From Croatia to New Zealand, chef to cybersecurity expert – and now working at one of Silicon Valley’s most progressive companies. We talk to Ivan Pitton about how he took his career, and his life, in a whole new direction.
Ivan grew up in Croatia during the country’s ‘War of Independence’, which lasted from 1991-1995. As soon as the fighting ceased, he and his family boarded a plane to New Zealand seeking a new life. But it wasn’t as easy as they’d imagined.
“Living through the war certainly left us with scars. We found New Zealand’s different culture and language difficulties and there were some post-traumatic stress issues to deal with – so we ended up back in Croatia.”
However, Ivan had experienced a taste of what New Zealand could offer – and he could see it was very different from life in Croatia. Times there were turbulent, with a great deal of corruption, crime and drugs prevalent in his hometown of Zadar.
“I knew I had to move away or risk going down a bad path myself. So, I took another four-month trip to New Zealand in 2000 and made the decision to move here permanently in 2002.”
Once in New Zealand Ivan continued his career as a chef. It was something he had ‘fallen into’ in Croatia – mainly due to the restrictive education system and the fact he hadn’t been sure of what he wanted to do. However, it wasn’t long before he realised he needed to make a big career adjustment.
“I’d been unhappy in my job as a chef for so long and I just knew I didn’t want to do it anymore. Much like my decision to leave Croatia, I had come to a crossroads in my career – something needed to change.”
Ivan made the decision to try a completely new career path: something that would make a difference, keep him interested and offer job security. Network engineering seemed to fit the bill, so in 2012 he applied for Unitec’s Bachelor of Computing Systems. The first in his family to apply for university, Ivan was initially uncertain about his ability to get in.
“I really thought I was too stupid to go to university. So, when I passed the aptitude test I just couldn’t believe it. I knew I’d been given this amazing opportunity and I didn’t want to waste it. I decided to give it everything I had.”
And that’s certainly what he did. Over the next three years, Ivan threw everything into his degree, putting the rest of his life on hold. His hard work was recognised by the lecturers at Unitec, who supported him not only in his studies but in his own professional development.
“My time at Unitec helped me so much. The lecturers opened up a whole new spectrum of work options and helped me realise where I wanted to be – not by telling me, but by inspiring me to get there. That’s the great thing about Unitec. Rather than spoon feeding us the answers they encouraged us to be self-driven, use critical thinking and always challenge ideas. They taught me insight and awareness; not to just accept everything people tell you, which is so important in my role today.”
As his degree progressed Ivan found himself drawn towards the cybersecurity side of network engineering.
“When I started my degree, I didn’t even know the term cybersecurity! But as I learnt more I knew it was where I wanted to be. Unitec provided me with the perfect platform to get there. You don’t have to select a ‘major’ but can find your niche as you progress through your degree.”
It was in his final year of study that Ivan really concentrated on cybersecurity. Working with a team, he looked into the performance effects and mitigations of ‘Distributed Reflective Denial of Service Attacks’ – a technique that has generated some of the largest online attacks seen to date. They worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week, leaving nothing to chance – and their hard work certainly paid off. The resulting 500-page report formed the basis of an article published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as well as a presentation delivered at an IEEE conference. And through reaching out to companies like Vodafone and Spark, they found the industry liked what they’d done, too.
“Our team made the decision to reach out to the industry as part of our project. We asked Spark’s Security Operations (SOC) Manager to come to our final presentation, and he loved it. Since then there’s been a really good bond between Unitec and Spark. In fact, I ended up working in Spark’s SOC department for a period of time. It just shows if you put in the effort and good energy, something equally good will come back!”
This good energy continued after graduation when Ivan secured his current role at Workday – a global software company offering cloud-based finance, HR and planning solutions. Originating in San Francisco’s innovation and technology hub, Silicon Valley, Workday has more than 10,000 staff and a customer base of over 3,000 companies globally. As a Senior Associate Security Operations Analyst in their New Zealand office, Ivan’s role is to monitor the security of Workday’s systems, processes and procedures to minimise the chance of a security breach.
“My team protects the company, and sometimes customer, information through creating layered security. We influence the way processes and procedures are put in place, with the aim of finding the best way to do things from a security perspective. We also test Workday’s systems through ‘white hacking’ – where we simulate attacks on our own internal systems. If there is anything suspicious happening, we are usually the first to know.
“It’s an exciting area to work in. The industry is constantly changing – a year is an eternity! Every day there’s something like 350,000 new viruses released, so you really need to stay on top of things and be continually learning.”
Apart from being in a role he loves, Ivan says Workday is an extraordinarily progressive company when it comes to equality, diversity, work-life balance and staff benefits.
When Ivan thinks back to his ‘old life’ in Croatia, he can’t believe how far he’s come.
“Graduating was probably my proudest moment. And now, just three years later I’m in this role – I’m gobsmacked! To be honest, looking back, it doesn’t even look like my life.
“My advice for people thinking about making a big change in their life or career is to just give it a go. If you don’t try it won’t happen! And make sure you give it everything you’ve got. That’s the approach I took when I did my degree. I realised three years is nothing – that time was going to pass anyway, and I didn’t want to look back and wonder if I could have done more. I knew at the end of it I could either be in the same place, or I could have a completely new path ahead of me.
“I know I’m not the only person in the world who has gone through what I have. Many have gone through far worse. But if my experience can encourage even just one person to change their life, I feel like it was all worth it. I’m really excited about what the future holds.”