The Flying Caretaker

Rafal Pachulski finds tranquility in paragliding. Back in the office, he extends that same calmness to enterprise security clients.

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With a background in networking – but little experience working in cybersecurity – Rafal Pachulski found himself taking quite the risk when he joined the Trustwave Advanced Security Operations Center in Warsaw, Poland.

Then again, leaps of faith come pretty naturally to Pachulski.

A Warsaw University of Technology graduate, he'd spent about 2 ½ years as an engineer and front-end operator inside a network operations center for a major Swedish telecommunications company. But leaving an established and comfortable position to join a security outpost didn't faze Pachulski, now 36.

That's because when he isn't overseeing security for managed security services clients at Trustwave, Pachulski spends his time paragliding – an endeavor that has captured human imagination ever since Icarus undertook his ill-fated flight in Greek mythology and Leonardo Da Vinci sketched winged gliders in the 15th century. Modern paragliding got its start in the 1960s, when three U.S. aeronautical engineers tried to design a parachute that could gently lower the Apollo space capsule to Earth.

Pachulski flying high When Pachulski isn't flying high along Europe's mountaintops, he is helping to keep his clients on solid ground as they face up against hostile actors and threats of attacks and sensitive data loss.

When he was not quite 13, he and his father, a former Polish military skydiver, began taking lessons with an instructor. Fast forward to five years later, in 1999, when he became the first pilot in Poland to voyage more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) in a single flight. The sport, often described as the closest a human being can get to flying like a bird, involves attaching a parachute-like canopy to your body via a harness and then either starting from a high point or being lifted to heights of more than 15,000 feet, the equivalent of three vertical miles.

"My dad wasn't healthy enough to skydive anymore, so he asked my older brother to do a paragliding course with him," Pachulski recalled. "I said, ‘Wait a minute, I want to go.'" That was a defining moment for him: "In life, no one gives you everything on a gold plate," he said. "You have two options: You can sit and wait, or you can go and ask for what you want and what you need to learn."

Being proactive has served him well not only in his sport, but also over the past six years as he's worked his way up to an information security advisor for global client cyber success at Trustwave. He admitted that the beginning of both learning curves was a grind. In paragliding, "you spend many hours reading about the weather and so forth and you're so ready for that first flight, but it's only a few meters off the ground," he said. "I expected something more." In due time, however, he began making grander trips that put him thousands of feet in the air. "That's when you realize the ground is far away. You're connected to the glider by two lines. You're a little bit afraid, but so happy to be free, with no border between you and the air."

Likewise, when he joined Trustwave, there were only three other engineers in the Warsaw Advanced Security Operations Center. Essentially mission control for managed security services, these centers handle not just security device monitoring and alerting, but also more advanced threat detection and real-time incident response. "Everything was new. When a customer called with trouble, it was a challenge (but we learned our way)."

As with paragliding, he learned quickly and refused to let fear win. Pachulski spent time in Chicago (after his first-ever plane ride), Denver, Manila, and Australia, first learning from more tenured colleagues and later sharing his own wisdom. He still works mainly on one major customer account, a high-profile gig that requires managing some 100+ locations globally and quickly learning new technologies.

The (ASOC) team here and across the world work together really well. We all help each other to be our best.

As he learned and advanced, so too did Trustwave's Warsaw operations. Today, the office houses a number of people inside one of ten global Trustwave ASOCs: facilities from which top-tier professionals manage platforms, serve customers, oversee threat detection and hunting, and handle incident responses as they help keep public and private clients safe from increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks. Most organizations lack an in-house security operations strategy due to skills shortages and investment costs, hence the importance of ASOCs like Trustwave's, which help businesses optimize their security resources and monitor, assess and defend their information systems.

Pachulski said the camaraderie that permeates Trustwave ASOCs (and the relationships he has with his clients) mirrors the friendships he enjoys with his fellow paragliders. Both types of connections are built on trust, respect and a commitment to watch out for each other to ensure success. Because it's a truly federated system, the Trustwave centers combine local threat awareness with global threat visibility in a way other managed security services providers can't. As the office has grown rapidly, "the team here and across the world work together really well," he said. "We all help each other to be our best."

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Today, from the Warsaw ASOC, Pachulski tracks a wide array of third-party security appliances and services that customers are using, including Palo Alto Networks firewalls, two-factor authentication tools, Juniper appliances and a Forcepoint proxy and cache that scans for malicious content. He performs updates according to the client’s requests, but never before ensuring that they meet security standards.

"For me, managed security services does not mean that I blindly execute a customer request," he says. "We need to assist and guide the customers to make the right decision and advise them about the consequences of their request." Doing so requires deep expertise and a calm, collected demeanor. Luckily, Pachulski has honed that skill during a variety of paragliding emergencies.

In 2006, on a flight that extended more than 100 miles, he overshot the northeast Polish border and accidentally landed in a Russian field as daylight faded. With no passport, a few bucks in his pocket, a cell phone that couldn’t pick up a signal, and a keen awareness of the longstanding political tensions between the neighboring countries, Pachulski was facing a crisis. But he realized he had to shake off his initial shock.

After walking for miles with his glider and waving down a car headed to the city of Kaliningrad, Pachulski received temporary papers to cross the border back to Poland, along with a stern warning that he must go immediately, even though it was 11 p.m. When he arrived at the closed bus stop, Pachulski encountered several Polish sailors who listened to his story, incredulously, and gave him a few dollars for food. Big mistake: The Russian police noticed the exchange of cash and hauled the group to the police station. After explaining himself for hours to skeptical authorities, Pachulski finally began his trip back to Warsaw at 6 a.m.

That scenario would look like child’s play compared to what happened the following year. When paragliding over the Dolomite Mountains in northeastern Italy in 2007, Pachulski crashed while gliding at 140 feet. "I was lucky there were trees that broke my fall before I hit the rocks," he said. "Thanks to the trees, I’m still alive." His fellow paraglider radioed for help, and Pachulski was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Positano. He spent the ensuing six weeks in a nearly full-body cast, but never wavered in his determination to fly again. In 2008, he took fifth place in the National Polish Championships.

Pachulski (left) gears up for the 2014 Polish National Championships Pachulski (left) gears up for the 2014 Polish National Championships, where he competed against 70+ pilots. When he’s not paragliding, he’s navigating clients toward better security inside Trustwave’s Warsaw Advanced Security Operations Center.

Przemyslaw Sak, director of the Warsaw-based Trustwave ASOC, attributed Pachulski’s success to that willingness to tackle the toughest challenges. The pair has worked together for nearly a decade, dating back to their former employer.

"We had a break room with a foosball game," Sak recalled, laughing. "I was one of the best players at the company. Rafal initially was a poor player, and we beat him badly all the time, but he kept coming back. He was so stubborn and persevered so much. I was not his boss at the time, but he quickly gained a reputation as someone who will never give up."

When Sak moved to Trustwave, he asked Pachulski to interview for an entry-level security analyst job. His former foosball opponent became an integral member of Trustwave’s team, handling tough assignments for a global hotel chain that often required working off hours and meeting tight deadlines.

"We had one technical issue with (a third-party web proxy product) for a client in China that lasted six months," Sak said. "Rafal came, spent three weeks working and diving deep, and solved it. He has always done fantastic work, which clients appreciate." As a result, Sak has promoted Pachulski three times.

The appreciation is mutual. "I’ve had so much opportunity to develop my skills since coming to Trustwave," Pachulski said. "In both work and my hobbies, I strive to do the best I can. And I never give up."

This flight from 2017 found Pachulski soaring more than 2,500 feet above ground on his trek from Tolmin, a small town in northwestern Solvenia, to the Dolomites, a mountain range in northeastern Italy.