Mentored Success: Aaron White’s Journey to Improve our Campus Network Security by Developing a Time-saving Tool

June 16, 2020

aaron-whiteAaron White has worked in Information Technology Services (ITS) at UC Santa Cruz for four years. In his current position, he is a desktop support analyst on the Endpoint Engineering team led by Aaron Melgares. Even though Aaron’s current focus is on Active Directory (he is considered to be a subject matter expert, or SME, on the topic), his true interests are in IT security.

Over the years, Aaron would study security in his spare time, challenging himself to improve. In 2018, he decided to apply for the ITS mentorship program with the Information Security (InfoSec) team. He knew it would involve extra hours of work on top of his normal duties, but that was an easy decision for him. Aaron wanted to learn more about IT Security, and the security team was thrilled to have such a qualified mentee on board.

Challenging Problem

Aaron’s experience in the mentorship program did not get off to a perfect start. And, when it became clear that he wasn’t satisfied and needed a more challenging project, Mike Ware began thinking about a nagging problem ITS had with the process to allow or deny access to the network. Specifically, when faculty connect to the campus network from other parts of the United States and beyond, they would sometimes be denied access due to their unknown IP address. Super frustrating for the user and costly to ITS because this usually resulted in an email or phone call to a divisional support team, a new ticket in our system, and various hand-offs to get the proper access privileges granted and the ticket closed. Mike posed the problem to Aaron, asking him to automate the allow/deny process by making use of the authentication log data generated by our recently released multi-factor authentication system.

Having just completed a SANS security course on Python, Aaron was able to immediately apply the training he had received to develop the multifactor allow list tool. In many respects, the development and implementation of this solution could not have been timed better due to the surge in UC Santa Cruz staff now working from home. The sheer number of devices connecting to our network and the diversity of those devices has expanded.

Reducing the Campus’s Security Risk

The tool quickly and programmatically captures our own log data, sifts and parses out IP addresses harnessed by multifactor logins, and then automatically adds those IP addresses to our allow list. Once a successful connection has been established using multifactor authentication, that IP address is no longer blocked regardless of customer location or the channel they are using to connect. The tool Aaron developed thus takes into account our human tendency to be mobile and our modern preference of using a variety of devices to get work done. Automating the process reduces the campus’s security risk. Best of all, it eliminates the handoffs and work involved in responding to urgent tickets.

Today, Aaron is working on code to delete from the allow list, recognizing that people’s IP addresses change over time (even if their devices stay the same).

Mentorship Success

aaron whiteReflecting on the impact the mentorship program has had, Aaron shared that he enjoys the work / life balance that he has established for himself here at UC Santa Cruz. Completing the mentorship program means that he is in a better position to advance his career, and that feels good. He observes, “I looked at jobs over the hill before taking a job in ITS, and I chose this place because of how we value our employees.”

The mentorship program is a success because it begins with a focus on what is best for the employee's career. Aaron credits Aaron Melgares and Melanie Douglas for being so supportive. For the program to work properly, it requires collaboration across multiple levels of management. In Aaron’s case, his supervisors saw his potential and wanted to be supportive of his technical interests and allow him to develop professionally in ways he found meaningful.

The organizational churn that such mentoring programs introduce can be disruptive: Once prepared to move into a new position, the mentee often vacates their old one. Aaron recounts that “they knew it would eventually mean that I would leave my current team. That is special, and it is nice to know there are people in our organization to help me get where I want to go.”

Renewed Emphasis on Professional Development

This renewed emphasis on professional development and career advancement are important objectives of our reorganization. It helps important work to be done and can improve employee satisfaction. Churn, in this sense, is positive and healthy. The ability of the program to adapt according to what Aaron needed is another important takeaway: The mentorship program itself can be reshaped to meet the dynamic needs of staff. And, this ability to iterate and adapt is also an important cultural landmark of our new organization.

Aaron feels strongly that others would really benefit from this mentorship program and more staff should apply. If you are interested in participating, please contact your supervisor and reach out to Mike Ware. As Aaron said, “All you have to do is just ask!”

SANS security training is available to anyone in ITS, and there are a range of courses from which to choose. If you work in ITS and have never tried it, signing up to take the SANS security training is incredibly easy: payment is handled centrally, so all you need is a good bit of enthusiasm and permission from your supervisor. See the SANS course catalog & Instructions on how to sign up for a SANS course in ITS.


Written by: Jim Phillips, ITS