AWS Security Profiles: Greg McConnel, Senior Manager, Security Specialists Team
In the weeks leading up to re:Invent 2019, we’ll share conversations we’ve had with people at AWS who will be presenting at the event so you can learn more about them and some of the interesting work that they’re doing.
How long have you been at AWS, and what do you do in your current role?
I’ve been with AWS nearly seven years. I was previously a Solutions Architect on the Security Specialists Team for the Americas, and I recently took on an interim management position for the team. Once we find a permanent team lead, I’ll become the team’s West Coast manager.
How do you explain your job?
The Security Specialist team is a customer-facing role where we get to talk to customers about the security, identity, and compliance of AWS. We help enable customers to securely and compliantly adopt the AWS Cloud. Some of what we do is one-to-one with customers, but we also engage in a lot of one-to-many activities. My team talks to customers about their security concerns, how best to secure their workloads on AWS, and how to use our services alongside partner solutions to improve their security posture. A big part of my role is building content and delivering that to customers. This includes things like white papers, blog posts, hands-on workshops, Well-Architected reviews, and presentations.
What are you currently working on that you’re most excited about?
In the Security Specialist team, the one-to-one engagements we have with customers are primarily short-term and centered around particular questions or topics. Although this can benefit customers a great deal, it’s a reactive model. In order to move to a more proactive stance, we plan to start working with individual customers on a longer-term basis to help them solve particular security challenges or opportunities. This will remove any barriers to working directly with a Security Specialist and allow us to dive deep into the security concerns of our customers.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Keeping up with the pace of innovation. Just about everyone who works with AWS experiences this, whether you’re a customer or working in the AWS field. AWS is launching so many amazing things all the time it can be challenging to keep up. The specialist SA role is attractive because the area we cover is somewhat limited. It’s a carved-out space within the larger, continuously expanding body of AWS knowledge. So it’s a little easier, and it allows me to dive deeper into particular security topics. But even within this carved out area of security, it takes some dedication to stay current and informed for my customers. I find things like Jeff Barr’s AWS News Blog and the AWS Security Blog really valuable. Also, I’m a big fan of hands on learning, so just playing around with new services, especially by following along with examples in new blog posts, can be an interesting way to keep up.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Creating content, particularly workshops. For me, hands-on learning is not only an effective way to learn, it’s simply more fun. The process of creating workshops with a team can be rewarding and educational. It’s a creative, interactive process. Getting to see others try out your workshop and provide feedback is so satisfying, especially when you can tell that people now understand new concepts because of the work you did. Watching other people deliver a workshop that you built is also rewarding.
In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing cloud security right now?
AWS allows you to move very fast. One of the primary advantages of cloud computing is the speed and agility it provides. When you’re moving fast though, security can be overlooked a bit. It’s so easy to start building on AWS that customers might not invest the necessary cycles on security, or they might think that doing so will slow them down. The reality, though, is that AWS provides the tools to allow you to stay agile while maintaining—and in many cases improving—your security. Automation and continuous monitoring are the keys here. AWS makes it possible to automate many basic security tasks, like patching. With the right tooling, you also gain the visibility needed to accurately identify and monitor critical assets and data. We provide great solutions for logging and monitoring that are highly integrated with our other services. So it’s quite possible now to move fast and stay secure, and it’s important that you do both.
What security best practices do you recommend to customers?
There are certain services we recommend that customer look into enabling because they’re an easy win when it comes to security. These aren’t requirements because there are many great partner solutions that customers can also use. But these are solutions that I’d encourage customers to at least consider:
- Turn on Amazon GuardDuty, which is a threat detection service that continuously monitors for malicious and unauthorized activity. The benefits it provides versus the effort involved to enable it makes it a pretty easy choice. You literally click a button to turn on GuardDuty, and the service starts analyzing tens of billions of events across a number of AWS data sources.
- Work with your account team to get a Well-Architected review of your key workloads, especially with a focus on the Security pillar. You can even run well-architected reviews yourself with the AWS Well-Architected Tool. A well-architected review can help you build secure, high-performing, resilient, and efficient infrastructure for your application.
- Use IAM access advisor to help ensure that all the credentials in your AWS accounts are not overly broad by examining your service last accessed information.
- Use AWS Organizations for centralized administration of your credentials management and governance and move to full-feature mode to take advantage of everything the service offers.
- Practice the principle of least privilege.
What does cloud security mean to you, personally?
This is the first time in a while that I’ve worked for a company where I actually like the product. I’m constantly surprised by the new services and features we release and what our customers are building on AWS. My background is in security, especially identity, so that’s the area I am most passionate about within AWS. I want people to use AWS because they can build amazing things at a pace that was just not possible before the cloud—but I want people to do all of this securely. Being able to help customers use our services and do so securely keeps me motivated.
You have a passion for building great workshops. What are you and Jesse Fuchs doing to help make workshops at re:Invent better?
Jesse and I have been working on a central site for AWS security workshops. We post a curated list of workshops, and everything on the site has gone through an internal bar raiser review. This is a formal process for reviewing the workshops and other content to make sure they meet certain standards, that they’re up to date, and that they follow a certain format so customers will find them familiar no matter which workshop they go through.
We’re now implementing a version of this bar raiser review for every workshop at re:Invent this year. In the past, there were people who helped review workshops, but there was no formal, independent bar raising process. Now, every re:Invent workshop will go through it. Eventually, we want to extend this review at other AWS events.
Over time, you’ll see a lot more workshops added to the site. All of these workshops can either be delivered by AWS to the customer, or by customers to their own internal teams. It’s all Open Source too. Finally, we’ll keep the workshops up to date as new features are added.
The workshop you and Jesse Fuchs will host at re:Invent promises that attendees will build an end-to-end functional app with a secure identity provider. How can you build such an app in such a relatively short time?
It know it sounds like a tall order, but the workshop is designed to be completed in the allotted time. And since the content will be up on GitHub, you can also work on it afterwards on your own. It’s a level 400 workshop, so we’re expecting people to come into the session with a certain level of familiarity with some of these services. The session is two and half hours, and a big part of this workshop is the one-on-one interaction with the facilitators. So if attendees feel like this is a lot to take in, they should keep in mind that they’ll get one-on-one interaction with experts in these fields. Our facilitators will sit down with attendees and address their questions as they go through the hands-on work. A lot of the learning actually comes out of that facilitation. The session starts with an initial presentation and detailed instructions for doing the workshop. Then the majority of the time will be spent hands-on with that added one-on-one interaction. I don’t think we stress enough the value that customers get from the facilitation that occurs in workshops and how much learning occurs during that process.
What else should we know about your workshop?
One of the things I concentrate on is identity, and that’s not just Identity and Access Management. It’s identity across the board. If you saw Quint Van Deman’s session last year at re:Invent, he used an analogy about identity being a cake with three layers. There’s the platform layer on the bottom, which includes access to the console. There’s the infrastructure layer, which is identity for services like EC2 and RDS, for example. And then there’s the application identity layer on the top. That’s sometimes the layer that customers are most interested in because it’s related to the applications they’re building. Our workshop is primarily about that top layer. It’s one of the more difficult topics to cover, but again, an interesting one for customers.
What is your advice to first-time attendees at re:Invent?
Take advantage of your time at re:Invent and plan your week because there’s really no fluff. It’s not about marketing, it’s about learning. re:Invent is an educational event first and foremost. Also, take advantage of meeting people because it’s also a great networking event. Having conversations with people from companies that are doing similar things to what you’re doing on AWS can be very enlightening.
You like obscure restaurants and even more obscure movies. Can you share some favorites?
From a movie standpoint, I like Thrillers and Sci-Fi—especially unusual Sci-Fi movies that are somewhat out of the mainstream. I do like blockbusters, but I definitely like to find great independent movies. I recently saw a movie called Coherence that was really interesting. It’s about what would happen if a group of friends having a dinner party could move between parallel or alternate universes. A few others I’d recommend to people who share my taste for the obscure, and that are maybe even a little though-provoking, are Perfect Sense and The Quiet Earth.
From a restaurant standpoint, I am always looking for new Asian food restaurants, especially Vietnamese and Thai food. There are a lot of great ones hidden here in Los Angeles.
Want more AWS Security news? Follow us on Twitter.
The AWS Security team is hiring! Want to find out more? Check out our career page.