The WISP career series highlights extraordinary women working on security and privacy issues. The third installment in this series features Rebecca “Becky” Bace and her career path, work, and advice to young professionals.
When most of us think of universally celebrated mathematicians, an early figure that comes to mind is Hypatia of Alexandria. Hypatia made her way past traditional societal norms to become the first known woman philosopher, mathematician, and academic. In addition to being a widely respected figure, Hypatia never ceased learning and being curious. Similarly, against all odds, Becky Bace from the small town of Leeds, Alabama forged a path for herself to become a leading mathematician and computer scientist. She started on her path as the only woman in the School of Engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1973 to becoming a widely respected analytical thinker, mathematician, and academic – and most important of all, she has never ceased to learn and stay curious.
When Bace first began her education, she focused on becoming a doctor. However, one thing that Bace could not ignore was that she always excelled at math. Although Bace was not interested in being a career mathematician, she decided to pursue engineering in her desire to explore other careers related to mathematics. During her first year, one of her professors took her under his wing and suggested that she learn programing, specifically how to run then state-of-the-art computing on IBM mainframes for nuclear energy. Although Bace completed most of her degree in civil engineering, she always felt drawn to courses in math, analytics, and computing – so she switched paths and finished her degree in computer science instead of civil engineering.
After graduation, Bace came across an ad in Byte magazine for a role with her skillset –for what turned out to be a job at the NSA. Bace later transferred to the Department of Defense’s National Computer Security Center (NCSC), a branch that conducted a lot of fundamental work on computer security and policymaking, including releasing the Rainbow Series. At the time, most security solutions focused on security by design and advanced math modeling. Noting a gap in the primary focus on front-end solutions and use of math concepts, Bace came upon a project at the NCSC on intrusion detection systems (IDS). Bace tackled the project and reached out to one of her mentors for advice - Jim Anderson, the person who had built the initial IDS architecture. This early work and mentorship helped to Bace’s career, and her focus on IDS, to take off.
Even though Bace did not come from a traditional career path, she flourished once she embraced her interest in computing. Bace went on to serve as the Deputy Security officer at Los Alamos National Laboratory and held a number of roles in the private sector, including as the Lead Faculty on IDS at the Institute for Applied Network Security; the Chief Strategy Officer of Neohapsis; as a venture consultant for Trident Capital; and the Vice President of the Security Practice at In Q Tel. Bace is currently the Chief Strategist at the Center for Forensics, Information Technology and Security at the University of South Alabama and the President/CEO of Infidel, Inc.
Advice to Young Professionals
Bace acknowledges that it is hard to advance in your career alone. While perceiving a problem in the traditional approach to security, Bace not only tried to solve it herself, but like a philosopher hosting a salon, she built up a network of peers to join her in her journey and discuss relevant issues to learn about diverse perspectives. Her efforts in community building not only helped her create a shift in information security and the use of IDS, but also on a personal level and in her career. Bace says that both “peer support is extremely important” as well as “having a mentor.” When she faced adverse situations in her life, she was able to overcome them with the support of her “community of peers” – people that will “stay longer with you than your employer.” A few of those strong mentors present throughout Bace’s career were Robert Abbott (who led the first commercial security practice, as modeled in the movie Sneakers, and a senior scientist at Livermore National Labs) and Ruth Nelson (a mathematician whose work includes much of the formal mathematics underlying secure protocol design).
Career Advice to Women in Security and Privacy
For women interested in the field, she provides candid advice stating that it’s important to “balance between mastering the theoretical view of security and understanding the math.” Pulling from her own experience, she points out that “you don’t have to be pinpoint focused to be successful” because most careers require a “broader swath of expertise and exposures.”
Becky Bace is a pioneer for women in security, having been mentored from the creators of early computing systems and some of the first women in the field. With the experience of a professional and ease of a strategist, she has bridged together math and theory to create and advance solutions that have been a boon to the security industry. In line with WISP’s principles of advancement and inclusion, Bace advises WISP members to keep in mind: “professional links make all the difference.”