Chris Wolski’s cybersecurity journey began in the form of a gift from his grandmother – a computer with neither keyboard nor monitor.
What the computer had was a number pad. Underneath the numbers were three colors – red, green and blue. Wolski, then in seventh grade, and his brother, hooked the computer to the television and spent long hours tinkering with it.
The next gift, a neat TRS-80 Color Computer, still did not have a monitor, “but at least it had a keyboard. We figured out how to write programs and read the bits, the ones and zeroes off the computer and modifying it so that we could do other things than what it was intended to do.”
Both brothers ended up joining the military, where they honed their expertise in computers and cybersecurity. Chris has since moved to the private sector and is now CISO of Herman Miller.
“My grandmother would have been proud,” he said.
An officer and a gentleman
Enamored as he was with computers, first came duty. Nine days after his high school graduation, Wolski found himself in boot camp.
He worked his way up the Navy ranks, knowing all the while where his core strength lay. “In the 1980s, the big thing was ensuring that information was secured, data was protected, destruction processes were followed.” His talent and initiative stood out such that he was soon put in charge of groups spread across wide geographic areas.
Work had a lot to do with data – classification, collection, analysis. Among others. “Some of the work was cyber-related, some of it wasn’t. Some of it was forensics.” As computers became more and more common throughout the Navy, there was greater emphasis on protecting that information. “We had to protect devices to prevent inadvertent disclosure or even the wayward hacker or what not from getting into the information and embarrassing the United States, or blowing the tactical surprise.”
When Wolski retired, he did not really leave the military – at least not yet. He went back to the Navy, first as a contractor, and then he was hired as a government employee for another seven years doing industrial control cybsersecurity. He worked with the incident response team at the Pentagon, when he was tapped by the team of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Wolski thrived in the camaraderie and respect he enjoyed with his peers in the military. At the same time, he was curious. “I felt like I needed to see a broader world beyond the government.”
The private sector was an entirely new environment, and Wolski had his misgivings. “I was not sure how it would be. I’ve heard about uptight people and managers and deadlines and all the other stuff.”
It turns out his fears were unfounded. The concerns are similar, then and now, in the government and in the private sector. “It’s in the best interest of the companies to be able to have a good grasp on where the data is, how it’s being stored, how it’s being used. Because data is now an asset. It used to be just something that you had, now it’s actually an asset and it actually can cost companies money if it’s lost or if it’s mishandled.”
The business of security
Wolski recently completed his MBA from the University of Maryland, the same university from which he obtained his undergraduate in cybersecurity four years ago. His studies helped him have a better understanding of the other areas of the company, their functions, requirements, and roles in keeping the business profitable. “Sometimes if you are just tucked away in the government and just doing security, you may not have that bigger view of the picture.”
It’s not “only” security but a real business role. “You’re not only thinking about how important it is to maintain security and the privacy of the data. You’re also thinking how to leverage that to help the bottom line for the business.”
Back to the basement
Wolski treasures spending time with family and describes himself as a dedicated father to five kids even though they’re grown or living in other places. One is in the Navy, one is in the Marines, one just graduated high school and is on his way to engineering school. Another son is a high school freshman, and then a daughter lives in California.
When Wolski is not riding his beloved motorcycle, he is in his basement playing around with used computer parts. “I just tinker with them to see what I can do. I still got that tinkering thing that started all the way back when I was a kid.”
Giving back as a way of life
In his early years as a computer enthusiast, Wolski volunteered to teach in adult education classes. He showed his students how to open a computer, what the different parts inside it were – and that a floppy disk is not a coaster to put their coffee cups on.
That spirit of giving back has not gone away over time. For the last 10 years he has been a volunteer firefighter.
Giving back is a value he hopes he has inspired in his kids. “We try to be a family of giving to the country and giving to the community. That’s what I hope I’ve instilled in them so when they grow up they don’t just take things for granted.”