In the very first of our “Meet a Dragon” series, Senior Clinical Expert Usha Periyanayagam, MD, MPH, describes how her two...
Meet Nikki Smith, a Senior Cloud Security Engineer and one of Komodo Health’s newest dragons. She shares why her unique perspective as a queer woman of color in tech is one of her greatest strengths. She also talks about what makes June so special to her.
What brought you to Komodo Health?
I’ve had a fair amount of experience in the startup world, but Komodo caught my eye as a smaller, growing company. It gave me the chance to be on a team that I could help build from the ground up. The security team is small, and I saw it as the perfect opportunity to get in early on a project that I could watch grow and flourish into something much bigger than myself and my team.
You call yourself an “ethical hacker” — what does that mean, and how do you apply it to the problems you are solving?
Ethical hacking is basically seeking out potential security threats and vulnerabilities and then proactively creating solutions to combat them. A lot of my ethical hacking is done outside work and for my own curiosity. I can bring this new information back to my team and we can work on ways to protect ourselves for the future. This is called “Blue Teaming” or defensive security. Defensive security is just that, it’s putting in the technical controls to defend against cyber attacks. However, at this stage in my career, I have moved a bit more toward “Red Teaming”, which is another way to say ethical hacking in offensive security. A solid foundation of both Blue and Red Teaming makes for a great security engineer.
What are some examples of attacks outside Komodo that you’re Blue Teaming?
I would say a really common one is Ransomware, which is a fancy way of describing a virus on your computer that makes it extremely difficult to access your own files without paying a ransom. It’s a very common attack vector that has plagued a bunch of enterprises across all verticals. It can sometimes present as a phishing attack through email. However, there are solutions and different ways that you can mitigate these types of attacks on the enterprise. At Komodo, we have special parameters set up to combat these kinds of attacks, we also have someone who monitors emails forwarded to our team to analyze threats.
Can you talk a little bit about why health data is seen as particularly valuable to hackers?
Personal healthcare records are one of the most lucrative markets on the dark web because health data often has all of your personal, sensitive information in one place. That makes it very easy for a hacker to sell your complete profile at a premium. One great thing about Komodo is that all of our data is de-identified. We don’t store any information in a way that a hacker could ever identify a single individual.
There has been research showing that health-tech companies often spend the least amount of resources on their cybersecurity team. I’m not sure why, but Komodo is combatting this more so than others. We have invested a great deal of effort into protecting all of the data we possess so that our clients can rest assured we’ve covered all our bases.
Shifting gears a little bit, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced throughout your career?
To be frank, as a black woman in tech, I think my presence in a room is questioned more than most. I have found that I often had to overcompensate and work much harder than my peers to prove I deserved to be part of the conversation. But my unique identity is also probably my best attribute in this industry. I can offer a unique perspective, and that often lends itself to new discussions and better solutions that may not have come to light without my point of view. It’s a challenge, but I love having the opportunity to bring a different perspective to problem-solving.
What brings you the most satisfaction about your work?
I love cybersecurity. Every day I wake up and there’s something new. There’s a new threat, or a team needs our assistance, or implementing new security or technical controls. I get the most satisfaction out of being helpful and solving the tough problems we come across. I love how this job changes daily. I’m never bored.
What brings you joy outside work?
Outside of Komodo, I am a part of different meetups and groups where we discuss and share perspectives from the industry. I’m part of a group called “Women’s Society of Cyberjutsu” where we meet to discuss the disparities of hiring women in the field of Cybersecurity. We also have engaging conferences and CTFs to keep our skills fresh, grow our network, and learn about new technology in the industry.
What are you reading right now?
“It’s About Damn Time: How to Turn Being Underestimated Into Your Greatest Advantage” by Arlan Hamilton. It’s an inspiring story about empowering queer women of color to go out there and believe in their ideas. I highly recommend her to anyone, but especially women. She also has a Podcast called “Your First Million.”
Aside from it being your birthday month, why is June special to you?
First of all, I love the weather in June! But what makes June special is so much more than that. Celebrating Pride is important to me, as someone who identifies as part of the queer community. I love the way the community comes together during this month to spread love and acceptance. I love seeing allies come out and support the community by sending a text or making a quick call. Those moments make this month much happier — especially now with COVID-19 and large gatherings prohibited.
And of course, Juneteenth is probably the most important day of the month for me — even more important than my birthday. It’s a day that my community has celebrated for a long time, but I’m happy it is now being recognized across the country. As black people, we take this day to celebrate how far we’ve come to achieve our freedom. I took the day to celebrate with a few close friends — while keeping social distancing in mind.
When it comes to the Black Lives Matter Movement, I know we have a lot of work to do as a country, but I’m really proud to work for Komodo Health right now. I’ve been encouraged to see our leadership taking steps to affect positive change internally and being extremely transparent about what that journey looks like. We have so many people at this company willing to speak up and have difficult conversations. That’s what it takes to make a change. Being a queer woman of color in tech, I can say this company is taking important steps in the right direction by standing in solidarity with their underrepresented employees and making intentional plans of action that will drive change throughout the company. I’m not new to the industry, I’ve been in it for nine years and this company has done more than any other company in my experience to make change. I appreciate everyone who isn’t afraid to have these difficult conversations, especially right now. I’m proud to be a Dragon.