Alan Paller loved to talk about the soft skills of cybersecurity. And he did so with a passion, a conviction and a sincerity rarely seen in the federal community. Paller, who passed away Nov. 9 at the age of 76, exhibited a spirit for improving federal cybersecurity that will be dearly missed.
Paller was a frequent speaker, presenter and expert who delivered a message that made you like him. He founded SANS, a professional cybersecurity training organization that trains more than 40,000 cybersecurity technologists each year, in 1989. He was also president emeritus of SANS Technology Institute, the nation’s first regionally accredited specialized cybersecurity college and graduate school.
“For those of us who worked with Alan, his driving force was a vision that never wavered: Security could only be improved by raising the quality of security operations by increasing and professionalizing the skill levels of security teams and managers. We often say security success is a mixture of people, process and technology – Alan reminded us that those people needed to have deep skills in order to create and run impactful security processes as well as to select and develop effective security technologies tools and products,” said John Pescatore, SANS director of emerging security trends, who worked with Paller at SANS since 2013. “Alan’s commitment to that vision over the years helped keep SANS focused on having the best security instructors developing the most effective courses and always measuring success of every SANS course or conference by making sure it met his number one criterion: The student or attendee must be able to go back to work afterward and do something new and better – not just be able to talk about new and better security.”
Paller’s passion was teaching. His patience and temperament were demonstrated with every interview, and even when Paller called to complain about a story or an issue, he did so with an educator’s perspective and tone, with a goal of educating you so the next time you’d think about the issue a little differently.
“Alan was a mentor to so many and made each us feel like family. The cybersecurity industry and workforce has lost a legend. A man who made a difference in everything and in every way. I will miss him,” said Karen Evans, the former administrator in the Office of E-Government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget, and former chief information officer at the departments of Energy and Homeland Security.
Most recently, Paller was president of the National Cyber Scholarship Foundation, a new organization created to find cybersecurity talent in high schools and community colleges and encourage their development through a fun game designed to expand diversity and opportunity in the tech industry.
“Equally important, Alan instilled in SANS the idea that if SANS stayed focused on helping the security community ‘fight the good fight,’ success would always follow. Alan championed and dedicated SANS resources to increasing basic security hygiene, security team diversity and growing the number of people joining the cybersecurity profession long before any profit was possible from those efforts,” Pescatore said.
Paller founded SANS in 1989 and led the organization until April when he became a part time director. Ed Skoudis became the new president of the college – SANS Technology Institute – in September, and Paller became president emeritus.
Additionally, Paller was the co-chairman of the Cyberskills, Homeland Security Advisory Committee in 2012 as well as co-chairman of the Committee on Best Practices in Cybersecurity of Telecommunications Companies in 2011 and 2012.
Paller graduated from Cornell University in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and computer science, and then earned a Master’s degree of engineering in 1968 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“On a personal level, if you were part of an effort with Alan that was fighting the good security fight and were lucky enough to have Alan introduce you at a conference or meeting, his lavish praise was legendary and inspiring,” Pescatore said. “The security community is a better place for Alan’s tireless efforts over the past 30-plus years. At SANS we already miss him intensely and hope that over the years we can continue to live up to his guiding vision.”
Jane Holl Lute, the former deputy secretary of Homeland Security, called Paller a larger than life figure in the world of cybersecurity and beyond.
“He was relentless in his pursuit of real, measurable, ways to reduce our vulnerability to the growing onslaught of threats — an effort made even more urgent as people and businesses everywhere have grown now wholly reliant on IT and access to the internet. Alan had a keen eye for important issues and, even more, for the people and skills needed to turn thought into action,” Lute said. “He never took no for an answer when he knew, instinctively, that yes was possible. He was a man for the ‘Cyber Age,’ bringing fresh ideas when the rest of us had none, and direction when we felt lost. He was my friend who I knew to be deeply devoted to Marsha, his wife, and to his family. His generosity stood as a striking example to me of the power in each of our hands to do good — his legacy in medical research and in the cyber workforce will be felt by many.”
Paller is survived by his wife Marsha, and two daughters Brooke and Channing.