By SGN | 24 Oct 2023
In the mid-1990s, Shawn had to juggle his computer science studies at the National University of Singapore with a budding career as a Mandopop singer-songwriter.
“Back then, I could not attend lectures remotely while promoting my album in Taipei or Hong Kong,” he says. “I missed classes and struggled with turning in assignments on time. Fortunately, the teaching staff and my classmates were very supportive.”
A song he wrote, ‘Decision’ (决定), was featured on the Singaporean drama series Love at Last (真心男儿). Another called ‘See the Sunrise’ was performed on Hong Kong charity show Solar Project (太阳计划) by popstars such as Jacky Cheung, Leon Lai, Vivian Chow and Seiko Matsuda. “I was completely starstruck as a young composer to be in the company of these superstars!” he says.
Thrilling as these brushes with fame were, Shawn had a different long-term ambition in mind. “I had always wanted to pursue a career in high tech, even before I set foot in the music industry,” he reveals.
Cybersecurity is high-stakes work
Not long after graduation, he said goodbye to the pop world and stepped into tech roles in sales and marketing – first at Visio, then at Microsoft when it acquired the former in 2000.
In 2005, while Shawn was working at Symantec – which owned the Norton family of security products – a friend in the States recommended him for an open position at Microsoft. “I flew to the US for a two-day interview. It turned out that the hiring manager was someone I knew, and we bonded immediately,” he recounts. Less than an hour after the final interview, Shawn was offered the job.
Moving abroad was a joint decision made with his wife Phyllis. “We both thought it was a great opportunity for us to live outside Singapore. If nothing else, we could gain some working experience in the US for a few years,” he explains. When he left for Seattle the next year, his wife stayed behind to prepare their belongings to be shipped. “About three months later, she called and broke the happy news: we were expecting our first child, Aaron!”
Joining Microsoft in Redmond, Washington, Shawn travelled across the country to speak at events and spread the word about security solutions to IT professionals. Later, he transitioned to an engineering role, working under Chief Information Security Officer Bret Arsenault for 10 years.
Today, he operates on the frontlines of digital attacks as a Cybersecurity Architect. The consulting teams he leads have aided many Fortune 500 companies to manage dire security breaches such as ransomware attacks and minimise the disruption to business operations, be it a stock exchange or a power grid.
The work involves long and irregular hours, especially when a firm’s global network across multiple time zones is compromised. From initial containment to outwitting and evicting the threat actor to restoring all systems, a full recovery process can take four to six weeks.
“When you’re in the thick of it, you don’t realise how time flies. You go to sleep wondering when the next call will say something broke again,” he says. “It’s a mentally and physically draining job, but enormously satisfying when we get the job done!”
Cyber threats, he points out, have grown incredibly sophisticated and well-resourced – whether the aggressors are state-sponsored or merely opportunistic. While software makers have security specialists that look for bugs to patch, cyberattackers are constantly on the hunt for the same weak spots to exploit.
“Cybersecurity work has become very high-stakes and a lot tougher,” Shawn says. “The minute you’re engaged, it is game on.”
Blazing a path of his own
Inspired by his dad’s journey in the tech world, Aaron has stepped up as a young cybersecurity specialist. Far from simply following in his father’s footsteps, however, the high school senior has already begun blazing a path of his own.
During the recent summer holidays, he became a double-certified Microsoft architect, passing the advanced Cybersecurity Architect and Azure Solutions Architect Expert exams.
Aaron has also become an advocate for cybersecurity education. In August, he presented a proposal to include cybersecurity fundamentals as a high school graduation requirement. “I was humbled and encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response from the Washington State Board of Education,” he says. At the Microsoft BlueHat Conference in October, he earned a rare opportunity to present his ideas to top security researchers in the industry.
“Cybersecurity is impacting our lives more than ever,” Aaron points out. “Yet most colleges and universities today don’t even offer cybersecurity as an undergraduate programme. I think there is an opportunity for me to help inspire students and young adults to pursue a career in cybersecurity and hopefully change the discourse in a meaningful way.”
Shawn agrees that much more can be done. “As an industry, we have underestimated the pace of technological advancement and under-invested in cybersecurity education. As a result, we continue to pay the price for using insecure software and computer systems,” he says.
Aaron was a presenter at the Microsoft BlueHat Conference 2023, a gathering of top security experts in the industry.
Earlier in July, Aaron launched the Cyber Empowerment podcast, where he interviews successful cybersecurity professionals in order to encourage more youths to enter the field.
His impressive lineup of guests includes Scott Guthrie of Microsoft, Rodolfo Hinojosa of Remitly, and Lucine Wang of Uber. “I wanted to invite guests from a myriad of backgrounds and ethnicities and ask them to share their views on DEI,” Aaron adds. “Cybersecurity is about thinking outside the box and approaching a problem from different perspectives. I think diversity of experience is a great way to bring diversity of thinking into the industry.”
Growing up away from Singapore
Despite having grown up nearly all his life in the States, Aaron has developed a love for iced Milo and – much like his dad – a taste for black carrot cake and spicy food.
The other thing he longs for is proficiency in his mother tongue. “Chinese is not taught at my high school, so I take private classes,” he says. “Still, I talk to my grandparents almost every week on video call with my broken Chinese.”
He is very much looking forward to them visiting this winter. “My grandma will make Chinese herbal soup for my sister and me with ginseng and pork ribs. And before she leaves, she often makes sambal chilli paste and stores it in the freezer to last us over a year!”
Although raising his children overseas has meant being apart from the extended family, Shawn says the experience has taught Aaron and his sister to be independent. “As a family, we stuck together through the years and learnt how to be adaptable,” he says.
Looking ahead, Aaron dreams of becoming an entrepreneur and inventor – like his father, who obtained a US patent in 2014 – or an academic in cybersecurity.
“My dad is an inspiration to me,” he says. “Going from singer-songwriter to software architect at Microsoft, he always says ‘Life is a journey’ and I see why the statement is not merely metaphorical to him!”
“One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt from him is the power of human networks,” he continues. “He has friends from practically every corner of the world and often invites them over for dinner whenever they are in town. Meeting them and listening to their conversations, I’ve learnt a great deal about cybersecurity and different cultures around the world.”
Witnessing Aaron’s growth as an individual, Shawn is proud of his son’s can-do attitude, even in the face of great difficulty or uncertainty.
“I don’t want him to just follow my path. I encourage him to explore the world, learn from others, form his own views and discover what motivates him,” he says. “He has already exceeded my expectations of what a 16-year-old can achieve. He is a one-of-a-kind trailblazer.”
Shawn is a Cybersecurity Architect at Microsoft who has nearly two decades of experience in security and privacy. Prior to his tech career, he was a Mandopop singer-songwriter active in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Connect with him here.
Aaron is a Microsoft-certified Azure Cybersecurity Architect and Azure Solutions Architect, and the first non-collegiate Microsoft Student Ambassador. As creator and host of the podcast Cyber Empowerment, he interviews cybersecurity experts on their career journeys.
Connect with him here.