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2021 Hispanic Heritage Month Pt. 1: A Celebration of Hispanic Heritage and Hope

Each year, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15th to October 15th, by celebrating the contributions and importance of Hispanics and Latinos to the United States.

The 2021 Hispanic Heritage Month theme invites us to celebrate Hispanic Heritage and to reflect on how great our tomorrow can be if we hold onto our resilience and hope. This year’s theme also encourages us to reflect on the contributions Hispanics have made in the past and will continue to make in the future.

I spoke with Sr. Principal Engineer, Ismael Valenzuela about how his heritage played a role in who he is today, advice for future generations and more. Read our conversation below.

What do you enjoy most about your heritage and what is one of your favorite memories growing up?

I was born and raised in Malaga, Spain, and spent a good part of my professional career in my home country until I moved to the US in 2014. My favorite memories are those shared with my family and friends, enjoying some of the amazing food we have in Malaga, and the beautiful warm weather we have all year long. Enjoying a football game (we call it soccer here in the US, but it’s really football, since it’s played with the foot!) with the friends on a Friday evening or simply a walk by the beach to enjoy the fresh breeze of the Mediterranean sea. Those are some of my favorite memories.

How have Hispanic/LatinX individuals helped contribute to where you are today in life and career?

I was very fortunate to have a business angel at a very young age, who happened to be an experienced Argentinian businessman. He recognized my passion for infosec (it wasn’t called cyber back then) and provided me with the support needed to make my ideas and projects a reality. Thanks to him I was able to co-found one of the first infosec consulting businesses in Spain in 2000, and I’m still very grateful for that opportunity. My experience in the US has not been very different. Since 2014 I’ve had the pleasure to work very closely with super talented colleagues from our McAfee Enterprise teams in Argentina and Chile. Some of them were a tremendous help when I established myself in the NY area, and they continue to be great co-workers and friends, who I admire and look up to.

Tell us about your journey to a career in technology and how your heritage played a role to where you are today?

I think that Hispanic/LatinX are curious by nature. And curiosity is the basis for the ‘hacker’ culture. And yes, I call it hacker culture, referring to the original meaning and roots of the word ‘hacker’, which connoted technical virtuosity and playfulness (from Walter Isaacson, The Innovators. Great book by the way!). I think I’ve always had that curiosity, especially since I was a kid and had my very first computer, a PCS 286 with just plain old MS-DOS. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to work with, for the rest of my life. By the time I was in high school I was already programming in several languages, most self-taught, including BASIC, Assembly, and Pascal, and was already doing little applications for some family and friends with tools like DBase III and Clipper. It was a lot of fun! It wasn’t until I started college that I started to dig deeper into operating systems, networking, and lower-level languages like C. When I was introduced to Linux, I immediately fell in love with it, and this increased my curiosity. I started to learn more about how the Internet worked and one thing led to the other. Before I knew it, I was reading guidelines on security, hacking, protocols, asking questions on IRC channels (Slack is essentially IRC for millennials, for those that didn’t know), and setting up my labs at home to play more with the tools I was learning about. Shortly after I landed my first job, as both a web programmer and a system administrator, I found some serious security vulnerabilities in a government network, that happened to make the news, which led me to setup my own consulting business in 2000 with my Argentinian partner. And the rest is history from there! (it’s on LinkedIn too)

What are the three most important things that people should know about your culture?

If I must pick three, I’ll go with these:

1) we love food!

2) we love having long meals with friends and family!

3) we love having food outdoors!

Is there a tradition or celebration that you hope that your descendants maintain?

Yes, I’m working on making sure my kids learn to eat a wide variety of healthy and fresh food, instead of processed and refined stuff. And I hope their kids do the same! Did I say I like food?

What do you hope to pass on to future generations?

My hope is that current and new generations realize that true success is more than just a title, a professional achievement, or a prestigious career, whether it is in IT, or anything else. We live in a world that puts too much emphasis in personal egos, competitiveness, and social status. However, most often those pursuing these goals end up with anxiety, health issues, and disappointment. So, we need to start taking some of that pressure off the young ones and emphasize more the values and principles that can make you happy in the long term, things like a good work ethic, resilience to deal with setbacks, patience to acquire the right training and work through problems, empathy for others, balance to take care of yourself and those you love, and respect for everyone’s opinions and ideas. It’s not all about cyber!

As the country continues to grow more diverse, what advice would you give to young Hispanic/LatinX individuals interested in starting a career in cybersecurity?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help or to ask for a mentor. I was very fortunate to have an amazing mentor that taught me the fundamentals of business and a good work ethic. Having technical skills is important, but it’s equally important to develop other soft skills, like the ability to communicate clearly, to think strategically, to follow through with your projects, and of course the importance to stick to your values and your principles, and to care about the people you interact with. Try to grow your network, and don’t limit yourself to a certain age group, background, or ethnicity. Embrace diversity and realize that there’s always something new to learn from everyone you work with. Stay humble, and never think you’re the smartest in the room. Not only will you be wrong, but you’ll be missing the opportunity to learn and grow. If you want to start a career in cybersecurity specifically, see what classes you can take in your area, and what local groups or conferences are available. One of the few positive things we have with COVID is that most of the conferences have moved to an online format. Many like SANS Summits allow you to join Slack or Discord channels where you can interact with practitioners and security professionals. Also the SANS Institute (from which I’m part of the faculty), have initiatives like the CyberStart America that is a free national program for high school students to learn and master cybersecurity. These can be a gateway to the industry and can lead to college scholarships. And if you need more help or advice, don’t hesitate to contact me on my Twitter account: @aboutsecurity. I can help to point you in the right direction.

What are some of your ideas on how to attract more Hispanic/LatinX individuals to cybersecurity?

I think one of the things we need to do as professionals is to demystify what we do in this field. We need to start admitting that this is not rocket science. It is true that it’s a fast-paced field, and that it can seem overwhelming at times, but nothing that we do is too hard that anyone should feel intimidated to try to break in. We all learned over time, and in many cases through a succession of failures and recoveries. We all have a responsibility, from corporations to professionals, to lower the entry barriers and give more opportunities. One way to do this is to make more information available in Spanish. In fact, I’ll be chairing a talk track in Spanish at the 2021 SANS Threat Hunting Summit on October 7th and I’ll be hosting breakout spaces for the attendees to network with and to continue the conversation in Spanish as well. So, if you’re reading this, you have no excuses!