These days it’s not uncommon for four-year-olds to tinker with computers, but in the 1970s, when Contra Costa County CISO Patrick Wilson was a four-year-old, access to a computer was a big deal. When it was a home computer in the form of a Commodore Serial Number 17, to be precise, it was unheard of.

In fact, Wilson saw the Sinclairs and the V80s he used to have at a computer museum last year and it was truly a blast from the past. “It was like reliving my childhood.”

With early exposure to such tools, Wilson gravitated to technology. “Computers have always kind of made sense to me,” he says. At age 11 he did some game testing for a flight and shuttle simulator. When he was in junior college, he managed his school’s computer laboratory. And while enrolled at San Jose State University, he set up the first computer network in the dorms.

Strong anchors

But while Wilson was precocious, his life story was anything but linear. After a year and a half at junior college he was kicked out for not showing up to his classes. “When you explain to both your parents who are educators that you’re not going to school, that is probably one of the harder conversations to have,” he says. His father was the math and science director for the school district. Fortunately, Wilson’s parents kept an open mind.

“They weren’t helicopter parents,” he says, “They made sure that we did things safely but that we experienced life.”

One such experience was being a foreign exchange student in Venezuela, representing his local Rotary Club. “I was there during the military coup of ’92.”

Many years later, when Wilson decided to go back to school – he earned his business administration degree at the age of 30 – he had already amassed a fair number of years working for different companies.

And because his parents were bent on teaching him life lessons more than anything, they told him: “You can make your own money now. We’ll love you but we’re not going to pay for things.”

This approach was not at all new to Wilson. He remembers that he and his siblings had to finance their own summer activities. In fact, he had to pay for his own pilot’s license – which he first had at age 17.

Stumbling into mentors

It was an instructor at the junior college who was Wilson’s first mentor. Tina Domeray was teaching at the time he was setting up the computer training environment. “She and I had many conversations around what I wanted to do,” he says.

“She knew my passion was in computers…at that point I started focusing on networking and information security.”

Much later, Domeray urged Wilson to pursue a college degree and helped him negotiate a bonus that would allow him to continue his studies.

Domeray was one of many big influences. Wilson says it is important to have a wide-ranging support group including people who are above you, people who are on the same level as you, and people you mentor. “That gives you insight into what you are doing.”

For example, his interactions with Adobe CIO Mark Eagan, who was at Symantec at that time, and Jim Cates, Brocade CIO, were priceless. “They would call me in and ask me how to fix their printer and then I could call them and ask them how to provide leadership for, you know, a company that’s going through massive growth or those sorts of things.” Wilson was then in his mid-20s.

Despite getting his degree later than planned, Wilson believes things worked out because he surrounded himself with mentors that kept him accountable.

A string of engagements

Wilson says he can think like a computer but does not claim credit for it. “I think God gave me this talent. And I don’t know why me.” This talent took him to many places: Silicon Graphics, @Home Networks, Ascend Technologies, Vitria Technology and then Finisar, where he was director of IT. 

Through all these engagements, Wilson got better and better at identifying issues that organizations were having or scenarios that could cause issues for them. But he was dealing with other issues as well – personal ones. At around this time, Wilson was a father of two young children, and because he wanted to be around them while they were growing up. He decided to do consulting work.

It was not to stay that way for long. He was asked to join the team at Contra Costa County, starting as a project manager, overseeing IT-related projects. In 2009, he was asked to become their chief technology officer and chief information security officer. Three years later, he was also asked to oversee the medical application team.

A CISO in healthcare

There has been a lot of interesting work at Contra Costa County, Wilson says. He likes exploring how they can use technology to better serve the people.

He says he is fortunate that the teams he has led have delivered. “I just make sure that any roadblocks that are in their way are dealt with.”

Over time, perceptions about the CISO role have changed. More people are beginning to realize that a CISO is critical for the health of the organization. Wilson believes CISOs will increasingly be reporting to CEOs or even the Board of Directors.

Another trend Wilson sees is more vetting of third-party entities. “Third-party assessments are critical, especially in healthcare and manufacturing because we don’t do everything, right? We want to make sure that we have recourse and that our data is our data.”

Ever the risk manager

Wilson’s penchant for aiming high is not just metaphorical. “You talk about passion. I love to fly. I used to love to jump out of airplanes,” he says. He has had no less than 1,600 jumps – skydives – to his name. The height of his diving days coincided with his employment with a string of tech companies, where he worked graveyard shifts. Staying alert to skydive, especially when one jumps 10 to 15 times in a single weekend, became too difficult. “It just wasn’t safe.”

“It’s a total blast, but again, just like in information security, you do risk assessment. For me, I wanted to be around with my kids and I know there is risk that you can’t control. And so, what do you do? You just figure it out.”

Opening doors
Wilson acknowledges that tech skills are his strong point,but says “just because that’s my God-given talent doesn’t make it my kids’.” He thus makes it a point to allow his children to pursue their own interests, find their own calling, and be successful at it. “The robots are coming and I don’t want them living with me forever.”

Wilson’s children are not the only beneficiaries of his ability to encourage others to find their passion. When his son was in eighth grade, Wilson built a lab in their garage and gave hacking courses to his friends. At another time, Wilson spent weekends teaching kids a course called Fly to Learn – on the science behind flying. The following year, he taught a scratch programming class which the children enjoyed.

That Wilson always takes on the role of teacher or guide makes his story come full circle. He was, himself, taught and guided, first by his parents, and then the mentors that he met along the way. Now it’s payback time – to his own kids, to other kids, to members of his team.

“That’s why you need to be good in your field – so you have something to give back to the community at large.”