Cisco Talos has a long-standing relationship with Ukraine, so when Russia invaded the country earlier this year, things hit close to home. Cisco Talos leaders rallied together to provide cybersecurity threat hunting to vital infrastructure, humanitarian support and goods and services to employees and their families in the region.
Ashlee Benge, Amy Henderson and Sammi Seaman spearheaded initiatives to support and sustain Ukrainian employees and threat hunters working around-the-clock to prevent cyberattacks and remember the human element. Even in the midst of crisis, they’ve facilitated open communication, emphasized mental health and cultivated connection.
Given Ukraine’s unique position on the front lines of cyberwarfare, Cisco Talos has had a very close partnership with Ukraine. The threat intelligence team has worked with several partners in the country from a cyber threat perspective. That long standing connection is part of why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been felt so deeply. “Some Ukrainian team members evacuated before the invasion, others did not,” said Amy Henderson, head of strategic planning & communications. “Our teams of threat hunters have been around-the-clock hunting in the data since the invasion. They’re stopping attacks from happening.”
Cisco Talos set up Cisco Secure Endpoint on about thirty partners’ organizations and extended the offering to critical infrastructure organizations in Ukraine such as hospitals, directly monitoring Cisco Secure Endpoint, “because their people are busy doing other things right now. They can’t sit at a screen,” Henderson said.
Lead of Strategic Business Intelligence Ashlee Benge directs the Ukraine Threat Hunting Task Unit which requires empathy, compassion and an awareness of the needs of forty-five threat hunters. Veteran threat hunters with decades of experience have volunteered to contribute to the team while other members of Cisco Talos have also volunteered their skill sets to the work. Benge values the distinct contributions of her team members and describes them as, “quite brilliant and very good at their jobs. Talos does a really good job of hiring good people, and so the worst thing that I could do is get in their way.” Getting in their way looks different for different team members which is why Benge has established trainings and consistent ways to evaluate that the needs of her team are being met.
The nature of such a demanding, on-going situation coupled with the team’s dedication can lead employees to work themselves into the ground. To combat this, leaders maintain weekly check-ins that include asking employees how they’re taking care of themselves and checking for signs of burnout. “When you have rest you’re at peak performance and can problem solve. But when you start burning out and get to be irritable and snappy, you’re not able to problem solve. Just step back. You’ll be in a much better head space,” Henderson advises.
Stepping back has meant rotating projects to level out activity levels and urgency. Leaders have also stepped in to ensure employees take time off and that when they’re away, they’re fully away. “When you’re in such a high intensity environment it takes two to three days just to come off of that. If you’re only taking a day here or day there, you’re not even scratching the surface of coming down. So I’ll suggest maybe you need to take a week and completely recharge,” Henderson says.
Team Lead of Employee Experience Sammi Seaman was heartened by Cisco’s support of Ukrainian employees including helping employees and their families out of cities and into new housing. The humanitarian focus led Seaman to ask “How else can we help? Our colleagues have had to leave their homes and they’re still trying to do work. How do I get them necessities like medicine and shampoo?”
Seaman’s empathy and collaboration within her team and with Cisco Talos leadership led to determining the highest needs including more stable internet and navigating the transport of goods directly to employees and their families through freight mail. Seaman worked with her team to ensure necessary items like medical kits could get directly to people who needed them as quickly as possible. There are also pages available coordinating housing, transportation and other forms of support.
“It’s been interesting to think about people needing medicine for various reasons and that I’m also buying Legos and castles so that the children who have been displaced have toys and things that bring them joy and allow them to be kids in this situation,” Seaman said.
As Seaman prepared more boxes to ship, an employee shared a photograph of his daughter with some of the things Seaman had sent. “I just started crying. It was such a relief.” A relief she wanted to share, leaving the boxes for a moment to connect with other team members around the positive impact of their hard work.
“Despite all of these things that are happening around us that are horrific and awful and things that shouldn’t be happening, there are still things that we can celebrate. We’re still humans who have feelings, relationships, milestones and holidays.” – Sammi Seaman
Remembering children also became important during spring holidays. Through asking employees if they celebrated Easter and if they’d like Easter baskets, she learned that many employees celebrated traditional Orthodox Ukrainian Easter and would appreciate the baskets.
Seaman’s colleague researched what people in Ukraine typically put in their Easter baskets and together they made the baskets, boxed them up and shipped them. “The baskets weren’t a necessity but were nice to remind people that despite all of these things that are happening around us that are horrific and awful and things that shouldn’t be happening, there are still things that we can celebrate. We’re still humans who have feelings, relationships, milestones and holidays.”
Outside of work, Benge competes as an Olympic weightlifter. After months of training, her first national level meet was scheduled to happen early into the war in Ukraine. She considered withdrawing given the 24/7 nature of Cisco Talos’ response. However, “only because of the support of those around me,” Benge decided to compete—while working from her phone in the warm up room between lifts. The physical movement allows Benge to manage her mental health and stress while modeling self-care for the team: “If I can’t be my own best self, then the people around me can hardly be expected to do the same.”
Self-care and mental health are so important to the team that Henderson and Benge recently joined their colleagues, Matt Olney, the director of threat intelligence and interdiction, and Strategic Communications Leader Mitch Neff on a Cisco Secure podcast about mental health. The conversation illuminated the importance of reaching out for help, utilizing support systems such as those provided by Cisco and talking to someone including a therapist.
“Using those types of resources is a valuable thing, particularly when managing very high levels of stress and anxiety that come with cybersecurity. No matter what kind of support it is that we need, it’s important to take that time and recognize that it’s valuable to invest in your own mental health,” Benge stated.
Seaman shared that because it can be hard to ask for help or delegate, when she does, she gives herself a pat on the back. She advises that especially in crisis situations it’s important to remember that while things need to get done, it’s not entirely on you to get those things done. “The leadership at Cisco Talos has really emphasized that you’re not alone. The employee assistance program has been a great resource and I’ve got a therapist that I talk to about these things and make sure that I’m taking care of myself so that I can continue to take care of others.”
The team’s bond and purpose run deep. “We care deeply about everyone that we work with. It’s okay to not be on at all times. It’s okay to feel sad and it’s okay to feel anxious. One of the things that I’ve loved about working with Cisco Talos, especially during these more difficult things, is that everybody’s got your back and they make it a safe space to share those feelings. I truly feel like the people I work with are like my family. We’re curated an environment where we can all talk about what we’re going through.”
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