We sat down with Jack Adamson from Slack about creating new worlds in cyber.
Since the pandemic began, much of the Australian workforce has adjusted to new ways of working that aren’t in a physical office.
Conversations that happened by the water cooler now happen in the private chat window of a digital platform. That platform sees big and small decisions, sometimes secret ones, being typed into it every second.
One ‘digital HQ’ being used by tens of millions of workers every day is Slack. It’s like an online office building with organised spaces for people to message and share files on different shared topics. People rely on it to collaborate and get their work done.
It takes imagination and innovation to build such a world that works seamlessly while keeping all that data secure.
From fantasy to security
Jack Adamson is a software developer helping to keep Slack secure. His lifelong love for magic and fantasy has served Jack well in a job that relies heavily on creativity – creating the tools for the engineers who build Slack’s infrastructure.
‘I’ve always had a passion for software engineering, and since a young age, I’ve always loved fantasy worlds – Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings – and the idea that with magic, your words could define and change the world around you,’ Jack says.
‘For me, software is that fantasy world. Whether it’s unlocking your front door or tapping into a world of knowledge from a device that sits in the Palm of your hand.
‘Then hacking seems to be that forbidden sort of magic – using software in ways that the designers didn’t mean it to be used in.
‘Like all power, whether it’s good or bad, depends on how you use it. That’s where my interest in cyber security comes from; the passion for understanding the consequences of the power that technology has given us.’
No two days the same
Working in software development has a range of tasks and responsibilities. Jack bounces between operations and projects work, keeping things fresh and varied.
‘Operations tasks would include responding to alerts when something new or unexpected has happened within the system. Or when one of the systems my team manages has any issues – like it starts to run a bit too slow or an error pops up.
‘The other half is project work – the growth and development that help to make our day-to-day lives easier and keep us safer.
‘My current project involves building a tool that helps software engineers manage their secrets with the goal of making it simple and safe to help rotate those secrets; change them after a period of time so that they stay new and safe.’
Understanding people problems for secure systems
Secure data and confidentiality are critical to a platform like Slack. It needs world-class security infrastructure to protect the most critical data of many of the world’s businesses.
But it also needs people to understand the way humans work. Jack says his first IT job in a computer repair store was a great foundation for understanding what goes wrong for people using computers, and why.
‘The information I learnt there was fantastic for when I came to work as a software engineer, and now as a cyber operator,’ he reflects.
‘I found that understanding how different people – whether highly technical users or your grandma, grandpa, your friends – use computers, and seeing the many ways that goes wrong, really provided a leg up. It was a fantastic launch point for me.’
Jack went on to university for software engineering and did 3.5 years of cyber security training at his workplace before he stepped into his current role.
That meant Jack joined Slack with a background in full-stack software engineering…and no formal training in security operations. But his understanding of people, and creativity towards systems, combined with transferable skills, have made him an asset to the company’s security.
‘I built websites and web applications that people used to achieve what they were working on,’ says Jack.
‘When I joined my team, I started adding that knowledge to the mix and helping to make our tools easier to use, faster to use, and simpler to use.
‘One of the jokes my teammate made was, “I never realised that we need a user experience designer within the security operations team!”
‘It's impossible to overestimate how important it is to have people that bring in the different areas. In my case it was full-stack web engineering, but people with infrastructure experience or people with user experience understanding how people use programs is so important.
‘It’s about being able to understand what people will do.’