Career Notes 8.6.23
Ep 161 | 8.6.23

Manuel Hepfer: Discipline, self motivation, and steam. [Research]


Manuel Hepfer: Hello, my name is Manuel and I'm a cybersecurity researcher at a company called ISTARI and a research affiliate at Oxford University.

Manuel Hepfer: As a kid, uh, it was my dream, and it's probably similar to a lot of these kids, to become an astronaut at some point. So, uh, that went well, um, obviously that didn't happen, but, um, I remember seeing photos of Earth from space and I thought that was pretty cool, so that must be a once in a lifetime opportunity. But that didn't work out, so, um, yeah.

Manuel Hepfer: It was interesting in school. I had a lot of different interests. I mean, I was interested in languages, I was interested in, in some of the more STEM oriented fields, I had a big interest in, in, in computer science. Uh, which at the time, I guess, wasn't a big thing. Um, but I remember, uh, I was choosing an elective that was computer science in the broader sense, and I was coding in a programming language called delphi, which I don't think exists anymore. But I remember coding and I thought that was pretty cool because it gave you the opportunity to do things that are probably pretty hard to do in the real world. Um, so it almost felt like an endless, uh, world of opportunity and possibilities.

Manuel Hepfer: So I was studying a degree in Germany here in a university in the southern part of Germany that was a combined degree that combined computer science and business administration and management. And the reason why I chose that particular subject is all of that technical stuff is great and it's interesting, but I also wanted to apply that in the real world and we all know technology has profound implications for society and for businesses, and I wanted to explore that intersection between technology and, and businesses a bit more. So that's what I did my bachelor's degree in.

Manuel Hepfer: Before I ended up at ISTARI, I was doing a PhD in Cybersecurity and Strategic Management over at the University of Oxford. And I spent four and a half years there at the business school, again, interested in the intersection between business and technology, figuring out how companies can build resilience to devastating cyber attacks. Now I knew at the time that there's a lot of great research out there in computer science faculties, all around the world about algorithms and how you protect the information systems. But when I started in 2016, I was missing that organizational managerial aspect of how do you respond and recover to serious cyberattacks. So what I did empirically at the time was I compared how three global companies had responded to the same cyberattack. For the people in the world of cybersecurity, the cyberattack at the time was called NotPetya. It's still considered to be one of the most devastating cyberattacks and in each of these three companies, I got pretty good and deep access to the people there. And, uh, there's a lot of great things that emerged from that research. And I wanted to make that publicly available. There's a lot of great research that's being done in, at universities, but nobody ever knows about them because they're too theoretical. And, um, I wanted to spread the word because I felt like there's a lot of practical insights that I generated.

Manuel Hepfer: So I published a, an article in MIT Sloan management review, that's titled make cybersecurity a strategic asset. So, uh, I remember being in the final stretches of my PhD. I published an article, I felt great. Uh, I didn't know who was going to read it, but then somebody had reached out to me from ISTARI, which is a new company or was a new company at the time. And I had never heard of that company before, but, uh, the person that reached out to me and said, Hey, do you want to talk about your research? You know, that that's really great. It's really interesting. I think it took us two weeks or so to, to set up a call and as it turned out, this article that I had published somehow ended up on the desk of the leadership team of Temasek. Now, Temasek is one of the world's largest investors. They're based in Singapore. It's a Singapore based investment company. And they really liked the article so much so that they decided to send it out to about a dozen or CEOs of companies that they had invested in and they said, this is exactly what we need to be doing. And this is how we need to think about cybersecurity. So, um, the rest is history. I joined ISTARI, uh, on the back of that research. And ever since then, I've been part of ISTARI for now, two and a half years and, uh, still being able to do research into what drives and builds the resilience of companies in the wake of a devastating cyber attack.

Manuel Hepfer: There's a few mechanisms that I use, and one is sporty activities, so, uh, just go out for a run, decompress a little bit. But the other mechanism is just to talk through with, uh, with, with my girlfriend, with my partner, um, and, and, um, get her outside view on some of the things and oftentimes you realize that the things that are making you anxious don't matter in the bigger picture. You probably don't remember them in a year's time, uh, so, uh, that, that is helpful to remember as well.

Manuel Hepfer: So what's helped me is, um, that I've seemed to have found something that I'm really passionate about and if you have to work long hours or if you want to work long hours, uh, you better do that in a topic or a field that is really interesting and that you're very passionate about and I remember during my PhD, um, there was nobody who told me what to do. It was pretty much down to me, um, to continue to get up in the morning. Nobody had asked any questions if I didn't turn up at the office. And I think what I learned at the time is the value of discipline and self motivation. And now you can always come up with a lot of discipline and self motivation, but you'll run out of steam at some point if you're not very passionate about some of the things that you're doing. So I would say if there was one piece of advice is find the things you're passionate about.

Manuel Hepfer: I hope to be remembered by somebody who's been able to make a, an impact, an impact to make the, made the world a little bit of a better place. Now, in the world of cyber security, there is adversaries out there who are purposefully trying to create harm or cause harm. And with the research that I'm doing, and I realize it's resonating with people and it's helping people and organizations improve the way that they, uh, that they do things. I like to make an impact. I like to help these people. And this is also why at the time I was interested and so passionate about publishing that article about some of the practical implications of my research. So I like to be, I hope to be remembered as somebody who's been able to create change and a positive impact.