AWS Security Profiles: Merritt Baer, Principal in OCISO
In the week leading up AWS re:Invent 2021, we’ll share conversations we’ve had with people at AWS who will be presenting, and get a sneak peek at their work.
How long have you been at Amazon Web Services (AWS), and what do you do in your current role?
I’m a Principal in the Office of the Chief Information Security Officer (OCISO), and I’ve been at AWS about four years. In the past, I’ve worked in all three branches of the U.S. Government, doing security on behalf of the American people.
My current role involves both internal- and external- facing security.
I love having C-level conversations around hard but simple questions about how to prioritize the team’s resources and attention. A lot of my conversations revolve around organizational change, and how to motivate the move to the cloud from a security perspective. Within that, there’s a technical “how”—we might talk about the move to an intelligent multi-account governance structure using AWS Organizations, or the use of appropriate security controls, including remediations like AWS Config Rules and Amazon EventBridge. We might also talk about the ability to do forensics, which in the cloud looks like logging and monitoring with AWS CloudTrail, Amazon CloudWatch, Amazon GuardDuty, and others aggregated in AWS Security Hub.
I also handle strategic initiatives for our security shop, from operational considerations like how we share threat intelligence internally, to the ways we can better streamline our policy and contract vehicles, to the ways that we can incorporate customer feedback into our products and services. The work I do for AWS’ security gives me the empathy and credibility to talk with our customers—after all, we’re a security organization, running on AWS.
What drew you to security?
(Sidebar: it’s a little bit of who I am— I mean, doesn’t everyone rely on polaroid photos? just kidding— kind of :))
I always wanted to matter.
I was in school post-9/11, and security was an imperative. Meanwhile, I was in Mark Zuckerberg’s undergrad class at Harvard. A lot of the technologies that feel so intimate and foundational—cloud, AI/ML, IoT, and the use of mobile apps, for example—were just gaining traction back then. I loved both emerging tech and security, and I was convinced that they needed to speak to and with one another. I wanted our approach to include considerations around how our systems impact vulnerable people and communities. I became an expert in child pornography law, which continues to be an important area of security definition.
I am someone who wonders what we’re all doing here, and I got into security because I wanted to help change the world. In the words of Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, “There is no world like the one surfacing.”
How do you explain your job to non-tech friends?
I often frame my work relative to what they do, or where we are when we’re chatting. Today, nearly everyone interacts with cloud infrastructure in our everyday lives. If I’m talking to a person who works in finance, I might point to AWS’ role providing IT infrastructure to the global financial system; if we’re walking through a pharmacy I might describe how research and development cycles have accelerated because of high-performance computing (HPC) on AWS.
What are you currently working on that you’re excited about?
Right now, I’m helping customer executives who’ve had a tumultuous (different, not necessarily all bad) couple of years. I help them adjust to a new reality in their employee behavior and access needs, like the move to fully remote work. I listen to their challenges in the ability to democratize security knowledge through their organizations, including embedding security in dev teams. And I help them restructure their consumption of AWS, which has been changing in light of the events of the last two years.
On a strategic level, I have a lot going on … here’s a good sampling: I’ve been championing new work based on customers asking our experts to be more proactive by “snapshotting” metadata about their resources and evaluating that metadata against our well-architected security framework. I work closely with our Trust and Safety team on new projects that both increase automation for high volume issues but also provide more “high touch” and prioritized responses to trusted reporters. I’m also building the business case for security service teams to make their capabilities even more broadly available by extended free tiers and timelines. I’m providing expertise to our private equity folks on a framework for evaluating the maturity of security capabilities of target acquisitions. Finally, I’ve helped lead our efforts to add tighter security controls when AWS teams provide prototyping and co-development work. I live in Miami, Florida, USA, and I also work on building out the local tech ecosystem here!
I’m also working on some of the ways we can address ransomware. During our interview process, Amazon requests that folks do an hour-long presentation on a topic of your choice. I did mine on ransomware in the cloud, and when I came on board I pointed to that area of need for security solutions. Now we have a ransomware working group I help lead, with efforts underway to help out customers doing both education and architectural guidance, as well as curated solutions with industries and partners, including healthcare.
You’re presenting at AWS re:Invent this year—can you give readers a sneak peek at what you’re covering?
One talk is on cloud-native approaches to ransomware defense, encouraging folks to think innovatively as they mature their IT infrastructure. And a second talk highlights partner solutions that can help meet customers where they are, and improve their anti-ransomware posture using vendors—from MSSPs and systems integrators, to endpoint security, DNS filtering, and custom backup solutions.
What are you hoping the audience will take away from the sessions?
These days, security doesn’t just take the form of security services (like GuardDuty and AWS WAF), but will also manifest in the ways you design a cloud-aware architecture. For example, our managed database service Aurora can be cloned; that clone might act as a canary when you see data drift (a canary is security concept for testing your expectations). You can use this to get back to a known good state.
Security is a bottom line proposition. What I mean by that is:
- It’s a business criticality to avoid a bad day
- Embracing mature security will enable your entity’s development innovation
- The security of your products is a meaningful part of what you deliver on to your customers.
From your perspective, what’s the most important thing to know about ransomware?
Ransomware is a big headline-maker right now, but it’s not new. Most ransomware attacks are not based on zero days; they’re knowable but opportunistic. So, without victim-blaming, I mean to equip us with the confidence to confront the security issue. There’s no need to be ransomed.
I try not to get wrapped around particular issues, and instead emphasize building the foundation right. So sure, we can call it ransomware defense, but we can also point to these security maturity measures as best practices in general.
I think it’s fair to say that you’re passionate about women in tech and in security specifically. You recently presented at the Day of Shecurity conference and the Women in Business Summit, and did an Instagram takeover for Women in CyberSecurity (WiCyS). Why do you feel passionately about this?
I see security as an inherently creative field. As security professionals, we’re capable of freeing the business to get stuff done, and to get it done securely. That sounds simple, and it’s hard!
Any time you’re working in a creative field, you rely on human ingenuity and pragmatism to ensure you’re doing it imaginatively instead of simply accepting old realities. When we want to be creative, we need more of the stuff life is made of: human experience. We know that people who move through the world with different identities and experiences think differently. They approach problems differently. They code differently.
So, I think having women in security is important, both for the women who choose to work in security, and for the security field as a whole.
What advice would you give a woman just starting out in the security industry?
No one is born with a brain full of security knowledge. Technology is human-made and imperfect, and we all had to learn it at some point. Start somewhere. No one is going to tap you on the shoulder and invite you to your life :)
Operationally, I recommend:
- Curate your “elevator pitch” about who you are and what you’re looking for, and be explicit when asking for folks for a career conversation or a referral (you can find me on Twitter @MerrittBaer, feel free to send a note).
- Don’t accept a first job offer—ask for more.
- Beware of false choices. For example, sometimes there’s a job that’s not in the description—consider writing your own value proposition and pitching it to the organization. This is a field that’s developing all the time, and you may be seeing a need they hadn’t yet solidified.
What’s your favorite Leadership Principle at Amazon and why?
I think Bias for Action takes precedence for me— there’s a business decision here to move fast. We know that comes with some costs and risks, but we’ve made that calculated decision to pursue high velocity.
I have a law degree, and I see the Leadership Principles sort of like the Bill of Rights: they are frequently in tension and sometimes even at odds with one another (for example, Bias for Action and Are Right, A Lot might demand different modes). That is what makes them timeless—yet even more contingent on our interpretation—as we derive value from them. As a security person, I want us to pursue the good, and also to transcend the particular fears of the day.
If you had to pick any other industry, what would you want to do?
Probably public health. I think if I wasn’t doing security, I would want to do something else landscape-level.
Even before I had a daughter, but certainly now that I have a one-year-old, I would calculate the ROI of my life’s existence and my investment in my working life.
That being said, there are days I just need to come home to some unconditional love from my rescue pug, Peanut Butter.
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