IPSWICH: IT security specialist takes top honours

Alex Healing is a proncipal researcher and won the BCS 'Young IT Professional of the Year ' award.

Alex Healing is a proncipal researcher and won the BCS 'Young IT Professional of the Year ' award. Alex was photographed on site at the BT Adastral Park. - Credit: Archant

Alex Healing joined the graduate training scheme at BT in 2005 after leaving the University of Edinburgh with a degree in Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science.

He secured a role in Research and Development, and has remained with the same department working specifically on developing advanced techniques to tackle the growing threat to cyber security.

“Cyber security is in the news everyday,” said Alex, who won his title shortly before his 30th birthday after which he would no longer be eligible for the award.

“It’s a hot topic whether we hear of people being hacked or someone being jailed for hacking. The work we do helps our customers understand the threats to their organisation in terms of their computer network, ensuring information isn’t being leaked and also stopping attacks coming in that could potentially take down a network and stop a company from functioning.

“My work revolves around understanding the data which is related to security – who is logging in and who is contacting which parts of the network and understanding whether they should be there or not.”

Alex explains that there are two strands to the software he and his team have developed to combat these threats. Firstly, artificial intelligence (AI), using automated means to understand the data coming in and establish any patterns in that data and anomalies that could reveal a potential problem.

The second part is visualisation – how you make it apparent to a human user that there is a problem and that they should investigate.

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Alex and his team have linked AI and visualisation into a piece of software which analysts use to understand security issues. The project was called Saturn and has now been rolled out and made commercially available as part of the BT portfolio under the name of Assure Analytics.

Seeing the project through to market has been a major achievement for the R&D team which, says Alex, has seen some significant changes since he joined eight years ago.

“When I first joined BT the research department was very closely related to work done by universities, so the way in which it worked was very much about ‘blue sky thinking’ and coming up with wonderful ideas that would take five or ten years to develop.

“Now, because of the drive for efficiencies in cost and resources, the research department is much leaner and is focused primarily on projects we can deliver this year or next year and my work has shifted as part of that evolution.

“Initially it was the ‘blue sky thinking’ that attracted me here and yes it is nice to think about theories but what I find most rewarding is taking the academic stuff and creating software that real people can use to solve real problems and, at the end of the day, create real income for the company, that’s what I enjoy.”

Alex was the technical lead on the three-year project to develop Assure Analytics, which was a collaborative project involving a number of UK universities and an industrial partner.

Now, work continues to ensure the system can be adapted to cope with any new threats that develop and to fine tune the system.

“In those three years we have generated more questions than answers or solutions,” said Alex, “so now it’s about working out how we deal with the scale of what’s happening in the real world and the complexity of today’s threats.

“It’s an ongoing process as computer hackers find new ways to attack networks, so we have to develop more sophisticated software to protect networks.”

Tim Whitley, BT’s managing director for research and innovation, said everyone at BT was thrilled with Alex’s achievement.

“We are very proud of him,” said Tim. “Alex is one of our rising stars and he has the right combination of talent, focus and tenacity to succeed in his future career.

“Alex joined us as a graduate in September 2005 and after successfully completing our graduate training program, started making real technical contributions to Saturn, one of our most exiting research and innovation projects. He now is a principal researcher driving the technical development of a number of systems in BT to tackle issues of cyber security, cable theft and next generation data analytics.”