An Interview with Rhonda Childress

Julia Miglets

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Rhonda Childress is an IBM fellow vice president—GTS data security and privacy officer. As one of only 25 female IBM Fellows in IBM's history, Rhonda has created many firsts in her 25-year IBM career, including first IBM Service's female master inventor, first IBM security fellow, and first IBM fellow from a historically Black college or university.

As an IBM master inventor, Rhonda has over 180 patent applications, resulting in 120 issued patents. Her patent ideas range from security, system management, IoT, mobile, aircraft, and various other topics. In 2014, she was honored by the state bar of Texas IP Law as co-inventor of the year.

Julia Miglets (JM): You work in data security at IBM. Tell me about some of your responsibilities at that job.

Rhonda Childress (RC): In security, we have to be right about our predictions all the time. The bad actors (as we call them) only have to be right one time.

Think of a basketball game. I am on defense, and the bad guys are on offense. We have to keep the other team from scoring a point. If they do score a point (i.e., find a weakness within our system), then we have to have plans and technology in place to contain the bad actor.

We try to make sure bad actors cannot enter our systems. In the metaphorical context, that means keeping them from scoring a point. But if they do, we try to make sure the bad actor can cause no harm—like potentially leaking data.

Then, on top of avoiding bad actors, you add on the things we call "zero-day" attacks, and the concept becomes complicated. The latest security issues are now around computer chips used in almost everything we use—computers, phones, etc. This realm of problems is called "meltdown" or "specter." A lot of the normal computer security methods we use may not be effective against these problems because of the vulnerability.

Constant education is necessary to the development teams, computer architecture teams, and the teams that manage the systems for our clients. On top of the security, we now have a lot of regulations being enacted, like the European Union's general data protection regulation, to protect the privacy of data. As a team, we have to understand how we apply the technologies and architectures to ensure security and privacy.

My team's job is to ensure our clients are secure and we protect the privacy of their data.

JM: Did you take a straight path to your career in cybersecurity? Or was it a field that you cultivated knowledge of along the way?

RC: I had never even touched a computer until I went to college. At that time, programming was the only computer topic taught—at least at my university. I've been lucky to hold a variety of computer positions like help desk worker, system administrator, system architect, system management specialist, and chief architect. These jobs had aspects of cybersecurity.

It is the breadth of experiences that help me relate to various teams.

It was about 15 years ago that I strongly started working more in the cybersecurity area.

The models of applications and their security are changing, and the advent of the newer technologies, like Cloud computing, shift what we know. This situation is causing us to learn, and that alone makes it exciting. Your knowledge cannot stay the same.

JM: What are some of the new innovations happening in cybersecurity in the next year?

RC: Augmented intelligence systems are starting to be developed and released. AI, in this context, is not "artificial intelligence," but "augmented intelligence." We are using systems to help people make better, informed decisions.

Companies are using systems like Havyn to give cybersecurity a voice. Also, with AI, the systems can learn what individuals do in the security operation centers, particularly with troubleshooting, and execute those customized tasks themselves. New methods of risk analysis are also being developed to help chief information security officers understand the risks to business systems.

JM: As a person in a position of leadership, what were some of the habits and practices you took on to see the best outcomes from your team?

RC: I like to know and understand I am in a position to help the team at all times. I try not to ask them to do something I would not do myself. If we are doing a particularly onerous job, I will pitch in. When recruiting people to join my team, I look for attitude and flexibility. I want people who are willing to take on challenges outside their comfort zones. A person with a poor attitude can cause a team to become dysfunctional quickly.

Everyone on the team has a role to play, and we all depend on each other. Everyone is responsible for identifying people who will provide coverage if they want to take on new opportunities or (God forbid) face serious situations with friends or family. We try not to encroach on special family times, also, but we have to understand that our clients can have issues at any time.

Learning to build the right team took some doing. I try to keep the team focused on the outcomes (not distracted by what I call "bright shiny objects"). When there are failures, we focus on them and what we learned, what we could do better, and which processes we can change.

JM: Being a woman in tech, what were your biggest hurdles?

RC: I had to face discrimination head-on when I found out it was happening, and I had to be my own voice. I should have been afforded those opportunities just as my male colleagues were. Many of them were also fathers, so why, because I was a mother, was it any different? Make sure you make management know what you want to do and don't let anyone else do that for you.

JM: What advice do you have for women to overcome those hurdles?

RC: Never let anyone (male or female) make decisions for you or define who you are. Early in my career, I had managers who limited my opportunities. They thought because I was a mom, a mom should be at home. So opportunities to travel and do the more visible assignments were not made available to me.

With all the technology available, use it. I took a one and a half year assignment in Australia; my husband and children remained in the states. The choice was theirs. The children were in high school and did not want to go to Australia. But with the technology available, we leveraged it. We used Skype to keep the cost of phone calls reasonable; this way you can see your children. You can take a business trip but still read your child a story at bedtime, which isn't totally the same, but still, it's there.

I had to remember that I am not superwoman. I can let go of some things. I don't like to clean the house; I can have someone do that for me. I love to cook; I can prepare meals on the weekends or (using technology) vac-seal meals and freeze them if I go on a cooking binge (as my family calls it).

And again, my biggest lesson: you do not have to do it all.

Rhonda Childress is an IBM fellow vice president—GTS data security and privacy officer. As one of only 25 female IBM Fellows in IBM's history, Rhonda has created many firsts in her 25-year IBM career, including first IBM service's female master inventor, first IBM security fellow, and first IBM fellow from a historically Black college or university. As an IBM master inventor, Rhonda has over 180 patent applications, resulting in 120 issued patents. Her patent ideas range from security, system management, IoT, mobile, aircraft, and various other topics. In 2014, she was honored by the State Bar of Texas IP Law as Co-Inventor of the Year.

Rhonda is a dedicated global champion for the advancement of women and other underrepresented minorities across the industry; coaching and mentoring many at multiple stages in their careers from children at school, to adults joining the workforce, to those pushing their careers to heights not thought possible previously. As a STEM (STEAM) advocate, Rhonda is passionate about engaging young women in this movement by demonstrating through technology outcomes.

The annual IBM Academy of Technology STEM program is but one outreach program Rhonda spearheads. She was recognized by The Society of Women Engineers in 2016 with the Spark Award which honors an individual who has contributed to the advancement of women by mentoring those around them.

Rhonda graduated Magna Cum Laude from Kentucky State University with a bachelor of science in computer science.

When not tinkering with electrical components, doing home improvement, designing and sewing quilts to be auctioned for charities, she can be found trying to perfect her competition chili recipe.


Julia Miglets is a graduate of Youngstown State University. She studied professional and technical writing and wishes to pursue a career in editing.

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