As companies around the world rushed to implement work-from-home technology and security for their employees when the pandemic hit in early 2020, Freedom Financial Network was fortunate to have an Information Technology team ready to meet the challenge. We recently sat down with one of the team’s leaders, Joseph Kamau, to learn more about him and why security is so critical to business success.
Freedom Financial Network: To start off, tell us a little about yourself.
Joseph Kamau: I’m the Chief Security Officer here at Freedom Financial Network and I’ve been with Freedom for three years and eight months. I was born and raised in Kenya. I am the fifth-born of a family of six. I’m married, and I have three boys, ages 14, 11, and 7. From a career perspective, I’ve been in information technology for at least 20 years, with 16 of those dedicated specifically to information security.
FFN: What is the most important thing people should know about the security team here at Freedom?
JK: They’re a talented, dedicated team, who work so hard every single day to make sure that all assets and our systems are safe and secure. In Information Security, we like to talk about security being everyone’s job, so other than the team, there’s an extension to our employees who are also increasingly aware about the information security threats that are out there and, obviously, help us in that venture.
FFN: How would you describe yourself in one word?
JK: I’d say an optimist.
FFN: You’ve had a very successful career, so looking back, what advice would you give to a younger Joseph?
JK: Growing up, my mom instilled in all of us the importance of gratitude. So, every day, we would write down a list of things that we were thankful for. And I still do that today. I have a checklist (and my family has a checklist) that helps me to stay grounded in the core human values of things such as respect, humility, patience, hard work, and empathy. But if I was to go back and think about this, I would tell myself to be a little more patient. It’s something that I practice every day, and hopefully, I’m getting better at it.
FFN: How do you take that advice and apply it to the people that you manage today?
JK: I try to be very patient and empathetic. InfoSec is not one of those sexy areas. When someone reaches out to InfoSec, there’s a need. What we try to do is make sure we’re meeting that need as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Obviously, customer service is huge.
I also try to encourage my team not to be too hard on themselves. Let’s keep delivering. There’s a constant message that’s coming from the senior leadership team to be empathetic; we have to make sure that we’re checking on our people during this time. Within our team, we meet every Friday. We have happy hours. We’re constantly checking on each other.
FFN: What about your work would surprise other people the most?
JK: Most people are aware that everybody receives spam messages, whether in texts or calls, and these interesting times have only added to the challenges there.
But probably what would surprise most people is that hackers aren’t just going after people on their laptops and email, they’re also getting into people’s smartphones. There are a lot of malicious apps out there that are being developed every single day that users are actually deploying on their smartphones. Unfortunately, some organizations are getting breached, and personal information is getting traded on a daily basis.
It’s alarming. I think the latest victim of that was the Garmin Map personal device, a company that we all use. They just got breached and locked out by ransomware. This stuff happens every single day on our most beloved devices that we all carry.
Watch Joseph’s interview here.
FFN: When we transitioned from an office-working situation to immediately having to go to a work-from-home environment due to COVID-19, what was the biggest concern for you?
JK: It didn’t start in March. This started two to three years ago when we developed our security roadmap, and part of that roadmap was to make sure that we’re not running security in a silo, and that we’re preparing for future needs. We developed a culture of collaboration and cohesivity that can coordinate quickly and effectively under pressure.
When COVID happened, and we started architecting a design for work-at-home solutions, the infrastructure team, the IT service desk, we all got together in a room and worked at designing an architecture that’s secure, but can also serve the business and employee needs.
I talk to my peers in other companies who are struggling massively at ensuring visibility, because that’s what you lose when employees work from home. When everybody’s in the office, you have tools to track all the activities. Once they’re at home, it becomes harder. When we architected our platforms, we made sure that the visibility stayed constant.
FFN: Did you ever foresee an event like COVID-19, which so quickly changed the way we function as a company?
JK: No. I don’t think anyone foresaw this event, and no one can imagine or has imagined the moment that we’re in today. What we benefited from, however, is that we already had a roadmap to cover controls. What COVID did is, it allowed us to push out those plans almost immediately.
Pulling it off so quickly, so that about 2,500 people could go from working in the office to working at home in under a month, took a huge amount of collaboration. Thankfully collaboration is built into our culture, especially within our IT and engineering departments. Then, we quickly worked with HR to design a security awareness training that’s focused on work-from-home and quickly delivered that to our user base.
FFN: You guys moved really quickly, and we were one of the first companies in the Phoenix area to be able to successfully transition people.
JK: It was a monumental task. I talked to my peers at other companies, who even now in August, are still struggling. For the most part, we’re over that hump, and running smoothly.
FFN: Tell us about what inspired you to join the Freedom Financial Network.
JK: As I said, I joined three years, eight months ago. I wasn’t looking for a job here at Freedom. One of my employees at my previous company had applied and gone through the interview process here at Freedom. When things did not work out, he gave my information to Linda (Luman, SVP of HR at Freedom), who contacted me and sold me.
I was, obviously, excited at the idea and the opportunity of building a cybersecurity program from the ground up. And, I’m inspired by the work we do to help change and deliver value for our customers and change their trajectory.
I’m also inspired by the teammates that we work with every day. The example about the work-from-home technology delivery, that’s actually very, very inspiring. Every single day I draw inspiration because we’re constantly solving difficult problems and building relationships, despite constant changes and interruptions. That’s what inspires me to stay.
The opportunity to deliver value to our customers is greater today than it has ever been. So, when we start seeing customers’ outcomes be differentiated, then you know you are part of something bigger than just being an information security professional. I enjoy being part of something like that.
FFN: Diversity is something that everyone is talking about right now. Do you have any ideas on what companies can do to keep the conversation going? How do we work toward a long-term solution?
JK: I think by setting up measurable, achievable goals. But I think, more importantly, trying to define what diversity and inclusion are — because they’re different things. We have a group here at Freedom, working to define that, and making sure we can improve the diversity and inclusion at Freedom.
When we talk about diversity, it’s many things. It’s race; it’s gender; it’s education; it’s many things. But in this case, especially if you look at our culture in the last three or four years, with the #MeToo movement and now George Floyd, diversity and inclusion are not luxuries, they’re things that corporations have to start addressing.
But Freedom is already a very progressive company. I would argue that we’re mostly there. But once we set measurable goals that are achievable, then we’ll start to make sure that every one of our employees – whether it’s current or future employees – feel included, valued, and respected. The key thing is that the opportunities to grow exist. That’s something we’re going to be working on within this group.
FFN: Do you think mentorship plays an important role in supporting under-represented groups in corporations?
JK: Oh, yes. I am a mentor both inside and outside my work at Freedom. I belong to an Information Security Leadership Group outside of Freedom, and right now, I’m mentoring a couple of students from Merritt College in the San Francisco Bay Area. As far as internal work, I also have a mentee here at Freedom.
I could not be where I am without mentors. I have mentors in every facet of my life, folks that I talk to on the outside who keep me grounded, but also help me grow. So, I love it. I wouldn’t be here without mentors, and I make sure I pay that back.
FFN: Last question: Is there a gadget that you couldn’t live without?
JK: I’m not a gadget guy. I have three boys, and they have all kinds of gadgets, and I’m forced to fly drones and build all kinds of toys. I read a lot, but if I have to say something that I could not do without, it’s my phone. My phone is the way I stay in touch with my family and with my friends. So, my gadget of choice is my phone.
FFN: Do you read books on your screen, listen to audiobooks, or do you actually prefer a physical book?
JK: I prefer physical books. And we also take trips a lot with my boys. We go camping, so we all listen to fun audiobooks that they can enjoy as well. But, yeah, you’ll catch me reading all day. I think somebody here at Freedom started a book club, and I’m looking forward to joining it.
Get to Know Freedom Financial and our leaders
Joseph is one of many outstanding leaders at Freedom Financial Network who leads by example, living our core values of Care, Integrity, Collaboration, and Getting Better. If you’re not already part of the Freedom Family, you can learn about career opportunities on the FFN jobs page.