Cultiv8 Employee Series: Leon Allen talks about his recent decision to undertake a PhD

Welcome to our Cultiv8 Employee Series; a monthly blog where our HR Manager Jordan Holmes will sit down with a member of the Continent 8 team to discuss their role, passion projects and career development. First up, meet Leon Allen. 

Leon is Continent 8 Technologies’ Cybersecurity Director and has recently decided to undertake a PhD at City University in London.

Leon’s PhD aims to research and create a Cyber Threat Intelligence Service that will help Continent 8 and the wider security community access more information and insight about cybersecurity threats, allowing businesses to better prepare for and defend against attacks.

Continent 8 is supporting Leon’s PhD and the entire team is encouraging of his professional development. Jordan chatted with Leon to learn more about how his PhD came about, the topic it will cover and what he hopes to achieve by completing it.

Can you tell us about your current role at Continent 8 and what it entails?

I have been with Continent 8 for more than four years and my current role is Cybersecurity Director. In this position, I oversee the full range of security products we offer to our customers including advanced cyber defence, applied cybersecurity solutions and managed security services.

I also lead the Security Innovation Program at Continent 8 which discovers and delivers new and innovative cybersecurity technologies and techniques to our customers but also to the wider cybersecurity community.

Part of my role sees me take part in webinars and join panels at industry events. I also author blogs and articles, sharing my knowledge and understanding of cybersecurity with our customers and partners, as well as the wider industry. It is a varied role and one that I thoroughly enjoy.

Why did you decided to undertake a PhD?

This is a good question as the first answer that comes to mind is that I am not entirely sure given the large amount of work that is required! Jokes aside, it is important to note that a PhD wasn’t my first go-to for further professional development – I had no idea what it entailed and am still learning.

In terms of how it came about, I am a keen advocate of continued professional development and was in the process of researching the various security accreditations (CEH, CISSP, CISM, etc.) to find the most appropriate one to compliment my master’s degree in information security.

At this point I had a sort of epiphany and remembered that my lecturer once asking me to consider returning to undertake a PhD at some point in the future. So, I did just that and reached out to my lecturer who is now the Head of Computer Science at City University.

I hoped to get the answer to the following three questions:

  • What actually is a PhD?
  • How do you start one?
  • Is this right for me?

His responses and subsequent advice and guidance was instrumental in starting the process especially as he explained that a PhD does not have to be purely research based – I had always assumed it was – and it could be a combination of research and developing a practical solution.

As I am not a naturally academic person, this fitted perfectly with my own capabilities and learning objectives. As I already had an idea for my PhD topic, the next step was to create a formal PhD proposal which is a fairly substantial document in itself.Once I had written this, I submitted it to City University and, thankfully, it was accepted a few weeks later.

Can you tell us more about the topic your PhD will cover?

The full title of my PhD is “Creating a Unique and Effective Cyber Threat Intelligence Service”. In terms of the practical element, it will allow me to create a Threat Intelligence Service that will be of benefit to Continent 8 and its customers as well as the wider cyber security sector.

Threat intelligence is a collection of certified cyber threats which can be used by companies to understand the threats they are likely to encounter whilst operating their business. By using a Threat Intelligence Service, they can take action to prepare for and defend against these threats.

Continent 8 operates multiple cybersecurity platforms to protect its customers which include a Multivendor Global Distributed Denial of Service mitigation solution (DDoS), Enterprise Web Application Firewall (WAF), Threat Prevention, Detection and Response solution backed by a 24/7 Security Operations Centre (SOC).

These three products, offered in conjunction with providing hosting and connectivity for a multitude of customers around the world, generates a large amount of potentially useful threat data. I plan to use this to create a new, anonymised, Threat Intelligence Service.

This can then be accessed and used by organisations and businesses to aid in defending the world from cybersecurity threats.

This sounds like a great way of using Continent 8’s data to help others. Was that a major driver for doing a PhD in the first instance?

Exactly! I want to add to the greater good and what better way to do this than by leveraging the huge volumes of data generated by Continent 8 and sharing it with the wider security community to help prevent cybersecurity attacks across the world.

Of course, by doing this through a PhD I get to access City University’s lectures and facilities which provides an excellent opportunity for as much further learning as I could ever wish for.

I am also excited by the challenge that it presents. Writing the proposal – which was just six pages – was tough and I am having to retrain my brain to use a more formal writing style with Harvard Referencing.

My PhD could take up to eight years to complete so it is a big undertaking, but I am certain it will be worth the effort both in terms of my own development goals and also in the end product that will benefit Continent 8 and the wider security community.

How is Continent 8 supporting you in undertaking your PhD?

From the very start of the process, I have been in discussion with Continent 8’s CEO Michael Tobin. Even before we realised it could be done in conjunction with Continent 8, he has been incredibly supportive and even asked to see a draft of my proposal so he could offer thoughts and comments.

Having read my proposal, Michael and Continent 8 offered to sponsor my PhD which I am incredibly grateful for. I have also spoken with members of the team about this and what I want to achieve, and everyone have been massively supportive and offered to assist where they can.

Do you hope your PhD will encourage further information sharing within the cybersecurity sector?

Absolutely. Traditionally, cybersecurity is a closed ecosystem in the sense that threats, types of attacks, mitigation tools and techniques are not widely talked about. I think this has a lot to do with fear and potentially the worry that being a victim of an attack reflects badly on the company.

That is not the case – cyberattacks can happen to anyone at any time and in order to win the war on cybersecurity it is more important than ever before to share knowledge and pool our efforts. I hope my PhD and Threat Intelligence Service can act as a catalyst for this.

Why is cybersecurity such an issue right now?

Because we are seeing more threats and attacks than ever before. For the past 20 years, and following the incredible growth of internet connected devices, cybersecurity has emerged as a critical consideration for business and individuals.

Our awareness of attacks has increased over this period and certainly in recent years due to some of the targets of cyberattacks being high profile – the Irish Health Service, Colonial Pipeline, etc. – and the massive impact these attacks have had on their targets.

In general, recent attacks reported by the media have been focused around two key areas – Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) and Ransomware, which is the most prevalent. According to Check Point’s mid-year security report, there was a 93% increase in the number of ransomware attacks carried out in 1H21 than in 1H20.

The reason for this dramatic rise is due to attackers exploiting changes caused by the pandemic, including the shift to hybrid working with employees operating both remotely and in the office. This has opened up a multitude of new attack vectors for criminals.

Criminals are now also targeting an organisation’s supply chain and network links to achieve maximum disruption. This is why cybersecurity is critical for businesses and individuals and thankfully organisations such as Continent 8 are here to help.

Learn more about Continent 8’s Secure offering here

Thanks for your time Leon and best of luck with your PhD!

This is the first interview in the Cultiv8 Employee Series with Jordan.

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