When Rebecca McHale ’01 decided to major in math at Mary Washington, she had no idea it would add up to a brilliant career in cybersecurity. As chief information security officer for Booz Allen Hamilton, she’s on the front lines of defense.
Women still make up only about 20 percent of the field, according to Cybersecurity Ventures, but for McHale, who did “game-changing” undergrad research, it was all part of the final equation. UMW’s cybersecurity minor – and proposed major – aims to set others up for the same sort of success.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, McHale looked forward to doing cryptograms with her grandmother. They’d sit down with the newspaper and work out ways to crack codes and solve puzzles. She took advanced math from second grade on, sailing through challenging courses like algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus.
She had an artistic side, too. Her parents put her in theater to help with her shyness, and she played piano and sang. She majored briefly in music at Mary Washington, but, missing fractions and factors, arches and angles, she soon switched to math.
It was in class with Professor of Mathematics Debra Hydorn that she discovered the formula that would lead to her future. Hydorn had returned from an out-of-town workshop and shared with her students what she’d learned about the then-budding field of cryptology. McHale was captivated. She asked Hydorn to help her incorporate the concept into a senior-year study.
“We explored the workshop materials, and used software to code and send messages,” said Hydorn, who admired McHale’s analytical and communication skills, and steered her toward grad school.At the turn of the 21st century, cryptography programs were somewhat scarce, so McHale traveled to Europe to study discrete mathematics and computing applications at Royal Holloway, University of London.
She’s moved up in the field, protecting the technology assets of government agencies like CSRA (now GDIT) and Novetta, and the software and infrastructure at Blackboard. Her move to Booz Allen in McLean, Virginia, she said, was an opportunity she couldn’t refuse.
Her tactics – she absorbs an organization’s business model and mission, zeroes in on data resources that are critical to protect and identifies ways they could likely be threatened – have been successful. When problems occur, her team springs into action, providing analysis, crisis management, communication and resolutions.
“This isn’t a career where you can expect that you’re going to take it easy. You’re always on alert,” said McHale, who then creates policies to keep the same things from happening again.
In a Q&A posted a few weeks ago by Booz Allen, she discusses her job and shares words of wisdom with other women who want to work in technology.
“Surround yourself with people who are knowledgeable and from whom you can learn,” she said. “This will enable you to approach conversations without hesitation, use your voice and share your viewpoint.”