Phil Venables: Cyber Security

Alumni Voices caught up with York alum, Phil Venables (1986 to 1989), Chief Information Security Officer at Google Cloud and a member of President Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Phil talks us through his work supporting governments and major enterprises;  upcoming trends in cyber security, especially relevant to us seeing him at the 50th Anniversary of Computer Science at the University of York, and how he uses his degree in his career every day.

I’m still in contact with some of the people I met in Alcuin College. It’s an amazing campus, it’s nice that it’s outside of the city and self-contained. 

I liked York’s college system so you could make friends with people you met in halls, not just in your department. A lot of people I know from other universities were friends with people in their department but nobody else, whereas I had friends in the Computer Science department and friends from my college so I think that was pretty unique. After the University of York I did a Master’s degree at Oxford and they had a college system too – I’ve never known anything other than a college system. 

In the early stages of my career I was a software engineer for the first five or six years after I left York; building systems in the defence, oil, and financial services industries. Then I worked on the security systems for many of the first internet banking web sites and high value payment systems.

I worked as Chief Information Security Officer or in other executive risk or board roles for a number of large banks and I’ve been in the Cyber Security Industry for well over 20 years now. For the past couple of years I’ve been at Google, in the role of Chief Information Security Officer for Google Cloud.

I’ve been in the U.S.A. for 22 years and a citizen for the last 12 years – in that time time I’ve done quite a bit of public service on various government advisory boards. I currently sit on President Biden’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST). The PCAST is made up of scientists, engineers and business leaders from a variety of backgrounds. I cover cybersecurity and technology as well as supporting other specialist work. I’m also on the information security and privacy advisory board of the National Institute for Standards and Technology. Committing to public service often sets you on a path to more public service, and it’s a great honour to serve one’s adopted country.

I believe cyber security is becoming increasingly important as we continue to digitise more of our personal lives, as well as our businesses and public services. It’s becoming ever more critical to ensure our personal lives are adequately defended from increasingly sophisticated and persistent threats. To do this means that we are focused on ensuring security is built in, not bolted on. The prevailing trend, against a backdrop of rising threats, is a need for more secure products. We will also see increasing regulations that stipulate basic security standards for all organisations to follow – this isn’t just in cybersecurity but will also address privacy, resilience and other technology related risks. At Google, and particularly Google Cloud, we are focused on exactly that mission; to make the secure path the easier path and to embed security by default, to support privacy by design and to constantly ensure our users and customers are defended. 

Through supporting students on the Venables Scholarship I’ve been able to help students, who don’t come from comparatively wealthy families, so they do not have to work during their vacations to help fund their studies. I believe it’s important to give students some financial resources to get some relief from that need so they can focus on their studies and research. When I was at the University of York I was sponsored by British Coal. In return for that funding I worked most vacations, developing and installing process control software across the UK’s, then, large coal mining industry. This was a great learning experience so I know how such support can be important. 

I think about this place a lot because I’ve been fortunate in my career that every single day I use some part of the foundational knowledge that I got from my Computer Science degree. Studying Computer Science covered everything; from the physics to the people and every part of that has somehow benefitted me. 

The fostering of interdisciplinary work between departments is really important. Computer Science doesn’t live in isolation, it’s there to support things – whether it’s health, energy, defence or finance – it’s embedded into all industries.  Having that experience of how to work in alignment and coordination with other departments and disciplines when students are at University is a tremendous  foundation for the future. 

The advice I’d give to someone in the Computer Science Department would be – be open to opportunities. Sometimes people have a fixed idea of what their career is going to be and then other opportunities come along that are actually better but because it doesn’t fit with their career plan, they may decide to close them off. I think being open to opportunities and, relatedly, remaining constantly curious is the most important thing. 

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