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From music major to ethical hacker

by Paul McKean,

Ariel Todoki at EA

During her senior year at Willamette University, Ariel Todoki BA’18 was looking for an app that could help her in some of her most challenging music classes.

She couldn’t find anything that fit her needs — so she learned a new programming language and made an app to help other students just like her.

As a double major in Computer Science and MusicTodoki was uniquely qualified to code an app for musicians, but the journey to her senior project was anything but a simple algorithm.

When she arrived at Willamette University from Hawaii, Todoki was so confident that she wanted to study physics that she bought a year’s worth of textbooks all at once.

There was only one problem: in the middle of her first physics class, she knew the subject was not for her.

“I was like, ‘uh oh,’” Todoki said. “I need to finish this class and then figure out what my next steps are right away.”

Luckily, Willamette gave her the opportunity to explore new subjects while making progress toward a degree.

She soon found a new passion in computer programming during an introductory computer science class with Professor Emerita Genevieve B. Orr. Todoki’s interest in coding clicked when she had to teach a computer how to do a seemingly simple task: giving change for dollar bills.

“I got sucked in,” she said. “And that feeling continues today when I write programs. There’s a problem. I know how to fix it — and then suddenly five hours have passed.”

Becoming an “Ethical Hacker”

Todoki first discovered the field of cybersecurity along with a few of her classmates who started an informal study group. Willamette did not have a class in the subject at the time, but students worked with Professor Emeritus Fritz Ruehr to teach themselves. Soon the group was participating in national hacking competitions and now the group continues on as the Student Cyber Security League, a club that is open to all Willamette students.

Ariel Todoki BA'18 poses with a character from Electronic Arts's video game "Plants vs. Zombies."

Todoki credits Haiyan Cheng, professor of computer science, for giving her the confidence to continue to deepen her knowledge in the field with a masters degree in computer science after graduating from Willamette. In a field that is disproportionately male, Cheng served as a model for Todoki. Without Cheng, “I don’t know if I would’ve had the confidence to say ‘I earned this degree. I can do computer science,’” Todoki said.

Todoki landed a prestigious internship and then a full-time job at Electronic Arts (EA), publisher and developer of such popular video games as The Sims, Mass Effect and Medal of Honor. At EA, Todoki now works on a “red team,” a group of cybersecurity experts who work to expose vulnerabilities in the company’s systems in order to improve security.

“We are like ethical hackers,” Todoki said. “Our main goal is to emulate adversaries, the bad guys who want to break into systems.”

Seeing Beyond Boundaries

The same kind of flexible thinking that enabled Todoki to develop an app for musicians at Willamette continues to drive her in her career. Todoki says her Willamette education helped her stand out from computer science graduates with more traditional computer science-focused backgrounds, and gave her a leg up into a coveted cybersecurity job.

“I think it’s good for the brain to work in different ways of thinking,” Todoki said. “It helped me creatively not to be just so stuck in either black and white, math or music.”

An appreciation for lifelong learning — which Todoki first developed at Willamette — is essential in her work protecting computer systems against emerging threats.

“Technology is growing so fast that you really need to continuously learn about new things,” Todoki said. “That curiosity of wanting to learn more and figure it out is so important.”

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