Senior engineers at L3Harris Tewkesbury explain the ins and outs of a career on the frontlines of cyber security
Cyber security represents an ever-growing threat to governments, corporations and individuals, and is one of the fastest expanding areas of the defence sector. As a result, cyber offers an increasing number of job opportunities and has become a highly attractive career path for young engineers, particularly those that enjoy problem solving and fast-paced environments.
While the average experience with cyber threats may be limited to email hacks and computer viruses – the type of things we see in news headlines – there is of course a less visible information battle being fought behind the scenes, as governments seek to protect highly sensitive data from adversaries.
“L3Harris primarily focuses on the latter, the very well-funded, highly technically advanced threat actors,” Alastair Boulton, software engineering manager at L3Harris in Tewkesbury, told The Engineer.
Our technologies are used to protect national security, to guard against loss of life, counter-terrorism, global cyber security and more
“We design, build and support devices that protect data at the very highest level of classification for UK government entities such as the Ministry of Defence and police, in addition to friendly overseas governments.”
Boulton joined L3Harris 20 years ago as a graduate software engineer in the cyber security department after completing an electronics apprenticeship and Open University degree. As cyber threats have evolved, so too has his career, and he now heads up a team of more than 50 people and has ultimate responsibility for the output of the Software Engineering Department.
“Cyber security makes up about 50 per cent of business for the L3Harris Tewkesbury site, it grows with the threat and you only have to watch the daily news to know that cyber-crime is certainly not going away anytime soon,” he said. “At Tewkesbury we employ around 300 people. Of that, 120 are engineers and at least half of those work on our cyber security projects.”
Boulton’s colleague James Cooper is another product of L3Harris career ladder, having started with the company as a graduate engineer 17 years ago. Today, he’s a solution architect, a job with a wide remit but which fundamentally involves matching up engineering capability with customer problems, making sure that the twin demands of speed and security are each given their due respect.
“The key challenge is balancing the amount of rigorous design and documentation necessary to develop critical cyber security products against the need to iteratively keep pace with threats and cryptographic specifications, harnessing continuous improvement and agile approaches to reduce the time to capability deployment,” said Cooper.
It’s a highwire act, staying ahead of emerging threats while building robust solutions that can stand up to the toughest scrutiny. For obvious reasons, neither Cooper nor Boulton can point to specific instances where the company’s technology has been used to prevent a cyber-attack, but they can paint a picture of the type of scenarios where it provides a vital line of defence.
“A hypothetical case study would be where our network crypto products are used to protect classified battle plan data being passed between a mission control room and a front-line operating unit as part of a battlefield scenario,” Cooper explained.
“The enemy would naturally have a vested interest in attacking the data being passed, whether that is to read it to gain an advantage, or modify it in order to foil or disrupt the attack plans. The technology in our products prevents the data in transit being read or tampered with – hence thwarting the attack.”
This type of data protection is the key feature of CATAPAN, a government-grade encryption device that sits at the heart of L3Harris’s cyber security product portfolio. CATAPAN is approved for protecting data-in-transit via IPsec (Internet Protocol Security) with a strength of cryptography appropriate for TOP SECRET data.
“In addition to this we perform R&D on a wide range of lower technology readiness level capabilities including cryptographic key generation and management devices, cross-domain solutions, data-at-rest encryption,” said Cooper. “The list goes on!”
Although a solid technical grounding is obviously required to work in cyber, much of the work done in Tewkesbury is unique, requiring on-the-job learning and peer support. Ultimately, the unorthodox work and its potential real-world impact can also be a major incentive for young engineers looking for an exciting career path.
“A lot of what we do is cutting edge, and because the nature of it, you won’t find it in a training course or at university,” said Boulton.
“Defence isn’t an area that I was particularly interested in when I joined the company, but now that I am in it, I can see why it attracts so many people to it. At the end of the day, what we do matters. Our technologies are used to protect national security, to guard against loss of life, counter-terrorism, global cyber security and more. It is knowing that the work you do has so much value that inspires and motivates you to do the best job possible.”
For those considering a career in cyber security, Cooper recommends a foundation in a speciality area such as software, FPGA (field-programmable gate array), PCB (printed circuit board) design or RF (radio frequency). Building on that with communication, documentation and analytical skills is a good next step, backed up by that all-important hunger to learn. Though it may seem something of a niche area from the outside, cyber security is actually quite broad and there are roles for people with differing skills, according to Boulton.
“Cyber can be anything from implementing an encryption algorithm, to configuring a firewall in a network, to digital forensics following a cyber-attack,” he said.
“Look for the area that interests you, if you like coding then you may be better placed in a cyber defence company, developing solutions to ‘prevent the event’. If you are more on the IT analysis side then digital forensics may be a better option at a government agency. The main thing is to have a personal interest in the work and to have a good logical problem-solving mindset. We are engineers and we spend our days solving tough problems – if that interests you then you are on the right track.”
L3Harris in Tewkesbury has circa 300 employees and counting but successfully competes against much larger businesses delivering electronic systems in the fields of electronic warfare and cyber security. Click here to find out more about the orgnisation’s work in electronic warfare and cyber security.