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The man who hacked his career

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Charles Orton-Jones meets Sebastian Harris, who has tapped into the burgeoning cybersecurity industry in style

“I think cybersecurity is sexy. Does that sound crazy?” Actually, it doesn’t. Right now, cyber is smoking hot.

When Russian agents were apprehended in the Netherlands trying to commit sabotage, it was an entirely cyber operation. The Ministry of Defence is cyber-obsessed, recently announcing the launch of the Cyber Cadets programme. The biggest threat to a company’s reputation comes from hackers these days – look at Yahoo, the retailer Target and Facebook.

If James Bond were created today, he’d be a cyber-spy. It’s easy to see why an ambitious young project manager like Sebastian Harris vowed to make cybersecurity his career.

“I was 18 and living in Leeds,” he recalls. “But I knew this was the sector I wanted to work in. I took a gamble and travelled to London for the Infosecurity Europe conference. I walked from stand to stand, talking to the directors of companies there, particularly northern ones, asking for a job. Not the traditional method! The approached worked. I got offered an interview by a company called RandomStorm. A week later, I had a job. It was a bold move, looking back.”

His next master stroke was immediately jumping from dealing with clients into the project management unit at his new company. Suddenly, this energetic but unfocused young man was in the career he was born to do.

“Project management is the way I’m wired,” says Harris. “I have a structured mindset. I like to see things evolve from the very start into completion as a physical thing. It’s a natural fit for me. I wake up every day and am excited to come to work. That’s not something I would have thought possible when I was at school.”

His aptitude is obvious. Harris has been promoted again and again. And his company has exploded in size via two mergers and acquisitions. Now, this fresh-faced 25-year-old boasts the title of regional head of security, networks and operations delivery for NCC Group – the largest British company in the industry, with 35 offices across the globe.

It’s an extraordinary job. “At any one time I look after up to 100 projects,” says Harris. “I run teams of consultants and project managers, taking cyber projects from inception to delivery.” He even handles recruitment for these projects from the vast pool of experts at his disposal.

The variety of work is so diverse that he finds it hard to summarise. In brief, he’ll help clients (typically FTSE 100) fill the gaps in their armour. The details are kept under wraps for security reasons. “It could be a firewall they need. We build it for them and, when it’s live, we monitor their traffic and respond to incidents. My role entails managing costs, encouraging revenue and working with our clients. In real terms, that means a lot of emails, meetings and phone calls. I love it!”

As career progression goes, it’s hugely impressive. So how on earth did he do it, rising from newbie to industry leader? The first element is his obvious love of the job. He’s a walking advertisement for project management. “When you are a project manager, people depend on you massively; you will be the beating heart of the project and have a direct influence over the project’s outcome.”

Second is his durability. He stresses that this is the one quality he thinks project managers need more than any other. “Developing a thick skin and having a huge amount of persistence will pay dividends. There is a saying I really like: ‘Fall down seven times, get up eight.’ Being organised is crucial. Grit and persistence are possibly even more important.”

Having a mentor has been a big help. In fact, for Harris it’s been critical. “My mentor is a guy called Lee Driver. He was my boss at the company that bought RandomStorm, and we’ve worked together since then. His mentoring is very informal, which works best for me. He’s got a really nice management style, which I’ve learned from. He is very relaxed. He gives his staff time and opportunity to grow. He doesn’t impose his own agenda. I try to do that too. I try to allow my teams to grow at their own pace. I believe everyone should have a mentor.”

Qualifications also help. Harris is qualified in PRINCE2®, agile and ITIL – a set of detailed practices for IT service management. But he knows he needs more. “I want to learn more about how to grow. I am trying to become a more rounded professional.”

One vital job he’s taken on is the drafting of formal processes for cyber projects. Cyber is such a new industry that many projects see a specific job attempted for the first time. It’s his job to turn the hotchpotch of learnings into something systematic. “We want to turn ad hoc delivery into a production line approach. Then we can give teams instructions and guidelines, with milestones – and then we can use a waterfall delivery method.”

Harris does this by composing project sequence documents, which contain every instruction and lesson future teams will need. These are amended time and time again. “They are in standard document format, put together by various people in the business. It means that, when we have a client who needs a managed service, we can respond quickly.”

Perhaps best of all for his career in the IT industry, because Harris works as a project manager, he gets a bird’s-eye view of the entire cyber realm. Unlike engineers, who might only see their niche, he’s now an authority on the full gamut of cyber issues. “In the last few years, I have worked in project teams within boutique and start-up businesses, AIM-listed companies and FTSE 250 cybersecurity companies. Furthermore, I’ve been able to progress my career from project coordinator to regional head while on this journey. This experience allows me to better understand how our clients’ project teams operate.”

Naturally, moving so fast means he’s made mistakes. Sometimes his enthusiasm can get the better of him. “Biggest mistake? Not saying ‘no’ enough. Early in my career I would say ‘yes’ to every opportunity, every project and every request. Although saying ‘yes’ is encouraged by many, it can, on occasion, absorb your time on less-than-valuable opportunities. As a result, you may miss some great breaks.”

But running a 100-strong portfolio of projects in his mid-20s is proof of Harris’s capabilities. He’s also secure in the knowledge that the industry is lucrative, soaring in size and full of international opportunities, if he chooses to go that way. Harris feels this is just the start: “Many companies still don’t take cyber seriously enough. They chance it. It’s crazy, especially with the fines brought in by GDPR. They are going to have to focus on it, whether they like it or not.”

Not bad for a career kick-started by a speculative trip to London.

Charles Orton-Jones is a business journalist and editor

Sebastian Harris

Age: 25

Qualifications: PRINCE2®, Agile, ITIL

Current position: Regional head of SNO delivery, NCC Group

Previous roles:

  • Programme manager, NCC Group
  • Project manager, NCC Group
  • Client support engineer, RandomStorm


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