streamline the use of environment and infrastructure, and use advanced data/database service features.

For example, we still see customers with large amounts of long-lived credentials; it’s time to take inventory and minimize or eliminate them. While there is a small subset of use cases where they may be required, such as on-premises to AWS access, I recommend the following:

  1. Inventory your long-lived credentials.
  2. Ensure the access is least privilege, absolutely no wildcard actions and/or resources.
  3. If the access is interactive, apply multi-factor authentication (MFA).
  4. Ask if you can architect a better option that doesn’t rely on static access keys.
  5. Rotate access keys on a regular, frequent basis.
  6. Enable alerts on login events.

For more information, check out Ransomware mitigation: Top 5 protections and recovery preparation actions and Ransomware Risk Management on AWS Using the NIST Cyber Security Framework (CSF).

What’s your favorite Leadership Principle at Amazon and why?

Learn and Be Curious! I am the most happy in my job and personal life when I’m learning new things. I also believe that this principle is a way of life for us technology folks. Learning new technology and finding better ways of implementing technology is our job. My favorite quote/laptop sticker is:

“I hate programming”

“I hate programming”

“I hate programming”

“IT WORKS! ”

“I love programming.”

It just makes me laugh because it’s so true. Of course we are only that frustrated when something is very new. It’s like solving a puzzle. When a project comes together, it’s absolutely worth it – the puzzle pieces now fit.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever gotten?

Work with a mentor. This can be casual by finding projects where you can collaborate with folks who have more experience than you. Or it can be more formal by asking someone to be your mentor and setting up a regular cadence of meetings with them. I’ve done both, a simple example is by collaborating with Merritt and Kristen on upcoming re:Invent presentations, I’ve already learned a lot from both of them just through the preparation process and developing the content. Having a mentor by your side can be especially helpful when setting new goals. Sometimes we need someone to push us out of our comfort zone and believe that we can achieve bigger things than we would have thought and then can help devise a plan to help you achieve those goals. All it takes is someone else believing in us.

If you had to pick any other job, what would you want to do?

I’ve always been interested in naturopathic medicine and getting to the root cause of an issue. It’s somewhat similar to my job in that I’m solving puzzles and complex problems, but in technology, instead of the body.
 

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Author

Megan O’Neil

Megan is a Senior Specialist Solutions Architect focused on threat detection and incident response. Megan and her team enable AWS customers to implement sophisticated, scalable, and secure solutions that solve their business challenges.

Author

Maddie Bacon

Maddie (she/her) is a technical writer for AWS Security with a passion for creating meaningful content. She previously worked as a security reporter and editor at TechTarget and has a BA in Mathematics. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, traveling, and all things Harry Potter.