Amid a world rife with threats to cybersecurity, Lee Watson has positioned himself as a key leader in ensuring that both the public and private sector stay ahead of the dangers that affect everything from the nation’s supply chains to the safety of private health-care information. As the founder and CEO of the Little Rock-based Forge Institute, which creates private-public collaborations that support economic and national security initiatives, the 35-year-old native Arkansan has a unique vantage point to address these ever-growing concerns.
Forge has established intensive, 14-week boot camp training programs for those wishing to enter the industry, and last month announced a partnership with experts at UALR and UA-Fayetteville to conduct applied research for national defense projects. The timing couldn’t be better, as Watson notes that there are expected to be 3.5 million new job openings in the field by 2022.
“There’s lots of different pieces of cyber. There’s governance and policy, and then there’s defense and more technical kinds of things,” notes Watson. “So you can be low-tech and have great opportunities in cyber, or you can be one of those white hat, ethical super-nerds and have a lot of opportunity too.
“Arkansas is a very connected state, so in cybersecurity training, workforce development and research, you see a high degree of collaboration across institutions and geography in the state. The governor has placed a strong emphasis on his coding initiative and his coding and cybersecurity task force [of which Watson is a member]. They’ve not only done some incredibly strong things at the high school and K-12 level, but putting voice behind the need to advance STEM, computer science and cyber in the state has really helped to further connect those dots.”
An alum of the University of Central Arkansas, Watson quickly made a splash in the cyber world by founding the state’s first mobile app development firm, Clarovista, in 2008. That launch sparked his interest in cloud security.
He led the team that created the innovation and entrepreneurship program, the Venture Center in 2014, with the goal of connecting and developing the Arkansas technical community. The Venture Center now operates multiple fintech accelerators and has made a particularly strong impact with an annual three-day cybersecurity workforce competition called the JOLT Cyber Challenge.
Watson believes that the rapid pace of tech development has created the biggest challenges in cybersecurity over the course of his 12 years as a rising titan in the tech industry.
“The advances in all things technology, including your smart devices – your car, your watch, everything – the pace of change is just phenomenal,” said Watson. “If you add on digital transformation, upgrading systems to get the scale, capability and efficiency that modern technology brings, that is creating an environment where the implementation of these technologies is sometimes happening faster than our ability to keep up with the risk and making sure those things are properly secure.
“And so all these things you read about in the news such as breaches and supply-chain vendor risks, there’s lots of policy and governance, but there’s an incredible need to train people to just understand and manage this pace of change. That’s the biggest thing. You could talk about specific issues all day long, but from a macro standpoint the technology revolution that’s taking place has created a need to robust our defense posture.”
Health care has proven to be one industry that is facing particularly dire challenges, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made medical records and related data a prime target. As hospitals create ever-broader networks linking diagnostic capabilities and medical devices, innovative approaches are needed to secure privacy.
Ultimately, Watson points out that the threats to cybersecurity both in Arkansas and nationwide are far greater than “the kid in the basement.” Since the present challenges faced often originate from well-financed and well-organized adversaries, he adds that it is a responsibility that extends far beyond a company’s IT department.
“If these kinds of adversaries were to pull up in your driveway with a weapon, that would raise alarm. You would not be cool with that,” says Watson. “When they enter our networks, that’s effectively the same thing. It’s the digital version of that.
“We all have to really put a concentrated effort on making sure the leadership is well-briefed on what’s going on, and that they make it a priority in their organization. Everyone within an organization plays a role in helping to protect that.”