In this monthly column, Defense Daily highlights individuals from across the government, industry and academia whose efforts contribute daily to national defense, from the program managers to the human resource leaders, to the engineers and logistics officers.

Will Smith is the chief cybersecurity architect at RELI Group, with more than 20 years of experience in the cybersecurity industry. In this role, he provides a 360-degree view of technical operations and possesses in-depth knowledge of the latest federal technology trends, which he uses when aligning cybersecurity strategies with organizational goals. 

How did you get involved in the defense industry or community?

After spending over six years on two naval aircraft carriers and an F-16 training squadron, my service in the U.S. Navy was a driving force that laid the groundwork for my career in the federal technology industry. During my time in the Navy, I engaged in various technical and managerial tasks during my role as an Aviation Maintenance Administrator and obtained my associate degree prior to separation. My responsibilities included performing technical, managerial, and support duties in support of the Naval Aviation Maintenance Program.

Additionally, I conducted networking functions between individual stations, including analyzing and correcting errors caused by software, hardware, or data entry. From there, I joined a Navy contractor, which would mark the first job of many in the federal contracting industry.

My first job as a contractor in the security realm included working on the Navy’s Intranet. The knowledge I gained in that first year and the events that would transpire later that year would drive my career – moving from back security to network operations to platforms then identity, exposed me to a variety of events and situations that helped me establish myself as a solutions-oriented leader.

What are some challenges you faced working through your career?

Something that stood out to me immediately as a challenge, that I would not have thought was one, was my eagerness and enthusiastic approach to my work, as it wasn’t necessarily shared among some of my teammates. That is not to say I didn’t find value in working with some of the teams I partnered with, but I did feel there was a certain disconnect between how I approached projects and challenges compared to some of my peers and leaders.

That same passionate approach I’ve always had really helped me during the pandemic. Many of my teammates were personally affected by tragedy during the pandemic and I always felt an obligation to protect and support people by easing their stress and burden any way I can. I attribute that to my time in the Navy and the close bonds I established with my shipmates.

Did you feel like you always had sufficient mentors and leaders to help guide you? Why/why not?

I think my time in the Navy was very rewarding overall. I realized along the way that when it came to learning from mentors or peers, some good and some bad, that every teammate has a unique approach to how they tackle challenges and come up with solutions.

My main takeaway in my experience with mentors is that as a leader you must recognize that a good idea can come from anywhere. It’s essential to collect new perspectives and have different conversations with teammates to develop the best ideas and approaches.

How do you work to be a mentor yourself to younger counterparts?

As a leader and mentor at RELI Group, I try to regularly speak with interns and provide them with advice on how to navigate the industry when they are getting started. To me, helping people that are new to the industry or those with less experience is vital. This will set them up for success and help them as they work to forge their own career path.

In my leadership role at RELI Group, I’ve spearheaded impactful initiatives like crafting a comprehensive Supply Chain Policy and an Incident Response Plan, laying a robust foundation for our cybersecurity infrastructure. These internal policies are pivotal, ensuring resilience and proactive defense within our operations.

I attempt to maintain an active presence as a mentor at RELI Group to younger personnel – my team of cyber interns is the largest group of interns at the company. It’s important to me that my mentees never lose their motivation, passion or purpose for what brought them into the field. I want them to ask questions and constantly be engaged in their work.

For example, I conduct introductory conversations with my team of interns so we can mutually learn more about one another and I can understand their passions and interests in the industry. Together, we published a white paper on CISA’s guidelines, exploring the evolution of AI in phishing defenses, assessing the current state of healthcare cybersecurity, and highlighting phishing as a predominant cyber threat.

These publications serve not only as a testament to our team’s expertise but also as valuable resources for the broader cybersecurity community. This project was extremely rewarding and productive for our interns to be included in such a hands-on experience.

Through mentoring, I’ve encouraged our interns to dive deep into these critical areas, guiding them to produce work that resonates within and beyond our industry. This dual approach of internal policy development and external thought leadership underscores RELI’s commitment to advancing cybersecurity knowledge and practices.

What does it mean to be successful in your career field?

Success to me is all about resiliency. Understanding and appreciating the immense challenges we face and taking them on full steam ahead. Of course, success is unique to one’s own individual mission and focus, but I would argue the general rule of thumb, especially when it comes to this industry, is to try your best to get ahead and remain ahead of what’s expected.

The best way to stay resilient and achieve success is staying on top of your strategies, even more so when it comes to your customer success. Regardless of what you’re working on, you must factor in how the federal technology industry is rapidly changing and evolving, and then implement those new ideas or standards to your approach. Being adaptable to these constant changes will allow you to be agile while staying focused on key goals.

What are some of the under-appreciated positions in the defense field, the unsung heroes or essential cogs in the machine that help the job get done with less recognition?

The security teams are always extremely valuable in any organization or field. Specifically, those who work on the front lines and who may often be a lower tier on teams are the ones who are discovering the threats. Without them, threats would often be overlooked, and their role helps the larger team narrow its search and risk management efforts. In my own experience, I have seen tier-two analysts discover many more threats while being responsible for numerous networks, which is not easy. It takes a lot of time and focus to cover that much ground and they often go unpraised for their discoveries.

Recruiters are often overlooked too. They are the ones who can connect talent to the mission, whether in industry or defense. When recruiters genuinely understand the objectives of cyber leads and other sector leaders, they have a better chance of finding the right people for the job at hand, thus pushing our mission forward when building an effective team to support customers.

How can the industry improve in promoting these individuals and building them up?

People must be willing to accept change for operations to improve. This requires being supportive of all team members, from assistants to high-ranking officials, as everyone plays a role in success regardless of their position within the organization.

We also need to support people who do not come from traditional college backgrounds and help their transition into the workforce be as seamless as possible. These individuals bring unique perspectives and skills to organizations that teams would otherwise lack, and most skills in the cybersecurity and defense industry can be taught through upskilling initiatives.

How has the culture changed around diversity within your career?

While diversity is being brought into more conversations, this is still something that needs to be prioritized, especially in the boardroom and C-suite. Implementing initiatives to support a diverse workforce and providing the proper resources for them to thrive will greatly support company diversity and overall success.

A diverse workforce only makes an organization more successful. Individuals with backgrounds that differ from others can provide valuable new perspectives and approaches if they can participate in an open and collaborative environment. All team members hold a lifetime of experience that not everyone shares, in turn giving organizations unique perspectives and various sources of information to support decision making.

What is your advice for new entrants to the defense/military community?

Everyone enters the military community for a specific reason, whether it’s based on a specific mission or a personal motivation, but my top piece of advice for new entrants would be to not lose sight of your goals.

People entering the field can be given a lot of information and it can easily be overwhelming and confusing. Yes, learn the information you’re provided to ensure you can do the job correctly and well, but remind yourself why you’re there and that will always serve as a great guide. Truly knowing your intentions and purpose will keep you glued to the mission.

What do you see as the future of your sector in national defense?

My role at RELI Group is changing constantly based on the landscape, but it has been and always will be to serve as a trusted partner to government partners. This includes all steps from research and gathering information to delivering solutions and helping agencies implement them properly.

Especially as defense technology becomes more interconnected, it is my job to be there at every step to create stakeholder-centered, risk-managed solutions and help leaders deliver on mission objectives.

Who are the Force Multipliers in your community? Let us know at [email protected].