In September, Mario Ayala, was invited to join a panel discussion on information systems and operational management for the business school at George Mason University. Ayala, a BayFirst analyst and a GMU alumnus, also has a Masters in Cybersecurity Policy from the Maryland University College. Since 2016, he’s been a part of the BayFirst team supporting the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. We interviewed Ayala for an edition of BayFirst’s Employee Spotlight to hear more about his perspective on working in the cybersecurity sector, the BayFirst difference, and what motivates him to achieve excellence in his client support.
1. What’s your educational background, and how did you choose your career path?
I received my B.S. from George Mason University in Information Systems and Operations Management. More recently, I earned an M.S. in Cybersecurity Policy from University of Maryland University College. I’ve always had an interest in technology but also in management and consulting. More specifically, I really took in interest in leveraging existing operational data and transforming it into information that explains the value-add (or lack thereof) of a service or technology. In a previous role, I was hired as a network analyst for a DHS component. Due to a change in mission need, my position was modified into a project coordinator role. I was responsible for transitioning network engineering projects into the operations environment. That is pretty much where I got started on the path I’m on now.
2. How did you first learn about BayFirst? What convinced you that this was the company where you wanted to pursue your professional interests?
I learned about BayFirst while supporting the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T). Several factors convinced me that BayFirst was the right place. My former supervisor Tammi Fisher was so professional, knowledgeable, and open about the client, the work, and the company that a trust relationship was established immediately. Since starting in 2016,BayFirst has continued to demonstrate that it values and appreciates its employees.
3. You recently participated in a panel at your alma mater, George Mason University. Tell us something about the value of “giving back” to students who are just starting out in their careers.
A mentor of mine once explained to me the concept of “paying knowledge forward.” The idea is that no one begins with the knowledge they have. At some point or another everyone has needed help or guidance. That was the major idea driving my participation at the George Mason University “Ask the Professional” Panel Discussion. Throughout my career I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors helping me along the way. I felt that it was time to pay my knowledge and experience forward to students transitioning into the workforce. It was a privilege and a humbling experience to return to my alma mater and be able to give something back. I am also grateful for BayFirst’s support on this and was very proud to represent the company.
4. What is your current role at BayFirst? How has the company given you the resources that enables you to serve BayFirst clients?
I am an Associate at BayFirst and I provide project and program Management support to my federal client. The projects I support focus on Cyber Physical Systems (CPS) and Internet of Things (IoT) security. There are many companies that are solely focused on filling contract slots without providing guidance, coaching, or career advancement opportunities. BayFirst is not one of those companies. BayFirst Sr. Vice President Jim Fagan took time out of his busy schedule to offer me guidance on how to improve my consulting skills. I feel that that is a very important demonstration of BayFirst’s commitment to its employees. I’ve applied Jim’s guidance to my client support and it is challenging me to continue to learning more about the science of management and consulting.
5. Work-life balance is something that everyone has to achieve to be effective at work and to enjoy a personal life with family and friends. How do you manage that balance?
While not official, I think a cardinal rule of achieving work like balance is not to procrastinate. I usually break my daily tasks out into two categories; 1) Things I must get done and 2) Things I’d like to get done. Everyone does things differently so the approach is not as important as how you execute. I try to prioritize my tasks, anticipate additional client needs, and be prepared for any delays. In a perfect scenario, everything starts and stops on time. However, that is not how it works in real life. Taking the time to prepare and plan your work can help you keep work at work. Yes – there will be times you have to take some work home, work late, or over the weekend and that is ok. While preparing might sound like a lot of work on the front end – you’ll be glad you did it when you leave on time on Friday and kick your weekend off right!
6. If you were talking to a colleague from another company who was asking questions about BayFirst, how would you describe the company’s values and vision?
I would describe BayFirst as having a commitment to top-level client-service delivery. As a company, we regularly compete with companies significantly larger in terms of employee numbers, but our strength as a team comes from our proven ability to execute our client’s mission and solve their problems with a targeted, efficient, and innovative delivery of client support. There’s a reason BayFirst keeps winning awards as a company and was just named one of the select companies with the capabilities to work on GSA’s huge Alliant 2SB contracts.
7. Tell us something about yourself that your colleagues might not know, or would find interesting or unique?
It is no secret here at the client site that I am a huge boxing fan. I used to box every single day after work for the past 5 years. I still try to get out and help my friends train for their competitions. My interest started when I joined a gym that incorporated boxing into the workout routine. I asked my father (also a huge boxing fan) if those classes were close to how real boxers trained. In short, his response was “not even close.” That’s when I began exploring actual boxing and began working with coaches that have competed and trained fighters, I learned a great deal about myself through the sport. I remember my first time sparring. A saying in boxing when you want to “beat” someone is that you are going to “put the work on them.” Well that first time I sure got the “work” put on me.
The irony and the rub is that person really responsible for getting the work put on me was – ME! I punched and punched the other guy and when I saw that it was all ineffective it made me mentally weak. Afterwards, my partner told me that he felt all of those punches and they hurt but that he couldn’t let me know it. He feinted strength and made me question my conditioning, power, and confidence. I learned that day that the sport is as much mental as it is physical – maybe more. After that, I trained harder, got up early to run or jump rope in the cold, and disregarded any sort of discomfort that came from training (i.e. tired, sore). Why run in the cold? A mile is a mile any way you run it right? Wrong – it isn’t about the mile. It’s about the determination to get up earlier and run in conditions that would make anyone except for you want to quit. It’s about pushing yourself past your best toward your farther best.
Training in this sport has offered me many new perspectives on life, business, family, and most of all humility. Boxing is a sport where a person can always improve. Even the best boxers in the world can always improve. You can always do something better, faster, stronger, and harder than the last time you did it. Similarly, in consulting, there is always something you can learn from and improve upon in order to take your services, your clients, and your career into the championship rounds.
8. What are some of the challenges you see on your professional horizon? How do you help BayFirst clients find solutions to meet these challenges?
In my current role, my focus is supporting cybersecurity Research and Development (R&D) projects. One of the biggest challenges is transitioning the R&D capability into a live operational environment. Unfortunately, many technologies never make it into operations because the transition piece was never considered in the project initiation phase. Recently there has been an increased focus on project transition from DHS S&T leadership. The problem is that transitioning a project is more than just a matter of handing the project off to someone.
There is a lot of coordination involved, including but not limited to identifying a customer, discussing transition at the beginning of the project, evaluating transition requirements (internally and for the customer), documentation, acquisition, operation and maintenance (O&M), and then following up on the technology. As a BayFirst consultant, it is my duty to ensure that project transition is considered throughout the project lifecycle, at major milestones, and at the completion of major deliverables. Since different projects have different transition requirements, it is important that I keep up with our transition partners, their needs, and potential risks. By ensuring that transition is considered throughout the project, BayFirst helps its S&T clients identify and mitigate transition-related risks early on improving the likelihood of project success.