Episode 124– Don’t be Afraid to Dive into a New and Interesting Field to Move Your Career to the Next Level with Kristina Balaam

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Phil’s guest on today’s show is Kristina Balaam. Currently she is working as a security intelligence engineer for Lookout, which specializes in mobile security. Kristina’s main role there is to reverse engineer malware.

In the preceding years Kristina has worked for Shopify, Resolution and DropDot in a range of application development roles. She is currently studying for an MSc. in Information Security Engineering.


(1.03) – So, Kristina, can you expand on that brief introduction and tell us a little bit more about yourself? Kristina explains that her days are mostly spent searching out malicious apps on Android and iOS, which she then reverse engineers. At times, she is also involved in tracing them back to malicious actors and trying to work out what their motivation is and classifying malware for the industry.

(1.46) – Phil asks her what happens to the information she is collating. Kristina explains that Lookout is an endpoint security company. This means that they focus on post perimeter security. So, most of what they uncover is shared with application developers, with the aim of enabling them to build secure applications.

In addition, her findings are used to continually improve Lookout’s range of security products, which includes Lookout for Work and the Lookout client option.

(2.51) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. career audience? Kristina shares something that she discovered fairly late in her career. When she started out, she did not understand just how vital being visible was when it comes to career progression.

Blogging, speaking at conferences and social media are all great ways to share what you are passionate about. When you share in these ways the chances of your landing work in a field that really interests you are greatly improved.

(3.53) Phil asks her how important social media has been for her in terms of engagement and whether there has been a particular platform that she benefits from more than the others. Surprisingly, Kristina is finding Instagram to be an effective social media platform. The IT community is surprisingly active there. Lots of people are sharing caption photos for their latest blog posts, so it is a great way of getting noticed.

(4.38) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? Kristina’s worst IT moment happened during her final year at university. Her plan was to be a game developer. So, she was thrilled when she, along with her fellow students, she was given the chance to develop a short game and present it to the board of Ubisoft.

The students were split into teams and given six weeks to build their games using Unreal Engine. Unfortunately, one week before the presentation, two members of her team members dropped out. Worse, it turned out that they had not done much while they had been around. Most of the tasks they had been assigned were nowhere near being completed. The remaining members of the team had to pull 3 or 4 all-nighters to try to catch things up, so that they had something to present.

In the end, Kristina’s team had a game to present. But, two minutes into their presentation the game failed and they could not get it started again. For Kristina this was devastating. Basically, all of their hard work had been for nothing.

(6.56) – What did you learn from that experience? At the time, Kristina thought she had blown any chance of getting hired and that her dream of becoming a game developer was in tatters.

In reality this was not the case. Every member of her team ended up being offered jobs by that company, something which taught her not to dramatize this type of situation. It turned out that their failed presentation was not the big deal they all thought it was. There were no long-term negative consequences for them.

It also taught her the importance of being prepared for things to go wrong. She explains that she is not suggesting that people should be pessimistic, rather that they be realistic about what can go wrong and try to be prepared for those eventualities.

(8.35) – Phil asks Kristina what her best career moment was. Kristina says that landing the job that she has now has definitely been a highlight. From the moment she got involved with security work, Kristina knew that she wanted to become a malware researcher. But, she knew that landing a role like that was a long way off because she did not have the relevant qualifications.

However, she worked hard to fill the skill gap. She read as much as she could about malware research. When she decided to take her masters, she made sure that she looked at courses that were strongly related to malware research. The net result is that she landed her dream role far sooner than she expected despite the fact that she had relatively little experience.

(10.53) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? For Kristina the fact that you can do any type of work you want is exciting. It is relatively easy to change disciplines and get involved in something new. There is so much variety with new technologies coming along all of the time, so finding something you like and are good at is not hard.

(12.01) – Are there any areas that are particularly inspiring to you, at the moment? Kristina is very interested in the way that malware authors adapt their approach to keep pace with what people like her. Naturally, she wants to keep people safe, but she also finds working in this semi-combative environment to be exciting.

There is always something new and interesting to uncover in the world of malware research. For example, someone has recently developed malware that does not launch until it detects that the device owner is on the move. This is a new and innovative way of getting around traditional malware detection techniques.

(13.20) – What drew you to a career in IT, Kristina? As a child, Kristina really enjoyed playing video games and was never far from her computer. When she was about 9 she began to learn HTML and JavaScript simply because she wanted to customize a website called Neopets. That was when she fell in love with coding.

(14.02) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Kristina said her dad told her not to be afraid to network. That piece of advice has proved to be invaluable throughout her career. Although, like Phil, to begin with, when her confidence levels were not high, she found networking to be very hard to do.

(14.20) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Kristina said she would jump right into information security.

(14.17) – What are you currently focusing on in your career? Right now, Kristina is doing all she can to grow her skills. She also wants to speak at more conferences and publish some new research.

(15.11) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Kristina has found her ability to communicate effectively to be invaluable. It helps here to manage potentially difficult social situations within teams and organizations.

(15.48) – Phil asks Kristina to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. Kristina’s advice is not to be afraid to jump into an area that interests you. The industry is evolving so quickly that it really does not matter much if you do not have lots of experience. Everyone is continuously learning anyway, so you are not going to be the only one who is working to acquire new skills.

Usually, you will get a warm welcome from those already working in the field. They want people to share their passion, so are normally only too happy to help you to learn and grow.


(10.35) KRISTINA – “It took a lot of focus and dedication and work, but it ended up being really rewarding.”

(11.47) KRISTINA – “There really is something for everyone and anyone with an interest in computers, software or technology in general.”

(14.13) KRISTINA – “Do not be afraid to network, networking can actually be incredibly valuable.”

(16.00) KRISTINA – “Do not be afraid to jump into something that interests you, even if you don’t feel like you have very much experience in it.”


Twitter: https://twitter.com/KristinaElise

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kebalaam/

Website: http://www.about.me/kristinaelise

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