“I like to make things,” Ariel Elizabeth Segall ’98 said, then paused and corrected herself. “I like to learn the skills for making things.”
Segall, who went to M.I.T. for computer science, is a senior architect at Akamai Technologies in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But computers are far and away not her only interest; she spends her free time leatherworking, blacksmithing, 3D printing, cooking and writing role playing games and technical books. She also owns her own chocolate business, Dark Matter Chocolate Laboratory, which developed out of a club that she started in college.
But before all that, Segall used to be a new Grade 8 student at Spence. Coming from a co-ed school where not all the students were that interested in learning, Segall felt lucky to land at Spence “where people had the luxury to take their education seriously.”
“It was wonderful,” Segall recalled of her time at Spence. “The thing that I probably loved the most about Spence, and have come to appreciate more since I left, is how much Spence, in all of my classes, tried to give us a variety of viewpoints. I was flabbergasted to get to college and discover that a lot of things we learned at Spence were not common knowledge.”
One of the classes she found most valuable was the Facing History class, which examined events such as the Holocaust, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the bombing of Dresden. Segall remembered that this class explored the complexity of human beings and how and why it was important to acknowledge these events. She appreciated that the class was more about offering questions instead of answers.
“I consider myself so immensely lucky to have taken Spence’s history and English classes, in particular, with their breadth of engagement and willingness to go beyond CliffsNotes,” she said.
In fact, if she hadn’t pursued computer engineering, she would have gone into history; Segall argued that history and her field of cybersecurity aren’t so dissimilar.
“It’s not as surprising as you might think when you step back far enough,” she said. “Both history and security are really about how people react to each other. ... Why do people do what they do, and how do you change the incentives? There are more connections than you might think.”
Segall’s mother was a computer programmer, and following in her footsteps from an early age, Segall started programming for fun when she was 5. Now, at Akamai, Segall is responsible for compliance (making sure that the engineering designs meet around a half-dozen international standards) and advocacy for good engineering practices. Her favorite part of the job is when people in the company come to her with new engineering designs and ask her how they can be broken.
“It’s like a bunch of puzzles,” she said.
Cyber security is a huge, growing industry, largely because it is an impossible problem to solve, she said. There’s even a running joke among cyber security experts. If someone asks for her computer to be completely secured, the response would be: if you unplug it, encase it in concrete and bury it under a building, and it will “probably be okay for a while.”
“Anything that makes a computer usable makes it vulnerable,” Segall explained.
People in her field are constantly battling an adaptive adversary. This is great for Segall, who likes learning, problem-solving and constant intellectual challenges.
Her best piece of advice for young Spence alumnae was: “Pay attention to what you actually like—not what other people around you expect or think you’ll be good at.”
Segall said her biggest mistake was that she followed the well-intentioned advice of those around her and first pursued a kind of computer science involving higher mathematics, algorithms and theory that she wasn’t as interested in and found more difficult. She thought she wasn’t skilled in computer science until she realized those fields just weren’t where her strength lay. She cautioned others not to get caught in the fallacy that says, “I had trouble with this easy thing, therefore I’m not good at this.”
“The thing that’s really important to realize is that you’re going to be good at whatever you love, because you’ll care enough to learn about it,” she said. “That matters.”