Rob Sloan: ‘Cyber security needs to be accessible‘

13th December 2019

Sarah Rees headshot

Sarah Rees

Rob SloanRob Sloan isn’t quite sure how the “painfully shy” boy from the Lake District ended up supporting the UK Government’s first forays into cyber resilience, nor became a reputable cyber security specialist working for Dow Jones in the Big Apple.

“I never had a grand plan of what I wanted to be,” he says of his childhood. “I still don’t! I applied to study languages at University in Newcastle because I wanted to get out of the Lake District, then did a Masters in German because I always liked the country when we went there on student exchanges.” Unexpectedly, it was bar work in Heidelberg, a city he lived in as part of his study abroad year, that helped to build his self-confidence – “customers have to be nice to you if they want a drink” – and earned him his first job in technology, with a SAP consultancy.

“It was a great organisation to work for,” he says, “but after a while I realised that I didn’t want to be a developer.” He returned to the UK to take a generalist position at the Ministry of Defence (MoD). “I had originally wanted to be a fighter pilot – I don’t know why I thought that would be a good idea” he jokes. Instead, the MoD offered him a role in the new, then largely unknown field of cyber security.

“This was 2002, and the Government was pretty uneducated about it all,” says Rob “but the learning curve went up really steeply. It was great to be there when cyber security was brand new, and the discipline immediately captured my interest. I could see the long-term consequences of it all, and how much it mattered.”

The UK is now a global leader in cyber resilience and intelligence; such rapid progress due in part to the country’s relatively small size, which helps best practice to disseminate quickly. “People who work in UK Government at the highest level often go out into the private sector and share their knowledge with new communities,” Rob says. “The Government has done a great job at getting communities together and communicating outwards.”

He speaks from first-hand experience. Rob left the Government for the private sector in 2011, joining Context Information Security and establishing its incident response unit – the only unit of its type certified by GCHQ as able to conduct incident response against the most sophisticated attackers.

“After nine years, I had been conscious that I was in a Government bubble and I wanted to have a change,” he explains. “Working for the private sector was completely different in many ways, and I had to develop a new mindset, really. I had to learn to do things how the business wanted and keep security in line with priorities and budget in a way you don’t have to in Government.”

Adapting to the needs of his employer and making himself useful is the reason, Rob believes, he has enjoyed continued success in the industry – vastly underselling his considerable talent and skill. “Ending up here is definitely 90% luck, with a bit of talent, and being nice to people. I think about what people want and need, and try to fit into that,” he says.

He has also discovered great pleasure in helping people and notes this as an important and satisfying part of his current role with Dow Jones in New York. Soon after his wife was posted to the US in 2012 (she works for Google), Rob quickly met and was inspired by the CEO of Dow Jones, which publishes the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Specifically, he relished the vision of cyber being transformed from a niche technical topic to something accessible to senior business executives.

“The CEO, William Lewis, wanted to employ someone who wasn’t deeply technical but had enough understanding to communicate effectively and serve as a sort of intermediary to ensure executives, clients and customers could access this important technical information,” says Rob. “It was exactly what I wanted to do.”

A cyber evangelist of sorts, his job title is Research Director, which entails internal communications, content creation for a cyber-focused WSJ newsletter, cyber security research and organising events – the last of which he loves. “My upcoming event series is helping small businesses better understand how to keep themselves safe online,” he says, “and what could be more important than that? It feels worthwhile – it’s crucial to their survival today, and I am proud to be able to deliver something like that.”

That said, the experience is daunting. “I have to stand up on stage in front of so many people and the shy boy in me is terrified,” he says. “I have learnt to become like an actor – I learn my lines and perform as a cyber security expert, but inside my heart is going mad.”

Deep down, admits Rob, he hasn’t changed from his Lake District days. “I’m an introvert, in my element when I’m alone somewhere in Yosemite National Park, camping, hiking and taking photographs. But I know I can’t live like that all the time; I have work to do. And I really believe technology makes the world a better place. We can’t do without it, so we must push ahead and ensure everyone gets the best out of innovation.”

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