Finding purpose in engineering: interview with Estee Van Der Walt

20th August 2021

How do you bring together engineering and a higher purpose of doing good for humanity in your day job? That was the question that Estee Van Der Walt, architecture lead at Nominet Cyber, asked herself as she decided which direction to take her career.

The answer – cyber security.

With a Master’s Degree in hand and having worked in engineering for over a decade, Estee began speaking to a former professor about pursuing a PhD. Her interest had already been piqued during her work at a financial institution, where she spent time observing fraud and revenue leakage. This ultimately led her towards developing a thesis on identity deception detection on social media networks and her work at Facebook.

“Computers were new and interesting when I was 11 years old. It was probably the moment that I wrote a very simple program to move a little green square across the screen that I knew I loved computer science,” said Estee. “From computer programs to working with systematic processes, my passion is finding solutions to problems through engineering – security is a great use case for that.”

Cyber security

When you boil it down, cyber security is an issue felt most by those people being attacked, whether it is your personal data that has been stolen or a ransomware attack that has made it impossible for you to access a particular service.

“Cyber security matters to real people and that gave me a bigger purpose,” said Estee.

This stays true on a tactical level. As an engineer, when you’re designing systems, it helps to think about the operator at the other end. If we make their life easier, more people will ultimately be better protected from cyber attacks.

Cross functional teams of the future

Cyber security also brings together some interesting teams and types of people. While the engineering discipline tends to be quite forgiving, with flex to facilitate different business outcomes, security tends to be more rules focused, as it’s founded in standards and legislation for which the objective is to minimise risk. This is only made more interesting by the fact that the environment we’re working in is constantly changing, with techniques both to launch a cyber attack and to defend against one evolving every day. It is a constant arms race.

Looking to the future, Estee sees cross-functional teams with engineering experts and cyber analysts coming together to share, collaborate and progress cyber defences. “There will always be a few engineers that also have great knowledge of cyber security. To be a specialist in both, however, is a real unicorn. Particularly, when you consider that this is no small feat to find cyber security engineers with 15 plus years of rich experience in this field.”

In her current role, Estee works with a multitude of individuals and different types of teams, with tasks ranging from collaborating with the security team to discussing requirements and deployment to the end customer. In capturing her own experience, she says:

“I’ve learnt over the years that I can help to make a difference in cyber security. While I’m undoubtedly an introvert, when you come together and collaborate, you find other people just as passionate about the same topics. What’s more, as an engineer working in security, I get to make even more of a positive impact on humanity and the world around me.”