Phil is 26 years old. He works as a crypto-mathematician in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. His B. Math and his master's degree are both from the University of Waterloo. It took six years, including co-op terms, to finish these two degrees. He plans to do his PhD at some point in the future.
Stephanie: First off, what does a cryptographer do?
Phil: Cryptographers work to write or solve codes and ciphers. Most cryptographers work in academia, but there are some who work with government agencies, banks, and software companies. Crypto-mathematicians use applied mathematics; we construct codes and ciphers and try to break the codes and ciphers that other people have written. We do this to try to provide security for electronic communications and the like.
Stephanie: What made you decide to become a crypto-mathematician?
Phil: Actually, for years I'd wanted to be an actuary. Then I attended Campus Day at the University of Waterloo, where I ended up speaking to an actuarial science professor who really pushed the business side of being an actuary - I guess he found people were turned off by the math. Unfortunately, I've never been the least bit interested in business, so I didn't really think I wanted to be an actuary any more. I looked around at the other departments' booths, and came upon Combinatorics and Optimization. I found it fascinating - not to mention the coolest department name ever.
The next year, I (fairly randomly) chose cryptography as a project for my OAC Computer Science class. I thought it was really interesting, and when I discovered it was a part of the combinatorics and optimization field of study, I was totally sold.
Stephanie: What do you like about your job?
Phil: It's really hard. Almost every day, someone asks me to try and solve a problem that no one has ever solved before. Obviously, I don't succeed most of the time, but just being given the opportunity to try is exciting. And let's be honest, the money is pretty nice too.
Stephanie: What is your least favourite part of the job?
Phil: There are a lot of politics in the security business. It's a constant battle between a person's right to privacy, and the public's right to be safe from criminal activity. Should we have the ability to communicate totally in secret, regardless of who we are? I don't even have a particularly strong opinion on the issue, but it gets tiring being caught in the middle all the time.
Stephanie: What advice do you have for someone considering becoming a crypto-mathematician?
Phil: There are crypto-mathematicians who are very elitist, who feel that if you're not an expert, your opinion is worthless. (Maybe there are people like this in every profession.) Do not be discouraged by these people. Security is more common sense than anything else, so you don't have to be a mathematical genius to be a good security practitioner.
On the other hand, cryptography also seems to attract a great number of people who think they've solved all the world's security problems. This is fine - if you haven't had at least one 'brilliant' idea, you're probably in the minority as a crypto-mathematician. However, don't come off as arrogant. Most ideas don't pan out, and if you've touted your stuff as unbreakable, you'll end up looking like an idiot. It pays to be humble in this business.
Stephanie: What kind of an education did you get to be a crypto-mathematician?
Phil: I have a bachelor's degree in math and a master's of mathematics. It's not uncommon to get a PhD as well.
Stephanie: What's your favourite number?
Phil: 23 - it seems to crop up fairly often in my life.
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