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DSTA – Our Work Is Serious, Our Passion Makes It Fun

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Tan Xuan You has to be always equipped to deal with the latest cyber security threat.

Ever since I was a young boy, I had ­always been interested in science and ­technology. I built my first PC when I was 14, burning a few graphic cards in the ­process. In Chinese High and in Hwa Chong JC, I was involved in MediaTech and PA/AVA, the CCAs that helped set up audio/visual equipment for the school. Today, I still ­collect old electronic equipment to re-purpose them. Sometimes I rebuilt old PCs and gave them away. My passion for engineering led me to choose the DSTA Scholarship, and it gave me the chance to develop my skills at one of the finest institutions in the world.

I am very grateful to DSTA for my studies at Imperial College London. The experience overseas was priceless: I ­realised what Kipling meant when he wrote, ‘What know they of England, who only England know?’ Studying at Imperial deepened my love for electronics and hardware. Bob Pease, the famous analogue circuit designer, once said, ‘My favourite programming language is … solder.’

I had spent many hours in the lab, building things from AM radios to souped-up remote-controlled cars. My professors were some of the best in the world, and I was fortunate to learn from them. They include Prof Tom Pike from NASA JPL, whose atomic force microscope on the Phoenix Mars Lander made the first ever confirmation of water ice on the surface of Mars. I also had the honour of working with Prof GA Constantinides, a leader in the field of FPGAs, who gave me my Erdös number of 4.
Dr Daisaku Ikeda, a Buddhist philosopher, once asked, ‘For what purpose should one cultivate wisdom? May you always ask yourselves this question!’ While I was studying, I would always question what I was studying for. You may have asked the same question when faced with endless nights of ­studying, stressed over exams, and the pressure to perform. I’d been there. The answer lies far beyond grades, beyond certificates, and even beyond knowledge itself. We all seek a purpose in life, and the DSTA Scholarship helped me to find a meaningful career in CSIT.

Working At CSIT
At CSIT, our motto is ‘Serious Play’. While our work is serious, our passion makes it fun. In my role in CSIT, I investigate firmware and hardware security. From digital signals on bus lines, to machine code, to assembly language, to compiled code, to applets and applications, we move in and out of each ­layer, investigating and improving the security at each layer. My passion for experimenting with ­hardware makes it look like I’m pursuing my ­interest rather than working.

Security researchers need to think out of the box, to question assumptions and ­discover links and gaps. CSIT encourages this open-ended thinking, with a strong culture of collaboration and vibrant exchange of ideas. Many important discoveries and breakthroughs began as discussions over lunches or tea breaks. My bosses walk the talk, and they always have an open ear to the ideas of junior engineers.

Isaac Newton once said, ‘If I have seen ­further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ My colleagues are among the best and brightest, and I have learned immensely from them. In our sharings, we take a new and rough idea, challenge it, question the assumptions, view it from different angles, and finally decide if it’s worth pursuing. In this way, we are able to focus our energy on the most effective path, seeking the smallest stone that makes the ­biggest splash. This culture of openness, combined with the pursuit of excellence, makes CSIT a great place to work.

CSIT has recently revamped our training, and officers are given plenty of formal training in addition to on-the-job training. I have also attended major cybersecurity conferences and training programmes in Singapore and around the world. CSIT recognises the importance of being up-to-date with the latest technology and invests a lot in its officers. This helps you to be effective from your first day at work, and within a year, you will be well equipped to deal with the foremost security challenges in the world.

My mentor, Dr Daisaku Ikeda, said, ‘Only labour and devotion to one’s mission in life gives life its worth.’ I believe that the most effective defence of Singapore is a lasting peace in the region and in the world. Every day, the ­effort I put in at work contributes ­towards this goal, and working towards this mission is a great joy. The DSTA Scholarship recognised my passion, developed my skills, and allowed me to put my skills to good use, contributing to a better Singapore and a better world.

Tan Xuan You
DSTA Scholarship
Age: 28
Now: Group Leader, Info ­Security Technology, Centre for Strategic Infocomm Technologies (CSIT)
From: Hwa Chong Junior College