Talos’ lead of data strategy and insights has a lot of weight on her shoulders currently, but it’s nothing she’s not used to
Most people who first meet Ashlee Benge do a double take when they hear about her past experience.
The average security practitioner at a networking event may share that they went to school and got a computer science degree, then started poking at code for a few years before making it into the “big leagues.”
Benge’s path is far different as a former astrophysics student, Olympic power lifter and muscle car enthusiast. Yet somehow, she’s ended up as a crucial cog in Talos’ work to help secure Ukraine during Russia’s invasion.
She even jokes that it was an “accident” that she ended up working at Talos in the first place.
Benge wanted to take a few years between receiving her bachelor’s degree in astrophysics and going back for a doctorate, so she started job searching. She eventually applied for a job as an analyst on the Talos detection team, and a recruiter reached out to her asking if it was a mistake. After all, she had no formal cybersecurity experience, though her degree did give her a strong background in coding, database management and data analysis.
After taking an interview, Benge was eventually hired, beginning her cybersecurity journey. She pivoted over time to the Talos Outreach team, writing blog posts and growing as a public speaker, appearing at security conferences to talk about some of her favorite topics, including diversity in hiring in security and making the security field more accessible to women.
Then, she spent some time working with Cisco’s threat hunting team, and eventually made her way back to Talos as the leader of data strategy and insights, using her Talos team members as resources to grow her cybersecurity knowledge.
Today, she’s still pulling in her education from astrophysics and years of experience in security to pull apart massive data sets that turn that into actionable intelligence and information for Talos researchers.
“If all the data that we have at Talos is water, I try to build pipelines and filters to make sure that data is as clean and usable as possible and flows to teams in the best way possible,” Benge said. “A lot of astronomy and astrophysics is mathematical modeling, writing code, working with large datasets — those sorts of analytical skills and problem-solving — these are skills I still use all the time.”
That’s just what’s in her job description, though. Since March, she’s also been part of Talos and Cisco’s massive effort to support Ukraine during Russia’s invasion. Benge used to work for the Cisco Secure Endpoint product team — a service that is currently being offered to any Ukrainian organizations for free. And she’s also currently going back to college to receive her Masters of Business Administration.
Those skills and experience combined set her up to help contribute to the larger team assisting Ukrainian organizations and companies along with J.J. Cummings’ team.
“It puts me in a unique position to be on the operations side of the house. I am facilitating communications around our findings in Ukraine and building out pipelines to our partners, while streamlining all the processes we use to track our work there — all so J.J.’s team can focus on doing their best work,” she said.
Outside of Ukraine, Benge said she hopes that once she finishes her MBA, it will set her up to work more closely with sales- and marketing-related teams to better discuss what it is that Talos does, exactly, and the benefits of building out a strong security program.
“People wonder why on earth I would do this,” she said. “But my academic background is so concentrated in pure science and math that I didn’t have any experience with business or finance. Everyone thinks the work Talos does is cool, of course, but I could tell those stakeholders couldn’t really understand how it affected them as, say, a CISO or someone looking to spend money on security products.”
Given all of that, Benge has a full plate at work, so at home she makes sure to distance herself from her phone and laptop for a bit each day, either by going to her weightlifting gym to work toward her next personal record or competition, or just taking her dog for a walk. She said her current role with Talos offers her the flexibility to work different hours and take time for herself so she can come back to work more effective and focused.
Benge hopes that she can start delivering more public talks and presentations (she’s no stranger to Talos’ livestreams) to share her story and unique background to encourage others to dive right into cybersecurity, regardless of what experience they have.
It’s important to build a diverse team based on demographics, but security teams need to also consider their diversity of backgrounds and experience levels.
“I meet folks who have unique points of view, and they’re interested in security but they’re also really nervous because their background isn’t what would be considered ‘typical,’” she said. “Which is a shame because when you bring these people together from different backgrounds, the work product is more creative, more dynamic and more interesting.”