Information Security--Not Just a Man's World?

By Katherine Walsh

When Cheryl Peace joined the Air Force in the early 1980s with a degree in math and computer science, the only thing she knew was that she did not want to teach. Today, Peace--who is black and female--has risen to the top of a field traditionally dominated by white males to become one of the preeminent information security leaders in the U.S. government. The former chief of the Information Assurance Program Management Office at the National Security Agency, Peace is now chief of the Office of Strategy and Policy at the Defense Intelligence Operations and Coordination Center, where she is responsible for the integration of intelligence and operations with the Department of Defense. Peace was recently named winner of the Women of Influence Public Sector award, which was co-presented by Alta Associates and CSO magazine. We caught up with her to talk about the obstacles she has overcome and how she has found strength through challenges.  

CSO: How did you get started in information security?

Cheryl Peace: I grew up in the military. I majored in math and minored in computer science and knew I didn’t want to teach. That was the only thing I knew for sure. I went into the Air Force and my intent was to do four years, get my Master’s and get out. But I ran into some people who had a great influence over me along the way. The Air Force in the early and mid 1980s had the largest concentration of black general officers in history. It just so happened that a colonel my dad was stationed with got to be a general and took me under his wing. He brought me out of my shell. I used to be incredibly quiet and shy and didn’t want to be in the spotlight. If I got something done I’d give it to one of the other people to go show the general. I just wanted to sit at my desk and do my work. But he brought me out of that. To this day, any award or recognition I’ve received, I’ve always acknowledged this general. He’s why I am the person I am today. He didn’t let me settle for being just good enough.

CSO: It’s interesting that someone you credit your success with is a man. What’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated field?

Peace: It’s tough. I find that there are still a lot of people that look at you and make a judgment before you open your mouth. I was a keynote speaker at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., a while back, and I was asked by one of the men there if I was one of the hostesses. During the very first meeting I called at the White House, someone asked me to get them a cup of coffee. So it’s tough, but I have a really strong family. I’ve had people in my life who have always told me I can be anything I want to be. Had it all been easy, I wouldn’t be as strong as I am.

CSO: Was there a particular role that helped prepare you for what you are doing right now?

Peace: The general I mentioned who was my mentor came to be the director of Defense Information Systems Agency (where Peace worked previously). He chose me to be his representative at NSA, so I got to learn the agency from the director’s point of view. That job prepared me for the position I’m in right now more than anything. Right now, part of what I do is to provide direct support to the combat and command and the war fighters. There are men sitting in my office just back from Iraq who talk to me about being shot at. When you see a grown man, someone who has been in the trenches for years, when you see his eyes well up, when they start talking about troops they lost, it makes getting up in the morning and coming and doing what you do easier.

CSO: What are your thoughts on the public perception of national security? Are things presented differently in the press than you think they should be?

Peace: You can’t imagine in your wildest dreams the amount of data an agency like NSA has to filter through on a daily basis. There is no need to put all that out there because it would result in a lot of false starts. You can’t tell the press and the general public everything. The last thing you want people to do is get all wound up about the wrong things. My concern is that if we put too much out there or the media publishes too much, the result is the boy who cried wolf syndrome. Then when something really does happen, people don’t pay attention.

CSO: How concerned are you about the stability of the public network?

Peace: I think we’ve all heard the stories in the news about the proof infrastructures are accessible via the Internet. These are things that keep you up at night. People need to be aware of these threats and protect against them. But I’m a believer that the finest technology in the world is only as good as the people who use it.  You can put up all the firewalls and guards you want, but if everyone at your company has their last name as their password, then there’s not a lot of security there. Technology is not the only solution.

Reach Associate Staff Writer Katherine Walsh at kwalsh@cxo.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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