In the weeks leading up to AWS re:invent 2022, I’ll share conversations I’ve had with some of the humans who work in AWS Security who will be presenting at the conference, and get a sneak peek at their work and sessions. In this profile, I interviewed Sarah Currey, Delivery Practice Manager in World Wide Professional Services (ProServe).
How long have you been at AWS and what do you do in your current role?
I’ve been at AWS since 2019, and I’m a Security Practice Manager who leads a Security Transformation practice dedicated to helping customers build on AWS. I’m responsible for leading enterprise customers through a variety of transformative projects that involve adopting AWS services to help achieve and accelerate secure business outcomes.
In this capacity, I lead a team of awesome security builders, work directly with the security leadership of our customers, and—one of my favorite aspects of the job—collaborate with internal security teams to create enterprise security solutions.
How did you get started in security?
I come from a non-traditional background, but I’ve always had an affinity for security and technology. I started off learning HTML back in 2006 for my Myspace page (blast from the past, I know) and in college, I learned about offensive security by dabbling in penetration testing. I took an Information Systems class my senior year, but otherwise I wasn’t exposed to security as a career option. I’m from Nashville, TN, so the majority of people I knew were in the music or healthcare industries, and I took the healthcare industry path.
I started my career working at a government affairs firm in Washington, D.C. and then moved on to a healthcare practice at a law firm. I researched federal regulations and collaborated closely with staffers on Capitol Hill to educate them about controls to protect personal health information (PHI), and helped them to determine strategies to adhere to security, risk, and compliance frameworks such as HIPAA and (NIST) SP 800-53. Government regulations can lag behind technology, which creates interesting problems to solve. But in 2015, I was assigned to a project that was planned to last 20 years, and I decided I wanted to move into an industry that operated as a faster pace—and there was no better place than tech.
From there, I moved to a startup where I worked as a Project Manager responsible for securely migrating customers’ data to the software as a service (SaaS) environment they used and accelerating internal adoption of the environment. I often worked with software engineers and asked, “why is this breaking?” so they started teaching me about different aspects of the service. I interacted regularly with a female software engineer who inspired me to start teaching myself to code. After two years of self-directed learning, I took the leap and quit my job to do a software engineering bootcamp. After the course, I worked as a software engineer where I transformed my security assurance skills into the ability to automate security. The cloud kept coming up in conversations around migrations, so I was curious and achieved software engineering and AWS certifications, eventually moving to AWS. Here, I work closely with highly regulated customers, such as those in healthcare, to advise them on using AWS to operate securely in the cloud, and work on implementing security controls to help them meet frameworks like NIST and HIPAA, so I’ve come full circle.
How do you explain your job to non-technical friends and family?
The general public isn’t sure how to define the cloud, and that’s no different with my friends and family. I get questions all the time like “what exactly is the cloud?” Since I love storytelling, I use real-world examples to relate it to their profession or hobbies. I might talk about the predictive analytics used by the NFL or, for my friends in healthcare, I talk about securing PHI.
However, my favorite general example is describing the AWS Shared Responsibility Model as a house. Imagine a house—AWS is responsible for security of the house. We’re responsible for the physical security of the house, and we build a fence, we make sure there is a strong foundation and secure infrastructure. The customer is the tenant—they can pay as they go, leave when they need to—and they’re responsible for running the house and managing the items, or data, in the house. So it’s my job to help the customer implement new ideas or technologies in the house to help them live more efficiently and securely. I advise them on how to best lock the doors, where to store their keys, how to keep track of who is coming in and out of the house with access to certain rooms, and how to protect their items in the house from other risks.
And for my friends that love Harry Potter, I just say that I work in the Defense Against the Dark Arts.
What are you currently working on that you’re excited about?
There are a lot of things in different spaces that I’m excited about.
One is that I’m part of a ransomware working group to provide an offering that customers can use to prepare for a ransomware event. Many customers want to know what AWS services and features they can use to help them protect their environments from ransomware, and we take real solutions that we’ve used with customers and scale them out. Something that’s really cool about Professional Services is that we’re on the frontlines with customers, and we get to see the different challenges and how we can relate those back to AWS service teams and implement them in our products. These efforts are exciting because they give customers tangible ways to secure their environments and workloads. I’m also excited because we’re focusing not just on the technology but also on the people and processes, which sometimes get forgotten in the technology space.
I’m a huge fan of cross-functional collaboration, and I love working with all the different security teams that we have within AWS and in our customer security teams. I work closely with the Amazon Managed Services (AMS) security team, and we have some very interesting initiatives with them to help our customers operate more securely in the cloud, but more to come on that.
Another exciting project that’s close to my heart is the Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (ID&E) workstream for the U.S. It’s really important to me to not only have diversity but also inclusion, and I’m leading a team that is helping to amplify diverse voices. I created an Amplification Flywheel to help our employees understand how they can better amplify diverse voices in different settings, such as meetings or brainstorming sessions. The flywheel helps illustrate a process in which 1) an idea is voiced by an underrepresented individual, 2) an ally then amplifies the idea by repeating it and giving credit to the author, 3) others acknowledge the contribution, 4) this creates a more equitable workplace, and 5) the flywheel continues where individuals feel more comfortable sharing ideas in the future.
Within this workstream, I’m also thrilled about helping underrepresented people who already have experience speaking but who may be having a hard time getting started with speaking engagements at conferences. I do mentorship sessions with them so they can get their foot in the door and amplify their own voice and ideas at conferences.
You’re presenting at re:Invent this year. Can you give us a sneak peek of your session?
I’m partnering with Johnny Ray, who is an AMS Senior Security Engineer, to present a session called SEC203: Revitalize your security with the AWS Security Reference Architecture. We’ll be discussing how the AWS SRA can be used as a holistic guide for deploying the full complement of AWS security services in a multi-account environment. The AWS SRA is a living document that we continuously update to help customers revitalize their security best practices as they grow, scale, and innovate.
What do you hope attendees take away from your session?
Technology is constantly evolving, and the security space is no exception. As organizations adopt AWS services and features, it’s important to understand how AWS security services work together to improve your security posture. Attendees will be able to take away tangible ways to:
- Define the target state of your security architecture
- Review the capabilities that you’ve already designed and revitalize them with the latest services and features
- Bootstrap the implementation of your security architecture
- Start a discussion about organizational governance and responsibilities for security
Johnny and I will also provide attendees with a roadmap at the end of the session that gives customers a plan for the first week after the session, one to three months after the session, and six months after the session, so they have different action items to implement within their organization.
You’ve written about the importance of ID&E in the workplace. In your opinion, what’s the most effective way leaders can foster an inclusive work environment?
I’m super passionate about ID&E, because it’s really important and it makes businesses more effective and a better place to work as a whole. My favorite Amazon Leadership Principle is Earn Trust. It doesn’t matter if you Deliver Results or Insist on the Highest Standards if no one is willing to listen to you because you don’t have trust built up. When it comes to building an inclusive work environment, a lot of earning trust comes from the ability to have empathy, vulnerability, and humility—being able to admit when you made a mistake—with your teammates as well as with your customers. I think we have a unique opportunity at AWS to work closely with customers and learn about what they’re doing and their best practices with ID&E, and share our best practices.
We all make mistakes, we’re all learning, and that’s okay, but having the ability to admit when you’ve made a mistake, apologize, and learn from it makes a much better place to work. When it comes to intent versus impact, I love to give the example—going back to storytelling—of walking down the street and accidentally bumping into someone, causing them to drop their coffee. You didn’t intend to hurt them or spill their coffee; your intent was to keep walking down the street. However, the impact that you had was maybe they’re burnt now, maybe their coffee is all down their clothes, and you had a negative impact on them. Now, you want to apologize and maybe look up more while you’re walking and be more observant of your surroundings. I think this is a good example because sometimes when it comes to ID&E, it can become a culture of blame and that’s not what we want to do—we want to call people in instead of calling them out. I think that’s a great way to build an inclusive team.
You can have a diverse workforce, but if you don’t have inclusion and you’re not listening to people who are underrepresented, that’s not going to help. You need to make sure you’re practicing transformative leadership and truly wanting to change how people behave and think when it comes to ID&E. You want to make sure people are more kind to each other, rather than only checking the box on arbitrary diversity goals. It’s important to be authentic and curious about how you learn from others and their experiences, and to respect them and implement that into different ideas and processes. This is important to make a more equitable workplace.
I love learning from different ID&E leaders like Camille Leak, Aiko Bethea, and Brené Brown. They are inspirational to me because they all approach ID&E with vulnerability and tackle the uncomfortable.
What’s the thing you’re most proud of in your career?
I have two different things—one from a technology standpoint and one from a personal impact perspective.
On the technology side, one of the coolest projects I’ve been on is Change Healthcare, which is an independent healthcare technology company that connects payers, providers, and patients across the United States. They have an important job of protecting a lot of PHI and personally identifiable information (PII) for American citizens. Change Healthcare needed to quickly migrate its ClaimsXten claims processing application to the cloud to meet the needs of a large customer, and it sought to move an internal demo and training application environment to the cloud to enable self-service and agility for developers. During this process, they reached out to AWS, and I took the lead role in advising Change Healthcare on security and how they were implementing their different security controls and technical documentation. I led information security meetings on AWS services, because the processes were new to a lot of the employees who were previously working in data centers. Through working with them, I was able to cut down their migration hours by 58% by using security automation and reduce the cost of resources, as well. I oversaw security for 94 migration cutovers where no security events occurred. It was amazing to see that process and build a great relationship with the company. I still meet with Change Healthcare employees for lunch even though I’m no longer on their projects. For this work, I was awarded the “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty” award, which only three Amazonians get a year, so that was an honor.
From a personal impact perspective, it was terrifying to quit my job and completely change careers, and I dealt with a lot of imposter syndrome—which I still have every day, but I work through it. Something impactful that resulted from this move was that it inspired a lot of people in my network from non-technical backgrounds, especially underrepresented individuals, to dive into coding and pursue a career in tech. Since completing my bootcamp, I’ve had more than 100 people reach out to me to ask about my experience, and about 30 of them quit their job to do a bootcamp and are now software engineers in various fields. So, it’s really amazing to see the life-changing impact of mentoring others.
You do a lot of volunteer work. Can you tell us about the work you do and why you’re so passionate about it?
Absolutely! The importance of giving back to the community cannot be understated.
Over the last 13 years, I have fundraised, volunteered, and advocated in building over 40 different homes throughout the country with Habitat for Humanity. One of my most impactful volunteer experiences was in 2013. I volunteered with a nonprofit called Bike & Build, where we cycled across the United States to raise awareness and money for affordable housing efforts. From Charleston, South Carolina to Santa Cruz, California, the team raised over $158,000, volunteered 3,584 hours, and biked 4,256 miles over the course of three months. This was such an incredible experience to meet hundreds of people across the country and help empower them to learn about affordable housing and improve their lives. It also tested me so much emotionally, mentally, and physically that I learned a lot about myself in the process. Additionally, I was selected by Gap, Inc. to participate in an international Habitat build in Antigua, Guatemala in October of 2014.
I’m currently on the Associate Board of Gilda’s Club, which provides free cancer support to anyone in need. Corporate social responsibility is a passion of mine, and so I helped organize AWS Birthday Boxes and Back to School Bags volunteer events with Gilda’s Club of Middle Tennessee. We purchased and assembled birthday and back-to-school boxes for children whose caregiver was experiencing cancer, so their caregiver would have one less thing to worry about and make sure the child feels special during this tough time. During other AWS team offsites, I’ve organized volunteering through Nashville Second Harvest food bank and created 60 shower and winter kits for individuals experiencing homelessness through ShowerUp.
I also mentor young adult women and non-binary individuals with BuiltByGirls to help them navigate potential career paths in STEM, and I recently joined the Cyversity organization, so I’m excited to give back to the security community.
If you had to pick an industry outside of security, what would you want to do?
History is one of my favorite topics, and I’ve always gotten to know people by having an inquisitive mind. I love listening and asking curious questions to learn more about people’s experiences and ideas. Since I’m drawn to the art of storytelling, I would pick a career as a podcast host where I bring on different guests to ask compelling questions and feature different, rarely heard stories throughout history.
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