Paths to peaks

Paths to peaks: Digital security expert banishes insecurity

Siti Adibah Mohd Shah, 22, landed a job at security company RSA after a stint as an intern. The company sent her for a training in the United States where she not only learnt more about digital security but also overcame her shyness.
Ms Siti Adibah Mohd Shah, a sales engineer with security company RSA, graduated from Temasek Polytechnic with a diploma in cyber and digital security last year. The 22-year-old says: "Work experience and studying should go hand in hand."
Ms Siti Adibah Mohd Shah, a sales engineer with security company RSA, graduated from Temasek Polytechnic with a diploma in cyber and digital security last year. The 22-year-old says: "Work experience and studying should go hand in hand."PHOTO: ST VIDEO

This is the last of a four-part series on young Singaporeans who have ventured beyond conventional academic tracks and followed their passions.

The IT industry tends to be a male-dominated one, and also has the stereotype of attracting high-achieving brainiacs ill at ease with human interaction.

So customers buying digital security software can be taken aback when they meet Ms Siti Adibah Mohd Shah. "They're not expecting to see a woman who can answer their technical queries," said the 22-year-old sales engineer with security company RSA.

Ms Adibah is one of two female sales engineers in a team of 10.

Her job requires her to provide technical expertise and work with sales representatives to sell products and services in cyber security to businesses, so her clients comprise mostly tech-savvy IT security managers.

She was an average primary school pupil, but the former Normal (Academic) stream student turned her grades around with a change in attitude towards learning in secondary school.

She also picked up an interest in gadgets from an early age, and loves to dabble with photography equipment and audio products like headphones.

Selling IT products to clients such as government agencies does not faze her as she is not afraid of stepping outside her comfort zone - even though she describes herself as "soft-spoken" and someone who prefers her own company.

For starters, unlike many of her peers who went straight to university, Ms Adibah, who graduated from Temasek Polytechnic with a diploma in cyber and digital security in May last year, chose to work first.

After completing a six-month internship with RSA in her third year in polytechnic, she decided to take up a full-time job offer from the company after graduating.

"I wanted to take this time to learn more about information security in real life, to explore what I want to do and take time to reflect," said the daughter of a civil servant and housewife. She has an older brother and an older sister.

And the year she spent working has helped to shape her as a person. "You only learn much when you get closer to the industry and network with people," she said. "I also now know my strengths and weaknesses better."

"Work experience and studying should go hand in hand," said Ms Adibah, who started a part-time degree programme in computer science earlier this month.

She continues working at RSA, located at Changi Business Park, and attends university classes on Monday to Thursday evenings.

COMING OUT OF HER SHELL

Another way that she has gone outside her comfort zone was in going to the United States - she went to RSA's headquarters in Bedford, Boston, last year for training.

It was a culture shock, she said. "Everybody is very loud over there. They're not afraid to speak their mind, their opinions."

RSA stands for Rivest, Shamir and Adelman, the American firm's co-founders and the inventors of a public-key encryption technique that is widely adopted.

The six-week course Ms Adibah attended was part of the company's training for sales engineers like her, to familiarise them with its products and acquire skills such as presenting and liaising with customers.

But she was initially overwhelmed by her classmates. During sharing sessions, she sat at the back of the class of seven people - the rest of whom were Americans - and was too afraid to say anything.

Over time, she learnt to open up and be more confident.

Her mentor there taught her to project her voice, for instance. "I thought it was very uncomfortable because I'm a very soft-spoken person to begin with," said Ms Adibah. "Normally, I would just sit back and let others raise their hands."

But she gained confidence and, near the end of the course, she volunteered to conduct a presentation first. "It was amazing," she gushed, recalling the attention that people paid her.

Stepping out of her comfort zone was also a step towards "improving and gaining self-confidence", she said.

FINDING HER NICHE

From a young age, Ms Adibah was surrounded by gadgets at home, from stereo systems and headphones to drawing tablets and camera equipment.

Her interest in IT and cyber security grew as a teenager.

"I've always been curious about how the attackers can come up with so many sophisticated ways to infiltrate an organisation," she said.

"In our everyday lives, we're always locking our doors to ensure no one enters our house, we're always ensuring we put our items in a safe, so why are we not applying this similar concept to IT security?"

She had a grade point average of 3.43 out of 4 in polytechnic, and obtained an A grade for her final-year project, where she worked with RSA on software that could allow companies to see, in real time, the geographical locations of cyber attacks.

Mr Budiman Tsjin, 42, her supervisor at RSA, said that at least one company has expressed interest in this software.

"When she demonstrated the product, I realised she actually did a good job," said the sales engineer manager. "When she joined the company as an intern, she didn't really talk to people and was very quiet.

"But she knows her work and is good at what she does."

Mr Willie Lui, course manager for the cyber and digital security diploma programme at Temasek Polytechnic, said that Ms Adibah was an all-rounder and did well even in the technical courses.

She also learnt early about what it was like to go outside her comfort zone as there were just 10 girls among 50 students in her course at polytechnic.

Of her schooling years, Ms Adibah, a former Edgefield Primary School pupil, admitted: "My Primary School Leaving Examination score was just average - enough to allow me to proceed to secondary school and be in the Normal (Academic) stream."

She tried many studying techniques in primary school but she still doubted her ability to learn.

"I didn't have motivation or interest because I was a really slow learner and I was really embarrassed about it," she said."

But at Greendale Secondary School, she started to perform better after adopting a more positive attitude towards learning.

"I couldn't stand failing all the time. I tried not to procrastinate, (but to) view my school assignments as something beneficial, and to set long-term goals.

"I realised I had to also write things down in my own words and in a way that I could understand, so I could see the 'whys' of what I was learning," she added.

PROVING HERSELF

Her supervisor Mr Tsjin said: "She's as good as the the guys. She knows her products very well, even though she doesn't have the years of experience yet.

"She's young, enthusiastic and has the passion to learn."

In her role, Ms Adibah is like a specialist in any products under two-factor authentication, an extra layer of security such as biometric recognition and token authentication.

"I got her to pick up this area of expertise. Her skillset is very rare and it adds value to the company as we don't have many people handling this area at the pre-sales technical level," said Mr Tsjin.

Said Ms Adibah: "I want to prove people wrong, that a woman can also be successful in this field."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 15, 2017, with the headline 'Digital security expert banishes insecurity'. Print Edition | Subscribe