Christa Miller, Content Manager, Forensic Focus

Christa, you've just joined Forensic Focus as a Content Manager – welcome on board! Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to work in digital forensics content creation.

Thank you Scar! I’m coming to Forensic Focus after 10 years of working in marketing and communications for various DFIR vendors. While I’ve contributed more “typical” marketing content like brochures, emails, etc., my “sweet spot” has always been in meatier pieces like white papers, magazine articles, technical blogs, etc.That’s because for the 10 years before that, I was a freelance writer specializing in tech topics for law enforcement trade magazines. I covered a wide range of post-9/11 technology, from CAD/RMS interoperability to red light cameras, along with articles about “softer” topics like media relations and how to identify cyber bullying and harassment.

That’s actually where I got my start writing about digital forensics – I wrote one of the very first articles about mobile forensics back in 2003, when so few people were doing it that I struggled to find sources for that piece!

What's your favourite thing to write about in the digital forensics arena, and why?

Anything where I can really dive deep into multiple facets of an issue or technology or challenge is fun, but I profess to being a legal nerd in particular. One of my favorite university courses (besides epidemiology) was US constitutional law. In a digital context, applying 230-year-old text to modern “places to be searched and things to be seized” – mobile devices, cloud accounts, Internet-capable “things,” etc. – is endlessly fascinating.

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What do you think are some of the most overlooked subjects in digital forensic investigation?

I’m not sure overlooked subjects can exist in a field dominated by curious problem-solvers! I think forensic examiners generally do a good job of identifying problems that exist, then coming up with solutions for them, whether in terms of programming a new script or tool, or documenting a new (or modified) methodology.

Where examiners might need more support is in professional development. In tech overall, it seems easy to get caught up in being reactive, putting out fires. There are a hundred different avenues for a digital forensics career to go, but identifying them could be very challenging given how rapidly this industry changes – perhaps even more so if you’re a part of an historically marginalized group, and your choice of mentors may not look or speak like you.

Along with practical and technical how-tos, then, I’d like to see examiners exploring how and where to advance. What are next steps in the event of a layoff, or a burnout, or business closure? How do you figure out where you fit in the industry, and your value to others? How do you grow according to what’s best for you, and not just what’s needed by the organization you’re in or the industry itself?

You've written before on the concept of burnout in DFIR and infosec – why is this such a pressing issue, and what can people do to help themselves?

Burnout is pressing most of all because people still continue to treat it like a personal problem, even failure, when in fact it’s much bigger – both broader and deeper – than that. That much is apparent not just from the people I’ve spoken to, but also from the huge range of articles, all written within the last few years, about the prevalence of burnout in the modern workforce.

To me, that speaks to bigger issues around tech culture and our expectations of productivity. Whether we work 40 hours a week or 80-100 hours, we are often expected – and expect – to “hustle,” “show initiative,” “demonstrate leadership,” and other euphemisms for squeezing an inhuman amount of work out of ourselves and our colleagues.

There’s absolutely a time and a place for stretching outside of our comfort zones, learning new things, and taking risks… but there’s a fine line between a pursuit that’s good for you, and one that’s convenient for your employer.

I worry that burnout is so prevalent because not enough people know how to be intentional about their careers, or that they lack good mentors and strong managers, that they’re so focused on solving problems that they’re glossing over their own needs as professionals and as people.

I’d like to see us all get a lot better at asking: why do we collectively have these expectations, and does it really need to be that way? How can we be more intentional so that we can say yes to the things that will grow us, and no to the things that will pull us away from our core purpose? How should our employers support us and still grow their business?

What are your plans for the next few months? What kinds of projects are you looking to work on?

The results from last year’s survey revealed a lot about what Forensic Focus’ users are looking to get out of the site, so I’ll be delving into those in two ways:

1. Understanding the sponsors’ main offerings and how they fit examiners’ needs, whether in their tools or in their own content, then working with them to deliver the practical information so many examiners are looking for.
2. Looking for “soft” topics that might not get as much attention in the space, such as issues around training or mental health; and topics like standardization that have gotten a lot of attention, but have a lot of different facets to explore.

Alongside content management for Forensic Focus, you also juggle a number of other projects both within digital forensics and elsewhere – how do you structure your time?

Working around my family’s schedules as I do, I’m starting to apply the lessons of the four-hour workday and also engage in more “reflective practice,” thinking critically about what it is I (think I) have to do and then deciding which things are most important from day to day.

Daily work on fiction is a necessity for my sense of self-fulfillment, so I typically get up at 5am to work on a story. That goes on for two hours uninterrupted until the kids start waking up and I have to help keep them on track while they’re getting ready for school. Then there’s a blend of driving people to work and/or school, preparing and eating breakfast, maybe a walk or some yoga.

From late morning through mid-afternoon I’m at work on client issues, or late in the week, business development for myself. The remainder of the day is spent picking people up from school and/or work, cooking dinner, and down time. My evening hours usually involve some mix of reading, language study, and journaling, which is key to my reflective practice.

Of course, some of this might need to be moved around if there’s a deadline, a day of meetings, or even a school presentation, but on the whole it works well! And then on weekends I try to do as little work as possible, though there will always be some bleedover. My rule is, as long as I enjoy it, it’s worth doing!

Finally, when you're not working, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I can’t be a good writer without reading! I try to read for about an hour around bedtime. I’ve also been tackling language learning, specifically Russian, which I first started in university – more than another direction to stretch my brain, I find that learning different sentence structure and grammatical constructions actually helps me think about writing from fresh angles.

I also try to walk regularly, when possible making it a hike because there’s nothing quite like a forest pathway to encourage mindfulness and connection with nature.

In the same vein, I volunteer with a local wildlife rescue and sanctuary – both writing, and hands-on rescue and care. Bottle-feeding baby raccoons, as well as feeding barnyard animals and mucking out pens, has gotten me through two layoffs as well as my own period of burnout!

Finally, I enjoy spending time with my family – watching movies with my kids, who are now old enough to watch scary movies with us; listening to my 12yo play his electric guitar; watching my 15yo play videogames. (My uncoordinated attempts at gameplay are the subject of much hilarity in my household, so now I sit back and enjoy watching the story unfold.)

Those are all things that keep me creative and grounded and take the edge off living in my head so much!

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