Career Notes 7.12.20
Ep 6 | 7.12.20

Bilyana Lilly: Turn challenges into opportunities. [Policy]


Bilyana Lilly: My name is Bilyana Lilly and I am a cybersecurity and disinformation researcher with a focus on Russia's behavior, and that's based at the Rand Corporation. I was born and raised in Bulgaria, which is in Eastern Europe. It's a both communist country, one of the poorest in Europe and a very pro-Russian country as well. I thought initially that I wanted to focus on international relations and at the age of 19, I left my country in order to study in Germany, in Bremen at the so-called Jacobs University there. And initially I started studying international economics and history and mathematics, but I wasn't as passionate as I thought I would be.

Bilyana Lilly: I had a really interesting experience one summer in 2005. I studied international humanitarian law in Kosovo a few years just after the Serbian Kosovo war. And that experience was really unique because every single morning as I was going to class, I was walking by, gutted churches and destroyed buildings. Although the Serbian Kosovo war has happened, a few years ago, there was still this visible impact from the war on the entire country. And it was such an important experience to me because it made me realize that there are no winners in war.

Bilyana Lilly: So after that, I decided I will focus on disarmament and nuclear proliferation. This was my first area, and in order to do that, I went first to Oxford University in England and I did a master's degree in Russian and European studies. And I focused initially on missile defense. I found a really good adviser there and decided that I wanted to understand Russia's strategic thinking. And the idea that came up at that time that was really popular was a research question that a lot of researchers couldn't yet answer in depth was why the Russian government is so opposed to missile defense in Europe. And I thought that idea was really interesting and I started researching it and I eventually wrote a book about it.

Bilyana Lilly: I've always been a foreigner in the countries where I've studied and worked. And when I started to work in the space, I was in my early 20s. And usually those the people that work in those space are as American and Russian and I'm Bulgarian with their Russian sounding accent. So it took a while to gain the trust of the community that I wanted to belong to. But I think I welcome those challenges because to me, they have made my life very interesting.

Bilyana Lilly: Mostly, I have managed to turn my challenges into opportunities.

Bilyana Lilly: I would advise any researcher or any student or individual who wants to join the space, create a lot, try to acquire some technical skills, take free classes online. You don't have to really invest a lot of money, especially in the beginning, into this. Maybe attend conferences. I learned a lot from attending DefCon and CyCon. Those are my two favorite platforms where I interact with members of the community. And I have found it so fascinating that the community is so diverse. I find it a wonderful opportunity to build my contacts and become and join the community.

Bilyana Lilly: I wish I had known earlier that individuals in this space are so approachable and so friendly that I could ask questions. I wish I had also known that it's OK not to know everything. And I have I have a certain level of comfort now asking if there is something I'm not aware of. If there is a technique I don't know how to use or a tool, I would like to explore, a malware sample I would like to know more about. Now I have I have people I can reach out to from the community and ask them directly the question that I would like to answer to. I wish I had known earlier that the community was so open to that sort of interaction.

Bilyana Lilly: I would like to be known for my ideas, for my research. I would also like ideally to have made an impact on policy and to have contributed to the Western understanding of Russia's strategic thinking. I know that the Russians and the Chinese, they're often considered as our adversaries, but I often note that from their perspective, their positions are relevant, they are righteous and they're correct. And I would like to bring the West towards being able to better understand the Russian perspective.