On the RISE: Hanna Farah’s Journey From Tinkerer to Technology Officer

On the RISE is a new column by SIA in partnership with SSI that profiles the next generation of security industry leaders.

On the RISE is a new quarterly column by the Security Industry Association (SIA) in partnership with Security Sales & Integration profiling the next generation of security industry leaders. This column is part of SIA’s RISE initiative, a community that fosters the careers of young professionals in the security through networking and career growth events, education and professional development offerings and scholarship opportunities.

For this installment of On the RISE, SIA spoke with Hanna Farah, chief technology officer (CTO) at Feenics and a 2020 winner of the SIA RISE Scholarship.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in Lebanon between the city and the village in the mountains. Spending time in nature has opened my imagination and inspired ideas. Albert Einstein once said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

I have always been interested in technology and building products since a young age. My dad is a computer engineer, and my mom is a teacher. I started with small experiments at home building electric components, then learning programming from books that were lying around, and challenged myself to develop small applications. I decided to start my university education at the University of Ottawa and take advantage of the internships program in software engineering. I enjoy spending time outdoors, hiking and playing soccer, tennis or ping pong and pool when it’s too cold in Canada.

What first got you interested in security and safety as a career choice?

Since high school, I was fascinated by the security field and the threats and exposure that could be exploited otherwise. I see it as a challenge between system builders and hackers that are trying to find weaknesses in those systems. In software engineering, building secure software is fundamental. I am also passionate about building products that help users in their daily life. Access control security systems fit in both criteria, and therefore I am excited to play a role in developing one of the best systems in the market.

What has your career path been?

I excelled in the software engineering program at the University of Ottawa, graduating with a summa cum laude distinction, and completed my master’s program with scholarships from the Ontario Center of Excellence and the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada. I developed a prototype on leveraging cognitive patterns to build software that enhances the understanding of system architecture and was awarded a patent for that work.

After five years of working with IBM in software development, I realized that my experience acquired to date was a solid foundation, but the nature of the work was not fulfilling. I was missing the potential to create, innovate and build the big picture of a system. I was awarded a prestigious scholarship to work towards a doctorate degree.

Privacy and security of health care environments were on top of my mind in terms of interesting topics to tackle for my doctorate research. I worked for several years on developing protocols to enable the detection of dual participants in clinical trials without revealing their identities. I then expanded my research to enable private record linkage between organization to improve service delivery. I was a first-place recipient of the University of Ottawa Prizes in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the graduate level.

I attempted to transform my research into a product that organizations could utilize as part of their clinical trial process, but the effort was not enough to yield to wide adoption by the clinical trial community. I also focused during my doctorate degree on learning new technologies and ventured on creating a mobile application on the Android platform to enable customization of phone settings automatically based on the user’s location.

After completing my doctorate, my goal was to participate in a startup building innovative products in order to understand the big picture as well as gaining the expertise in using the latest technologies. I joined Graphite Software and contributed to developing their Secure Spaces product for Android that enables a user to have multiple independent spaces on their phone. The experience at Graphite was limiting because I was not given the opportunity to outgrow my role and gain the understanding of the industry in order to help the company grow and succeed.

My plan was to move to a client-facing role in order to develop project management, client service experience and broad industry knowledge. I moved to a technology advisor role at Deloitte, serving several clients and building knowledge about the various technologies and challenges in the software and hardware industries.

Two years into my advisory role, I gained an incredible experience and vision of the industry, but I was missing the opportunity to develop my own product and put all my technical and client experience to creating and not just advising. Feenics was a client, and I was presented with the opportunity to become their chief technology officer. This is the role where I see myself contributing the most to a company by leading the development of innovative products in a well-defined and high-quality process.

Who has influenced you or mentored you – either within the security field or outside?

I am very impressed by the accomplishments of our CEO, Sam Shalaby, who has built several successful companies from the ground up through hard work and futuristic vision. It was an important factor when joining Feenics to have someone to look up to with a deep knowledge of the industry, a vision and demonstrated success. Sam has been a great mentor and helped me understand the industry and the challenges ahead.

What’s something most people don’t know about you?

I was the valedictorian at my doctorate graduation ceremony. I delivered a speech, representing the graduating class of 2015, where I shared a story from one of my professors who told us that a smart man works for his household, but a genius works for his country. I expressed that I want to take it a step further, stating that a genius should work for humanity without borders.

What advice do you have for young professionals just starting out in the industry?

My advice is to work hard to develop expertise and knowledge of the industry. Don’t take shortcuts. Give your best to your clients. Show commitment to quality and to timelines. Keep an open mind. Don’t be afraid to admit when you a mistake. Follow your passion.

What do you enjoy most about being at your company — and in the security industry?

I love the collaborative environment at Feenics and the commitment to providing cutting-edge products based on the latest technologies. We are fortunate to have industry veterans on the team: our CEO, Sam Shalaby, has deep roots in security integration and our president, Denis Hebert, was a leader in successful security manufacturing companies. Everyone at the company is dedicated to success.

The security industry has various product offerings, and I enjoy the opportunity to integrate with various manufacturers and services to provide solutions to our clients’ needs.

How do you define success?

I define success as delivering a robust and user-friendly product that people talk about and refer to each other in order to help them achieve their task. This, in return, allows a company to grow, establish financial independence, augment its talent pool and keep on delivering great products that address client needs and that are widely adopted in the industry.

How do you think the SIA RISE community can help foster the careers of young people in the industry? What does the program offer that is most important to you/your company?

Connecting young professionals with one another has the potential to make a meaningful impact on the industry by improving collaboration and brainstorming ideas that could improve the industry practices overall. I am excited to meet RISE members at ISC West and build relationships throughout the industry. The SIA RISE scholarship is an excellent catalyst to learn and grow in the security field.

What were some key accomplishments or efforts from your time with Feenics’ scientific research and experimental development program, and how did these experiences prepare you to join Feenics’ team as CTO?

Learning about the work being performed at Feenics and the challenges that the team is tackling caught my interest in the company. Feenics is developing a security platform capable of servicing companies worldwide using the latest Cloud-based technologies and offering desktop, web and mobile clients to manage your access control system from anywhere.

It was interesting to see how Feenics is evolving from year to year and the success in resolving past challenges and tackling new ones: from integration with brand new hardware to using the latest web technologies to enhancing their security model while maintaining flexibility for user operations. Getting to know the Feenics team and the introduction to the security field, were all positive influences and got me excited to be on board the development of a cutting-edge security management product.

Tell us about the work you did in the area of privacy for your Ph.D.; how have you leveraged that experience in your current role?

My Ph.D. research focused partly on protecting phase 1 clinical trials from dual enrollment while protecting the privacy of the participants in a trial. The challenge was to share information about identities and guarding against all possible attacks to reveal an identity. We wanted to develop a protocol to be able to ask other clinical trial sites if they have received a participant, but without them or anyone else being able to know who that participant is. The answer would be a yes or a no. On top of that, we wanted to allow for typing mistakes in the participant’s name because it’s a common occurrence, especially when records are inputted using optical character recognition.

Privacy considerations are very important in my current role. We have yet to explore how to leverage the knowledge from the clinical trial scenario and develop solutions for our clients that could be facing similar or different challenges.

How is the security industry behind in using and building on the latest technologies, and how are you working to be on the cutting edge?

Traditionally, security and access control systems were installed onsite with servers that required maintenance and updates. Security, redundancy and backups are complicated in these scenarios, as they need to be done at all locations. Companies that have a worldwide presence found it challenging to manage their enterprise security from a centralized location. While we have seen many industries adopt Cloud-based and online solutions, including banking, shopping, ride sharing and video on demand, the security industry was slower in adopting the latest technology to offer flexibility and enhanced features.

At Feenics, we are utilizing the latest Cloud technologies to offer security, reliability, backups, easy scaling and integration with other Cloud-based services to offer our customers the latest and the greatest.

How can companies use processes and best practices to ensure the security of their products?

Product security is fundamental in our industry. Companies building software products need to adhere to best practices including code reviews, quality assurance, automated testing, third-party security evaluations and vulnerability assessments. At Feenics, all those processes are in place, in addition to being ISO9001:2015 certified, which means we continually monitor and improve our processes.

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