In the weeks leading up to re:Invent, 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 AWS and what do you do in your current role?
I’ve been at Amazon for nearly 4 years, and at AWS for 2 years. I’m a solutions architect with a specialty in security. I work primarily with financial services customers, helping them solve security problems and build out secure foundations for their AWS workloads.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Working in AWS feels like working in the future. My first job as a software engineer was fixing bugs in 20-year-old legacy C code and writing network support for SNMPv1. Now, I’m on the cutting edge of network design. When I work with my customers, I genuinely feel like I’m helping “Invent and Simplify” the future.
How did you get started in Security?
I’ve been interested in security since college. I took all the crypto and protocol courses in my computer science program from amazing professors like Radia Perlman and Michael Rabin. After college, I worked in software engineering. My real break into the security field came when I got to use my software engineering background to fix security vulnerabilities for Bank of America. After consulting across dozens of companies, I gained depth in application security, pen testing, code review, and architectural analysis. Over 10 years later, I’m using and extending those architectural analysis and AppSec skills to build and improve cloud architecture and design.
How do you explain what you do to non-technical friends or family?
“I work in computer security, helping your bank keep your online data safe and secure.” It’s true! If they are willing to hear more details, then I try to explain what the cloud is, and that you can design a network in good and bad ways to stop people from getting in.
One sad thing about not working for the Amazon.com side of the house is that I can no longer tell people that “I’m a security guard at a bookstore.” That also used to be true for me!
You’re presenting at re:Invent this year – can you give readers a sneak peek of what you’re covering?
Yes! I’ve put together a “Top 10” list to check the health of your AWS Identity foundation. I want every one of our customers to be thoughtful about how they authenticate their users and how they authorize access to their AWS resources. I’m going to talk about how to use account boundaries and AWS Organizations to build strong isolation controls, how to use roles and federation to secure login, and how to build and validate granular permissions that enable least privilege access across your network.
What are you hoping your audience will do differently after your session?
I’m giving you a list of what to do. I literally want you to take that list, one at a time, and ask yourself, “Am I doing this? If not, what would it take to do this?” I know that security can sometimes feel daunting, and in AWS, we all have access to dozens (or hundreds) of different tools you can use to build and layer your secure environment. So here is a short list to get started. I hope this will make it easier to build a strong foundation and use the tools that AWS is giving you.
From your perspective, what’s the biggest thing happening in Identity right now?
I am really excited about how tagging and Attribute Based Access Control (ABAC) can help with scaling. At a base level, Identity and Permissions are really easy. You just say “Becky should have access to the Unicorn database,” and AWS gives you powerful tools for writing a rule like that with our IAM service. But once you have not just Becky, but also Syed and Sean—and then 300 more people, 200 databases, and 1,000 S3 buckets—the sheer number of rules you have to write and keep track of gets hard. And it gets even harder for someone else to come and look at your rules afterwards and figure out if you’re doing it right.
With ABAC, you can now write a rule that says any person from team “red” can access any database that is tagged with ”red.“ That takes potentially hundreds of rules and collapses it into one easy-to-understand statement.
What is your favorite Leadership Principle at Amazon and why?
All the Amazon Leadership Principles highlight important facets of how to build successful organizations, but “Have Backbone: Disagree and Commit” is my favorite. It’s more than an LP; it’s a mechanism. It’s a way to build a system of people working toward a common goal, while still keeping our independent ideas and values. It gives us permission to disagree, while at the same time giving us a way out of stalemates and unfruitful perfectionism.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
My dad is a lifelong academic (who is secretly a little embarrassed that I never got a PhD). Growing up, I watched him in action: creating novel research, taking care of his grad students, and even running academic departments with all their bitter politics and conflicting goals.
Two things that he says about his highly successful career:
- The older I get and the more I learn, the less I am confident about anything.
- I have never accomplished anything by myself.
This perspective is antithetical, I think, to the standard American career ladder, and it’s been invaluable to me. In my career in tech, I’ve met a lot of brilliant people who know all the answers and tout all their personal accomplishments from any available rooftop. And that is absolutely one way to succeed. But I know intimately that there is another way that can also work, a way that is built on collaboration and scholarship, and constantly learning and questioning your knowledge.
If you could go back, what would you tell yourself at the beginning of your career?
I guess “don’t worry so much” is the least helpful advice ever… I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to hear it at 22! But here is something I would have understood:
Little Cassia, you’re going to succeed at many things and fail at some things. But no matter what, every single job you tackle is going to teach you something important. You’re going to learn technical skills that will be useful when you least expect them, and you’re also going to learn more about yourself—what you want to do, who you want to surround yourself with, and what you need to thrive. Just keep trying, and I promise life will only keep getting better!
What are you most proud of in your career?
The last time I went to the DEF CON Security Conference, I attended not one, not two, but THREE different talks delivered by former mentees of mine. Getting to help these extraordinary people get started in application security, and then getting to watch them become ever more talented and exceed everything I knew, and then to watch them shine on stage—it was a privilege, and made so much pain worthwhile. Hey, I may not know anything about NFC penetration testing, but Katherine sure does, and she’s teaching the whole damned world.
Among your many degrees from Harvard University, you also have a BA in Ancient Greek. Tell us about that. What started your interest in it?
My love for Ancient Greek and Latin was fostered by some really amazing high school teachers. I went to the kind of boarding school where professors took care of you like family, and the mysterious Dr. Reyes and the two sophisticated Professors Myers took extraordinary care of my fumbling teenage heart and my raging intellectual curiosity. I had a little bit of an advantage in that I had already learned Modern Greek in grade school, since my hometown had a thriving Hellenic community. I have since completely forgotten both, but as my dear professors had me recite: “the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions.”
If you have feedback about this post, submit comments in the Comments section below.
Want more AWS Security how-to content, news, and feature announcements? Follow us on Twitter.