Wen Masters, Vice President of Cyber Technology, directs MITRE‘s corporate cybersecurity strategy and the company’s cyber innovation centers. She leads a group of more than 1,200 experts to address the most difficult cyber threats facing the nation. Working together, they are helping the government and private industry secure critical infrastructure and defend against online theft and exploits by hostile adversaries.
Below are highlights of the interview:
Tell us about yourself and your story before joining MITRE.
Science and technology (S&T) have always been my calling ever since I was a child. I drove my elementary school teachers crazy with my endless questions on why things work and how technologies are developed to solve problems. My own professional career started as a bench scientist making discoveries in mathematical fields and then gradually evolved to using new knowledge for scientific exploration and technology development applications. The most formative years of my career that defined me as a quarterback for S&T research and development for the public good were the 20+ years of my tenure working at the Office of Naval Research, with roles ranging from program director to senior executive. During that period, I learned two key ingredients for innovation: 1) question conventional wisdom while taking risks, and 2) put them into practice for impact. I led coalitions of universities, industry, and R&D centers and engendered early technology adaptions, including formal methods for software critical infrastructure protection, layered total platform cyber protection for cyber-physical systems, and full-spectrum cyber operations. For the impact of my efforts, I was honored with the Department of the Navy’s Distinguished Civilian Service Award, the highest honorary award given by the Secretary of the Navy.
Tell us more about the company.
As a not-for-profit company established in 1958, MITRE solves problems for a safer world. Through our public-private partnerships and federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs), we work across government and in partnership with industry to tackle challenges to the safety, stability, and well-being of our nation. MITRE brings a whole-of-nation approach to bridge the gap between government and industry, tackling complex challenges with no commercial interest. We bring innovative ideas into existence, in areas as diverse as artificial intelligence, data science, quantum, health informatics, space security, policy and economics, and cyber resilience. Today, we manage six FFRDCs supporting various government agencies, ranging from defense, healthcare, homeland security, cybersecurity, aviation, treasury, and commerce. Our innovation centers house MITRE’s core research and development capacities to extend our impact across FFRDCs and with partners in academia and industry. We also operate MITRE Engenuity, a non-profit foundation for public good launched in 2019. The foundation brings MITRE’s deep technical know-how and systems thinking to the private sector to solve complex challenges that government alone cannot solve. In the cyber arena, MITRE readies the worldwide community of cyber defenders. We give them vital information to thwart network intruders, build resiliency against future attacks, and develop assurance to overcome possible vulnerabilities.
What are your responsibilities as the VP, Cyber Technologies of the company?
I drive MITRE’s corporate cybersecurity strategy, serve as the champion for MITRE-wide cybersecurity capabilities, and oversee our innovation centers in cyber solutions, cyber operations and effects, cyber infrastructure protection, and software engineering. These centers comprise a team of more than 1,200 professionals developing innovative technologies that address the nation’s toughest cyber challenges to deliver new and enhanced capabilities for our sponsors and the public.
What have you failed at and how do you overcome challenges?
There is the saying that failure is the mother of success. Particularly in the business of discovering new knowledge and innovating technical solutions, I find it true that the path to success often entails many failed trials. An effective way to overcome such challenges is by applying scientific methods. I mentioned earlier that the key ingredients to innovation include questioning conventional wisdom and taking risks. A necessary step after that is to form new hypotheses or approaches and try them out. Like in all scientific endeavors, rarely does the first set of new hypotheses or approaches work out as planned. Objectively analyzing what assumptions were made often sheds light on possible causes of the failure and leads to improved hypotheses and approaches. Timely, persistent applications of such scientific methods eventually lead to success. It should be noted that not all failure is due to technology. Timing for introducing a technology is very important for the technology’s successful adoption. In those cases, building a coalition of the willing is an effective way to create a community of early implementers.
In your opinion, what are the primary technologies that have the potential to revolutionize the future of security?
Resiliency, in my opinion, is the holy grail of cybersecurity. Cyber threats constantly evolve, and so do cyber technologies that offer new cyber capabilities. Technologies and innovations that enable our systems (new and old) to be resilient and function through attacks will be the most desirable.
What would you say are the top two attributes to the success of a business leader?
For leading the business of science and technology innovation, 1) be farsighted, and 2) be results-driven. Being farsighted enables a leader to direct the business through any technological changes, while being results-driven enables a leader to get to the finish line and deliver the technologies with impact.
Kindly describe how you will specifically know what success looks like for you.
To me, success has to be measured by impact—not motions, not just actions, but the impact of actions. When I see our technologies being used by people to achieve cyber protection of their systems and their lives, then I know for sure that we have succeeded.
What advice would you give to the next generation of tech leaders?
Be open-minded, practice innovation, encourage out-of-the-box thinking and collaborative debate, keep up to date with emerging trends, think strategically, and anticipate disruptive technologies.
What are your future plans to sustain the company’s and your success?
I will continue to be a quarterback leading MITRE’s innovation in cyber technologies. Cyberspace is dynamic and fast-evolving. To continue getting ahead of threats, MITRE and its team of cyber experts are poised to address ever-changing threats via focuses on dynamic resiliency, critical infrastructure protection, full-spectrum cyber effects, and growing the cyber talent for the nation.