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How I Became A CISO: Mark Potter, Danya International

Much like one of his favorite choose-your-own-adventure novels, Mark Potter's path to the chief information security officer job was full of twists, turns, and a couple of falls off a cliff.

"In some ways -- OK, a lot of ways -- I fit the stereotypical computer geek profile," says Mark Potter, CISO of Danya International. Potter is a self-described introvert who was big into Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), comic books, video games, and mapping out every possible scenario in choose-your-own-adventure novels. Yet he didn't find his way into an information technology career until after meandering down some other paths.

After high school, Potter joined the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves. He worked as a security guard, an apprentice mechanic, and a warehouse worker. One day in the warehouse, he picked up a book to kill time after finishing all his work for the day. His supervisor flatly told him, "No reading," and Potter realized that this was not the career for him.

His father gave him a choice. He'd pay for him to go to a four-year university or a one-year intensive programmer analyst certification course -- 12 hours a day, six days a week -- that had a 50% failure rate.

"I didn't know if I had the patience for four-year college," says Potter. So he took the intensive. His instructor, security expert Mich Kabay, encouraged him to read The Cuckoo's Egg by Cliff Stoll -- a book that has turned many people on to cyber security since it was published in 1989.

"I was fascinated by the whole chess game between the good guys and the bad guys," says Potter of the book, which gives a first-person account of tracking down the hacker who broke into the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. "It planted a seed."

The security "seed" might have been planted, but it didn't bear fruit until Potter spent more years working through a variety of IT professions. He worked as a programmer, analyst, and software engineer. He grew interested in data warehousing, then dimensional modeling -- "taking an event and wrapping it in as much relevant contextual information using conformed dimensions" (much like a D&D Dungeon Master would).

His next fascination was knowledge management. He was so interested that he took a 14-hour train ride from Montreal to Washington, D.C., for a knowledge management conference. He met his future wife on the way there, and he started a local chapter of the Knowledge Management Consortium when he got back.

Then, like many people, he joined a dot-com startup, specifically as a data architect. Then, like many people, he found himself unemployed as the dot-com bubble burst.

He re-entered the workforce as a data modeler at a nice, stable, 150-year-old utility company. It was the right place at the right time. He quickly became senior data architect, when the utility created a new architecture team. Then Sarbanes-Oxley arrived, creating a demand for a completely new generation of information security professionals.

"The CISO [of the utility company] asked me if I was interested in working in the information security department, since I understood applications and databases," says Potter. "I jumped at the opportunity and have loved the ride ever since."

He went on to become director of information security at a satellite radio company that, unfortunately, was not far from declaring bankruptcy.

"There's a lot to be said for not burning bridges," says Potter. As his company was going under, he reached out to his network of former colleagues and customers, and one of them happened to be looking for a new CISO. That is how -- with a variety of experience but without a four-year college degree or any certifications -- Potter landed his first CISO job, the one he currently holds at Danya International.

He didn't obtain any certifications until this year, when he went for the whole kit n' caboodle, earning his CISSP, CISM, and CISA certs.

Potter says he took the courses "not really because of the certifications themselves," though he acknowledge that they can help job applicants get their resume past the nagging keyword filters. "The journey of learning has been enjoyable."

The CISM certification in particular, says Potter, teaches security pros how to align the security program with the business and to understand that "you're there to help [the business] succeed in whatever their vision is."

Along the way, he also learned some tricks about how to communicate with executives and clients. "I got familiar with the formula," he says wryly. "Three bullet points and nothing more."

He also has learned how to combat his introverted nature when need be. He does his homework and finds the right context for a conversation. "I can make myself get out of my shell."

If he wasn't a CISO, Potter says might be a cultural anthropologist, because he's intrigued by how people learn and what makes communities tick.

To aspiring CISOs, he recommends you follow those topics that interest you (as he did) and develop a variety of expertise that will make you unique.

"Bring passion to what you do. Challenge architecture. Challenge ideas," says Potter. "Never stop learning."

This is part five of DarkReading's How To Become a CISO series. Read the previous segments to learn what employers are looking for in a CISO, and to hear how Janet Levesque, CISO of RSA, Quinn Shamblin, CISO of Boston University, and Jennings Aske, CISO of Nuance Communications, made their way to the top job.