Chainalysis’s Ashley Vaughan on Why She Finds Cybersecurity So Meaningful, and How More Women Can Find Their Niche in the Industry
How much money do criminals control today, and where is it?
These are some of the many questions that Ashley Vaughan, Senior Solutions Architect at blockchain data platform Chainalysis, spends her days working to answer.
“You learn more about a situation or problem by following the money than from any other resource or piece of information,” she explains. “Money doesn't lie. People can lie in text messages or other means, but the path of the money leads you to what you're trying to accomplish.”
Though Ashley always knew she wanted to work with computers, she found her way into roles in cybersecurity, and then specifically blockchain security, through networking and exposure — not by setting out to do so.
We sat down to talk about her career journey, as well as what advice she has for other women looking to make their mark in these burgeoning fields.
Resilience and Curiosity
Ashley doesn’t often give up, and credits some of that attitude to an obsession with soccer as a kid.
“Playing sports makes you a more resilient person, I think. You learn failure and risk, which are very applicable to my job and my career path,” she says.
That resiliency was a good thing, notes Ashley, because as a young girl, she wasn’t always encouraged to pursue what she was most interested in: math and science. A teacher early on had told her that she wasn’t good at math, and Ashley believed that narrative until high school.
“We really shouldn’t put those ideas in children’s minds, because it affects them for much longer than you might think,” she says of the experience. “But I’m the kind of person that when someone tells me I can’t do something, it makes me want to do it even more, and do it better.”
Finding out in advanced high school math classes that she actually was good at math turned into choosing a computer engineering major when she got to college.
Graduating during a recession in 2010 meant Ashley didn’t have the job market of her dreams, but after working in IT, she networked her way into a role in the cybersecurity department of a prominent DC law firm.
“They were getting hit left and right from social engineering and phishing attempts,” says Ashley. “Due to the sensitive nature of the work they dealt with, I was exposed to the darker realities of the digital era, and I began to see a new side to the world—one of real significance to national security.”
Specializing in Cybersecurity — and Finding a Home in the Private Sector
Inspired by what she was working on at the law firm, Ashley pursued a master’s in cybersecurity with a focus on counterterrorism.
“I wanted to help protect our country,” she explains. “I have a lot of family members who are former military, so that was a natural step for me.”
That led to her taking a contract role specializing in offensive security at a government agency that frequently worked with Chainalysis. After working with Chainalysis folks onsite, she was sold and started pursuing a position with the company.
“I wanted to help make sense of blockchain data for a bigger purpose, like assisting in the continued threat of ransomware activity against American interests,” she explains.
Although she credits her public sector work with providing a solid foundation in blockchain security, the private sector turned out to be a better fit for her.
“What I love about Chainalysis is that my colleagues are really happy people, and I’ve always felt welcome and not scared to ask questions,” says Ashley. “In past jobs, where I was one of five women in a group of 150, I felt a lot of pressure. I didn’t ever want to make a mistake. I felt as if I had to be a chameleon to match the social environment of my male counterparts.”
Blockchains are all about democratizing data, and Ashley likes working with a team of people of all backgrounds to help support that mission. At Chainalysis, Ashley works with internal product and engineering to show customers how Chainalysis data can help them use complex blockchain solutions to solve data problems — and catch bad guys.
“Sometimes we’re following a bad actor who’s tied to child sex trafficking. Being part of a coordinated operation to put a stop to things like that is really fulfilling,” she says.
3 Tips for Women Who Want to Find Their Place in Cybersecurity
For a long time, reflects Ashley, she just wanted to come into work, do her job, and feel supported, without feeling like she didn’t fit in or was representing her entire gender. Fortunately, she found what she wanted — and she hopes other women will find that, too. They can start their search by:
- Knowing they’re not alone in having tough experiences. “Everyone has different definitions for how you’re supposed to act or supposed to handle your emotions as a woman at work, and it’s exhausting. It’s like, ‘This is just me.’ I can’t repeat enough how tiring that is,” she says.
- Prioritizing self-directed learning. Although Ashley completed a master’s in cybersecurity, she emphasizes that there are many other routes into the industry, including self-study. Whether you get involved in programs like Girls Who Code or do self-paced learning through platforms like Udemy or Coursera, the important thing is that you pursue independent learning about topics that interest you, she says.
- Creating and maintaining relationships. “Really talking to people is almost a lost art,” says Ashley. “Getting together with someone who has the same sort of mindset and leveraging their knowledge, and making sure you keep in touch with people who help further your career, is a good move. Most of the places I got to professionally were based on my human connections.”
Nowadays at Chainalysis, Ashley is no longer one of five women in the office, and is excited to start paying it forward so that more people with backgrounds like hers can pursue their own professional success.
“We tend to feel more comfortable talking to people who might have our same gender or educational background, and being open and vulnerable with them,” she says. “Being a visible role model is really important to me.”
Check out Chainalysis’ open roles here!
💎 Don't miss these tips for your interview with Chainalysis! Learn more about this company's amazing mission within the crypto industry.
📼 Watch this video from Chainalysis to learn how to prepare for your interview. Molly Gancsos, Recruiter at Chainalysis, shares some insights on what it's like to work at the company.
📼 At Chainalysis, they feel it's critical to build diverse teams. Their studies literally prove that a diverse workforce results in improved processes and faster and better business solutions. But more than that, the scope of the work done at Chainalysis itself is highly diverse. And so, they're building internal teams to reflect the diversity of the external solutions that they deliver.
📼 Since she joined Chainalysis, one thing that has been incredibly surprising and refreshing for Molly is the level of respect and pride that everyone has in working there and in their roles. As she says, "It's a very low ego environment. People genuinely want your feedback and genuinely want to collaborate."
Prepare For Your Interview With Chainalysis With This Tip From A Recruiter
As Molly notes, soft skills are incredibly valuable, with their importance equal to technical skills. And one of the soft skills that Chainalysis truly values is intellectual curiosity. At Chainalysis, you'll find a level of intellectual curiosity threaded throughout individuals. It's an essential quality since the team operates in the brand-new cryptocurrency and blockchain analytics space. (Talk about uncharted territory!) So, their people must have the desire to learn more about it and seek out information.
🧑💼 Are you interested in joining Chainalysis? They have open positions! To learn more, click here.
Get to know Molly
As the youngest of four girls (Go ahead say it, "Your poor father!"), one might say Molly's been a people person since the day she was born. As a kid, she looked up to her siblings and observed everything they said and did. To their dismay, this led to near-constant questioning of their behaviors. "Why" was her favorite word. Today, she still asks people "why," although now respondents give her permission to ask questions and pry into their lives. Her passion is delivering new, more meaningful, and powerful ways to listen creatively to people and then turn those emerging insights into ideas that generate results. Molly's worn many hats in her career thus far—manager, recruiter, fundraiser, salesperson, researcher, writer, marketer, and event planner. As a result, she has a unique ability to manage multiple projects and navigate complex challenges.
More About Chainalysis
By now, you may be familiar with cryptocurrencies and their mainstream growth potential. Unfortunately, a rapidly growing ecosystem can mean an increasing number of bad actors trying to take advantage of it. At Chainalysis, they believe in building trust between the key players in this space—law enforcement, regulators, cryptocurrency businesses, and financial institutions—so the industry can continue to grow. Chainalysis powers compliance, regulatory, and investigative software that detects and prevents activities on the blockchain like money laundering, terrorist financing, child exploitation, ransomware, and more. You may have heard about their role in solving the Twitter hack, assisting in counter-terrorism financing, or taking down the largest child exploitive material website in the world.
*Updated on June 17th, 2021 to reflect Juneteenth officially being named a Federal Holiday in the U.S.*
Juneteenth has been celebrated by African-Americans since the late 1800s, but in recent years (particularly in response to global protests over police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans), there has been a surge in interest in the day that celebrates freedom.
Before it became an official federal holiday, many businesses shifted toward marking June 19th as an annual company holiday, creating different initiatives around the holiday and offering employees opportunities to learn, reflect, and take action toward racial equality.
In honor of Juneteenth, we reached out to our partner companies to see how they're honoring Freedom Day. Here's what they said:
Committing to Ongoing Learning– Chainalysis
"Chainalysis has chosen to provide a day off on Friday, June 18 for its employees to free themselves of work activities in order to prioritize reflecting in any way, shape or form they choose to. By providing a company-wide day off, Chainalysis is ensuring that its employees have the bandwidth to commit to ongoing learning and expanding upon the company's DEI initiatives, as that contributes to -a better workplace, and society, for all."
They've also planned the following initiatives for their employees:
- "Hosting a panel discussion, with internal and external guests, around the importance of diversity, Juneteenth and what we can do to help tackle structural inequality, particularly in the fintech/ blockchain/ cryptocurrency space.
- Curating and creating an educational video and newsletter around the significance of Juneteenth.
- Promoting give-back resources and opportunities to Black-owned or focused organizations and foundations that tackle social justice issues.
- Competition to commemorate Juneteenth - whether dish or design - with winners to choose an organization of choice for Chainalysis to contribute to."
A Virtual Artistic Experience and More– LogMeIn
"This year, LogMeIn's Black ERG (BE@LogMeIn) is offering several opportunities to celebrate Juneteenth. First we will come together to view a virtual artistic experience in which three LGBTQIA+ artists of color will share original poems, monologues, and stories. Then we will host a "Storytime" in partnership with our Families ERG for an interactive reading of Juneteenth for Mazie, a captivating story about the history of slavery and why we celebrate Juneteenth as told from parent to child. Finally, we will host an engaging tour of the Black Heritage Trail, a 1.6 mile walk in Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood."
Learn more about LogMeIn here.
Supporting Black Businesses– Ciena
"At Ciena our Black & African Heritage (B&AH) ERG is encouraging employees to participate in a day of service on Friday 18th using their Volunteering Time Off to engage in their respective cities to serve Black and African heritage communities. B&AH has also created a page on Go/Ciena, Ciena's intranet, to share curated content to commemorate the day either by supporting Black businesses, attending virtual Juneteenth events, and educating themselves and others."
Learn more about Ciena here.
Focusing on Reflection– Vouch
"Vouch celebrates Juneteenth by closing for observation on June 18. We encourage our employees to take the day to focus on reflection."
Learn more about Vouch here.
Elevating Black Voices– Collins Aerospace
"In a first-of-its-kind industry collaboration event at the ERG level, the Collins Aerospace African American Enterprise Board (AAEB) and the Boeing Black Employee Association (BBEA) will join forces in an event dedicated to elevating Black voices across our companies. We hope this will be the first of many such industry-wide conversations between our ERGs as we strive for aerospace to be the most inclusive space. In addition, several site-specific events will commemorate and honor the history of Juneteenth and why it is critical for all to remember the day."
Learn more about Collins Aerospace here.
Dream In Color Film Review– NBA
"Dream In Color will host a panel discussion with the forces behind "A Most Beautiful Thing," a documentary film chronicling the history of the first U.S. African American public high school rowing team. As the NBA office is closed in celebration on the holiday on Friday, on June 18th executive producer and NBA legend Grant Hill, director Mary Mazzio and Arshay Cooper, a rower and protagonist of the film, will discuss Arshay's story. This discussion will moderated by NBA TV host, Stephanie Ready."
Learn more about the NBA here.
Reflecting on Our Past, Creating Change for Our Future– Freddie Mac
"At Freddie Mac, we're building on our continued commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion by recognizing Juneteenth as an official company holiday and day of service. The significance of the day will be commemorated with a series of learnings and opportunities throughout the month to engage inclusively while giving back to our local communities, including:
"Day of Understanding" keynote address featuring a professor of African American Studies.
"Building Community within Our Communities" series of virtual community outreach initiatives supporting select non-profits across the U.S"
Learn more about Freddie Mac here.
Speaking to Equality– Netskope
"Netskope observes Juneteenth as an official company holiday in the United States. We have expanded our events that celebrate and observe dates and moments that speak to equality and against racism - Juneteenth being one of many."
Learn more about Netskope here.
Spreading Awareness Across the Nation– Uber
"The United States and Canada will continue to observe Juneteenth and Black at Uber is releasing company-wide communications surrounding the day, its meaning, and celebratory events and activities going on in cities across the United States and Canada that people can support and attend."
Learn more about Uber here.
Lunch and Learn Celebration– AAA
"AAA EXCEL Business Resource Group (BRG): EXCEL will be hosting a "Lunch & Learn" Event to celebrate and discuss Juneteenth. This Freedom Day Event will feature a Meet-and-Greet with the EXCEL Leadership Team, a panel discussion with Executive Leaders, and a fun ending filled with prizes."
Learn more about AAA here.
Virtual Fashion Show– Audible
"Audible's Impact Groups encourage an environment where you can be you. This Juneteenth Audible's Black Employee Network will be celebrating The Style of Freedom and The Freedom of Style! Audible Employees will share pictures in a virtual fashion show inspired by this prompt:
Imagine this: it's Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. A huge celebration is kicking off. And we're there. What would you wear? It could be historical, cultural, or contemporary."
Learn more about Audible here.
Deepening Awareness and Making Positive Change– S&P Global
"At S&P Global, we commemorate Juneteenth while recognizing that we still have a long way to go to create an equitable society. This year we marked Juneteenth with a formal U.S. company holiday, and provided our people with resources to deepen their awareness of what this day stands for while continuing to make positive change. We will engage our people through educational event programming, brave spaces for open conversations, and our community partnerships. Some planned events include "Making Freedom Pay: What we can learn from the U.S. Reconstruction Era" and "Beyond ESG: Economic Impact of Inequality on Black Women."
Learn more about S&P Global here.
Conversations About Black Investing– Moody’s
"In honor of Juneteenth, we will host several conversations that focus on the Black community and financial services. Our CEO, Rob Fauber and Michael T. Pugh, CEO of Carver Federal Savings Bank, will come together for a live conversation on the state of Black owned banks, "Banking Black," and much more. In addition, DK Bartley, Moody's Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion officer, and Mellody Hobson, President and co-CEO of Ariel Investments and the chairwoman of Starbucks Corporation, will host a session on the importance of Black investing. We will also issue a newsletter that commemorates and educates employees about the significance of Juneteenth."
Learn more about Moody's here.
Driving Equity and Inclusion– Nestlé USA
"We announced last year that Juneteenth, sometimes called Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, would be added as a corporate holiday in the US. Cultural conversations about equality and racial equity brought into focus the importance of this day and we believed it was important to commemorate it as a company. So, our corporate offices will be closed on Friday, June 18th, to allow employees time to reflect on the history of Juneteenth, the meaning of the day and consider their role in driving equity and inclusion at Nestlé and in our communities."
Learn more about Nestlé USA here.
Appreciate the Difference and Be Curious– VTS
"VTS offices will be closed for observance for Juneteenth. We encourage all employees to take the time to live our values of Appreciating the Difference and Be Curious and actively engage in the holiday. While we may have the day off, it is actually a "day on" as the holiday is a crucial day for allyship. We will be sharing some resources to all employees to learn more on how to celebrate and take action."
Learn more about VTS here.
Brave Space Sessions– Okta
Okta is Celebrating Juneteenth through the following initiatives:
- "Celebrating Juneteenth" presentation at company all-hands: The presentation featured historical context on the holiday as well as suggestions for employees to get involved."
- "DIB Lunch and Learn: Fireside Chat with Jodi-Ann Burey: Jodi-Ann will discuss heritage months, how companies can better support employees from marginalized communities, allyship, and intersectionality."
- "Brave Space Session: We will create space for authentic conversations about violence in POC communities and how to channel this energy into something that can build a stronger community within our organization."
- "Ailey Film Screening: For two days at the end of the month we will have the new Ailey film available for viewing."
- "Juneteenth video featuring Black employees from Okta."
- "Newsletter that highlights a few Black employees at Okta and their experiences with Juneteenth during childhood."
Storytelling, Reflection, Empathy, and Action– Seatgeek
"This Juneteenth, we are focusing our programming on four elements - storytelling, reflection, empathy, and action - expanding last year's Day of Service to several days of impactful virtual events.
SeatGeek has also committed to donating $10,000 on behalf of our employees, giving individuals an opportunity to contribute to the fund as well."
Learn more about SeatGeek here.
Celebrating the Legacy of Juneteenth– VideoAmp
"Saturday, June 19 is the 156th anniversary of Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day. Out of respect for and to honor this important day for all African Americans across the country, VideoAmp will observe Friday, June 18 as a company holiday. All offices will be closed, and we encourage Vampers to participate in cultural activities or give-back events to show allyship and support for Black citizens in the communities where we live and work."
Learn more about VideoAmp here.
Honor, Recognize, and Reflect– MongoDB
"MongoDB recognizes Juneteenth as a paid day off for U.S. employees. This year, MongoDB employees located in the U.S. will take the day off on Friday, June 18th to honor, recognize, and reflect on Juneteenth."
Learn more about MongoDB here.
Sharing Thoughts, Experiences, and Resources– BlackRock
"We have several opportunities for employees to reflect on the ongoing struggle for racial equity and observe Juneteenth. For instance, our Black Professionals Network (BPN) in our Delaware Office is partnering with the Global Head of Talent Acquisition, leaders & managers of the Delaware campus to share their thoughts, experiences, and provide resources for hiring diverse talent in honor of Juneteenth. This panel will discuss obstacles regarding the hiring of diverse talent, will touch upon the firm's commitment and current progress, and will also explore how our Black Professionals Network can support with such hires."
Learn more about BlackRock here.
Social Justice Day– Healthfirst
"On June 17, Healthfirst's weekly employee Race & Justice Forum becomes a celebration of Juneteenth, featuring a special presentation of employees from around the company sharing what Juneteenth means to them—it's history, traditions, and future. Members of the Black History Month committee will meet with Healthfirst summer interns for a small group discussion about Juneteenth as well. That Friday the company's intranet page will feature a tribute to Juneteenth, with a primer on its history and information about the company's Social Justice Day, a paid day off to engage in activities or service that positively impacts the community."
Learn more about Healthfirst here.
Showcasing Black Excellence– Relativity
Black Excellence Showcase posters
"Relativity's community resource group, BRel (Black at Relativity) is virtually highlighting black owned businesses via black excellence showcases throughout the week. Our showcases celebrate Black Excellence while educating our Relativity community with bios, fun facts, videos, articles, and custom art celebrating the amazing work of black individuals. Additionally, we'll be encouraging our Relativians to support black businesses via a list of recommendations.
Relativity is also partnering with the Innov-8 leadership team on June 17 to host a webinar highlighting challenges black employees face and how individuals and organizations can work to negate these challenges."
Lamar Jordan – Infrastructure Engineer II & Co-Chair of BRel (Black at Relativity)
Learn more about Relativity here.
Education, Advocacy, Demonstration, and Donation– PagerDuty
"One year ago we introduced our Day for Change initiative on Juneteenth. We recognize Juneteenth as a global holiday and encourage employees to use the time to advocate for equity and critical reform for the Black community. Furthermore, we have grown this annual initiative into a comprehensive quarterly offering. Days for Change involves a strategic delivery of programming, content, philanthropic efforts, and a menu of action items, enabling company-wide activation with four key pillars to create change; Education, Advocacy, Demonstration, and Donation."
Learn more about PagerDuty here.
Inform, Encourage, Reflect, and Engage– ServiceNow
"ServiceNow celebrates Juneteenth this year with a series of employee experiences designed to increase awareness, inform, encourage reflection, and engage.
- A video featuring Black employees sharing what Juneteenth means to them and their Juneteenth family traditions
- Employees globally sharing the music, literature, figure or moment that influenced their understanding of the Black experience
- Dialogue on ServiceNow's $100M investment in Racial Equity fund
- Launch of Black at Now Belonging Group newsletter
- Intersectional opportunity to celebrate LGBTQIA+ artists of color"
Rest and Reflect– GameChanger
"GameChanger observes Juneteenth and honors its historical importance by offering all teammates a paid company holiday. We also are providing teammates with resources to enable them to take the time off to rest and reflect, learn, and/or advocate. Finally, we're hosting a teammate dialogue circle the day before the holiday to provide teammates the chance to learn and discuss why the day is not just an important day in Black History but for American History."
Learn more about GameChanger here.
Sparking Empathy and Acceptance– Elastic
"In order to commemorate Juneteenth, Elastic will be observing this event as a holiday on Friday, June 18th."
"If you're looking for a documentary, start with 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay. It can be challenging to spend a lot of time on the subject of racism — it's very heavy. Ava knows how to get to the core of the metamorphosis of racism. This documentary highlights how slavery evolved from convict leasing to disproportionate mass incarceration and other factors like keeping people locked into the system with GPS monitoring, house arrest, etc. This documentary demonstrates what modern slavery looks like. 13th helps spark empathy and acceptance of black peoples' stories instead of nullifying them."
Destiny H, Prin Web Producer
Learn more about Elastic here.
Amplifying Employee's Voices– Procore
"Procore is observing Juneteenth (or Freedom Day) on Friday, June 18 as a global holiday for all employees. Through Modern Health, our mental wellness program, employees also have the opportunity to attend a webinar to reflect on what Juneteenth is and what it means in corporate America. We are also celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Daring Conversations and Allyship speaker series, which focuses on listening, learning, and amplifying our employee's voices. You can learn more about our ongoing efforts to build a more diverse and inclusive future here."
Learn more about Procore here.
Juneteenth Day of Learning– Facebook
"On Friday, June 18, Facebook is excited to host our company-wide Juneteenth day of learning in recognition of the legacy, excellence, and resilience that drives the immense contributions of the Black community to the world.
Employees can participate in a full day's slate of insightful discussions with notable activists and public figures, including Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Tina Knowles-Lawson, June's Diary and more, who will share perspectives on the history and significance of Juneteenth.
Or employees can take the day off to celebrate in ways that are meaningful to them with a personal Facebook Choice Day.
Externally, our family of apps will tell the story of how Black people use our platforms every day to reimagine freedom through community, personal expression, love, joy, celebration and action."
Learn more about Facebook here.
Do you know how terrorist attacks are stopped?
Military intervention is certainly one way, but Jen Hicks prefers another.
"I really, really believe that the key to preventing terrorist attacks is by cutting off their finances," explains Jen, a senior cybercrime investigator at cryptocurrency compliance and investigation firm Chainalysis.
Growing up in a military family and serving in the Navy herself, Jen has lost friends to war and considers it her life's work to help develop a more humane way of stopping attacks and stemming the growing wave of cybercrime. "I like to think that at least in my small corner, it's making a difference," she says. "That if we're able to stop things from happening without violence, then that's all the better."
We sat down with the veteran, blockchain expert, and steampunk enthusiast to unpack her role at Chainalysis, her personal interest in investigating and stopping crime, and why it's so vital that women continue to join and lead the rapidly growing fields of cybercrime and cryptocurrency.
Falling in love with financial intelligence
Jen was born in Okinawa, Japan to an Okinawan mom and Black American dad and raised between Okinawa Island and Miyako Island. Following in her dad's footsteps and joining the military wasn't her original plan.
"As a high-achieving military brat, doing ROTC and becoming an army officer felt like something I was expected to do," she explains. "But I never took a moment to do any self reflection."
When she did, around age 18, Jen realized she had political reservations about the U.S.'s involvement in the Middle East and decided against enlisting in ROTC. That was an early example of Jen breaking out from other people's expectations for her and building her own path, but it wouldn't be the last.
When she did go into the military a couple of years later, it was because she realized she couldn't afford college and didn't want her parents to go into significant debt to help her pay for it. Inspired by her Marine father, she decided to pursue a more cerebral position and became a linguist, studying Mandarin at the Defense Language Institute.
After working for a few years as a hybrid translator/cyber analyst, looking at sensitive data and combing it for intel, Jen wanted to stay in the Navy and work as an instructor, but didn't get those orders.
She decided to leave the military and look for a civilian job. Not everyone agreed with her decision, but Jen was sure of it. "I knew I'd figure it out on my own. I said, 'I know what I don't want to do, and it's this,'" she remembers.
After being recruited by Booz Allen Hamilton and working as a critical infrastructure analyst, Jen became a threat finance analyst at Leidos, where she got to combine her long-standing loves of cryptocurrency and intelligence.
"I fell in love with it," says Jen. "I saw how financial intelligence is crucial to national security—money laundering, trafficking, terrorist financing, all of that. I thought those were fascinating. So I soaked everything up like a sponge."
Jen had been following cryptocurrency as a hobby ever since she read Satoshi Nakamoto's Bitcoin whitepaper when it was published shortly after Jen graduated from high school. "I can't say that I understood every single thing at the time, but from then on, I was hooked on this idea of peer-to-peer digital currency that was, like, very cyber punkish," she says. She kept her early interest to herself because "it was such an obscure, nerdy topic," she says. But once she realized that she could work in a security capacity, investigating the dark side of cryptocurrency, from the darknet to hacks and scams and more, Jen decided to lean into her interests.
"I made it my life's mission to map how terrorists and violent extremist organizations were using cryptocurrency around the world," she says. But that mission wasn't a business priority for the company where she worked at the time, so Jen started looking for a company where it would be.
That's how she found Chainalysis.
A colleague of hers suggested she apply to the blockchain investigation firm, but Jen wasn't sure she qualified. "I had such a high opinion of them, like 'Oh my god, they're all super smart, they probably talk in Bitcoin addresses,'" she says. "But as it turns out, they really wanted me on board, so I was hired and now I get to indulge in my 19-year-old fantasies of exploring illicit activity as a job."
Jen splits her time doing investigations tied to business priorities—from looking into exchanges targeted by malicious cyber actors to investigating how someone could avoid compliance regulations and launder cryptocurrency to identifying who's phished millions out of people's accounts—and doing the work she considers her "moral responsibility."
That second set of projects includes looking into things like child sexual abuse and terrorist financing. "The spectrum is vast, and it's super, super exciting. In between these cases, I have the freedom to pursue the research that I've been wanting to for the past couple of years now," says Jen. "It's really gratifying."
Some of those leads come from her team's research; others come from law enforcement. Her team has relationships with different agencies, from local to federal. "We provide them with data to track people down and make arrests," explains Jen.
Other leads come from individuals in the community who find people like Jen via LinkedIn or Chainalysis's contact form and ask for help. "People will come and say, 'I was scammed out of thousands of dollars,'" says Jen. "It's almost always part of a larger phishing campaign. So we take that, ingest it into our database, and absorb that information into our research to see if we can find where the money went."
It's that open-ended puzzle-solving that Jen loves so much about her job.
"It's the ultimate puzzle to be solved every time you're given one of these cases," says Jen. They'll start with an address and an initial transaction and will follow transitions in and out of different cryptocurrencies, building a graph of transactions and understanding of what is happening.
Jen has two goals for her work: first, to make cryptocurrency more accessible and safer, and second, to help educate people on how it works to empower them to participate in crypto.
Now is the time to get involved
Financial crimes are here to stay, says Jen, even for people who aren't in traditional finance.
"Let's say you're a social worker or a mental health counselor or provider of some sort, right. And you have an elderly patient who just happens to mention that they've struck up a long-distance friendship online. You're going to have to know what the red flags are for possible scam attempts," says Jen.
And cybercrimes often exploit social vulnerabilities, not just technical ones. Look at the 2016 election, says Jen: "They're able to exploit deep fissures that we've always had here and do some considerable damage." On a smaller scale, criminals are sending phishing emails that look like crowdfunding campaigns which people are less likely to look closely at in their rush to help. "It's a new flavor of social engineering that malicious actors are latching onto," says Jen.
With cybercrime already impacting so many aspects of our lives and soon to impact more—"targeting IOT devices, medical technologies, self-driving cars, NFTs"—it's a prime time to shift into the field, and Jen believes that there's no one 'right' way to make that pivot. You don't have to come from traditional IT or finance backgrounds to make an impact in this space, and if you come from an underrepresented background, that's especially true.
"It's easy to build up that psychological barrier of entry to the crypto community when you see that these huge online communities might be filled with trolls saying derogatory things that are either racist or sexist, or that conversations surrounding cryptocurrencies are being dominated by certain personalities on Twitter, or there are men around you who try to confidently tell you the most contradictory things about investing in crypto. To me, all of that is just noise and you have to block it out," says Jen.
"What I want women who are interested in this stuff to do is just be hands-on with the technology itself," says Jen, who suggests starting by creating a private wallet, understanding how privacy coins work, and learning about centralized versus decentralized systems.
If you're a woman interested in the field, reach out to others! Jen is happy to talk to anyone interested, she says. "People in the field are way, way too happy to talk to you for hours about how it works or how they got there," she says. "Chainalysis is doing a fantastic job of hiring women as investigators, and our director is a woman, and it's really cool seeing the empowerment there and knowing that we're considered the best of the best. But we always want more! So feel free to reach out."