Battling cyber crime and gender stereotypes
"Just a bobby on the beat." That's how United's Chief Information Security Officer Emily Heath describes it when talking about the beginning of her remarkable career, the first step on a path that led her to where she is today, protecting one of the world's largest airlines from all manner of cyber threats.
Back then, more than 20 years ago, Heath was part of the thin blue line keeping Macclesfield, England, safe as an officer with the Cheshire (County) Police. And while the sophisticated criminal hackers she now battles might be a far cry from car burglars and pub brawlers, some things never change: Heath still relies on the same quick thinking and strong sense of right and wrong that made her a good cop. And whether she was wearing a badge or a business suit, right from the start Heath has had to learn to succeed in traditionally male-dominated professions.
That realization hit her during her first shift meeting on her first day on the beat in Macclesfield. "You'd have 20 people in the room, and it was only me and maybe one other woman," she says. "It was kind of intimidating as a young bobby to be in the midst of that kind of male energy. I remember male officers walking in and saying to me, 'I'll take two sugars in mine,' assuming that I would make the tea for them."
Heath endured her share of hazing early on, but she persevered and soon developed a strong rapport with the men in her unit. In short time, she rose to the rank of detective, investigating high-level financial crime, money laundering and identity theft. Then one day, she realized she needed a change of pace.
Leaving police work behind, Heath started a website design firm, learning to code with a stack of books on HTML. It was a career left turn, but nothing like the one she would find herself taking a few months later when a client who recognized her talent for leadership asked Heath to manage a software implementation project.
Through sheer determination, she quickly became a highly sought after IT program manager. By that time, preventing cybercrime was emerging as a focal point for organizations. When one of her former CIOs asked Heath to oversee their company's security and compliance initiatives, she found that enforcing law and order in the digital realm was a natural fit. But in IT, she also found that, once again, she had to prove herself in a field occupied primarily by men.
"It's been like that everywhere I've ever worked," she says. "We all know that, as women, we have to stand out, that we have to work harder and have to find respect differently than men do."
When she was recruited to United in early 2017, Heath found a refreshing environment, with executive vice president and chief digital officer Linda Jojo at the helm of the technology division. Women now comprise approximately 40 percent of the employees in United's cyber security group, nearly four times higher than the industry average, something that Heath views as a significant advantage.
"If I had a team of people from the same background, they would attack a problem in the same way," she says. "When you've got people from different walks of life, they tackle a problem in ways that are so creative. I cannot overemphasize how important that is, particularly in the world of cyber security where we need all the creative muscle we can get."
When attending conferences and meetings with her peers, Heath still sometimes finds that she's one of only a few women in the room, but the numbers are growing. Lately, though, she's observed a new trend, one that she'd like to help quash while encouraging women, especially young women, to put aside self-doubt when it comes to their careers.
"Now that organizations are looking to diversify," says Heath, "the women I talk with have a new worry, and that is, 'Am I only in this role because I'm a woman?' I say throw that to the water because it does not matter. There's not a single man out there who would ask that question. Instead, ask yourself is the organization better as a result of me being here? And if it is, you should stand tall."
If you can't get to Mars, what's the next best thing? Apparently Iceland. A team of renowned explorers and researchers recently journeyed to Iceland to test a Mars analog suit in a Martian-like environment.
The United sponsored expedition, led by The Explorers Club — an internationally recognized organization that promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air and space — and in partnership with Iceland Space Agency, involved the team venturing inside the Grímsvötn volcano and across the Vatnajökull ice cap. The group traveled to the remote location and lived for six days in the Grímsvötn Mountain Huts and endured harsh weather conditions and unstable terrain.
Helga Kristin Torfadöttir, Geologist and glacier guide, using the LiDAR system to map the ground and test the suit's capabilities on the glacier.
The objective of the mission was to explore the potential of concept operations at the Grímsvötn location while testing the suit in an arctic environment similar to what would be found on the surface of Mars. "This mission was an important test of the design of the MS1 suit, but it was also incredibly helpful to understand the how to conduct these sorts of studies in Iceland," said Michael Lye, MS1 designer and NASA consultant and RISD professor. "No matter how thoroughly something is tested in a controlled environment like a lab, studying it in a setting that accurately represents the environment where it will be used is absolutely essential to fully understand the design."
The suit was designed and constructed by faculty and students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with input and guidance from members of the HI-SEAS IV crew and NASA's Johnson Space Center Space Suit Engineering team. At 50-60 lbs, the suit is similar to what a planetary exploration suit would weigh in Martian gravity. The suit was originally designed to be used in the warm climate of Hawaii, however the martian climate is much closer to what would be found on top of the glaciers in Iceland. The data collected will inform the future of habitat and spacesuit design that can be used to train astronauts on Earth.
Today, we remember the colleagues, customers and every single victim of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
I know each of us in the United family marks this difficult moment in our own way. Still, we all share a common commitment to honor how our brothers and sisters left us and also celebrate what they gave to us during their lives. We remember their professionalism and heroism. We cherish their camaraderie and friendship. We carry with us the examples they set forth, especially in the heroism and bravery displayed by so many on that terrible day. Above all, we understand a simple truth: While thousands of our fellow human beings lost their lives in New York City, Arlington and Shanksville, the attacks of September 11th were aimed at all people of peace and good will, everywhere. They were attacks on the values that make life worth living, as well as the shared purpose that make us proud of what we do as members of the United family: connecting people and uniting the world.
We may live in times scarred by discord and disagreement, and we know there are those around the world who seek to divide us against one another. But, on this day – above all – we come together, as one. We affirm our core belief that far, far more unites us as citizens and fellow human beings than can ever divide us.
Let us embody that belief as we go about serving our customers and one another – on this day and every day – as we continue to help building a world that's more united. Let that be our memorial to the sisters and brothers we lost, eighteen Septembers ago.