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James Barksdale: protecting our members’ health information from cyber threats

“Cyber threat hunter” may seem an unlikely stop on a career journey. But for James Barksdale, his current role at BlueCross is part of a winding path that’s included pilot training, studies in sociology and psychology, and even a euphonium scholarship.

BlueCross 75 years
BlueCross has been serving Tennesseans for 75 years, and to help celebrate, we’re sharing the stories of people who bring our mission to life.

“No one knows what a euphonium is,” James says. “It’s like a miniature tuba. Growing up, I played a lot of instruments.”

Learning by doing has been a theme throughout James’ life — as has learning from his father, who traveled his own interesting path. The Marine, police officer, pastor and tech hobbyist built 12-year-old James his first computer, sparking a passion for technology in his son.

“I can’t remember a time after that when I wasn’t in front of a computer,”  James, a native of Atlanta suburb College Park, says with a laugh. My dad taught me how to build them. And with his military connection, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer, to be a pilot and build planes.”

A twist in the path

James’ interest in flight technology was at odds with his yearning to understand the inner workings of arguably the world’s most advanced computer: the human mind. While attending Covenant College and studying computer science, he changed majors.

“Strictly speaking about tech, I hadn’t reached a level of interest that superseded my curiosity,” James admits. “So, I went to psychology and then sociology, earning my bachelor’s in sociology. But I clearly remember a lecture about information security in one of my criminal justice classes.”

“I thought, ‘Hey, I love computers, but I also love learning about people and cultures. Maybe information security is a way I combine those.’”

James, seen here protecting members’ data from his home during the COVID-19 pandemic

As he sat in class that day, a number of questions ran through James’ mind.

  • What causes people to steal information?
  • How does technology play a role in this theft?
  • Why do people hack? Is it just a challenge?
  • What defines the hacker culture and subculture?

In seeking to understand the offense, James realized a defense strategy shouldn’t be strictly technical.

“If you can understand what motivates these people to disrupt,” he says, “then you can build a more effective defense against them.” 

Rereading the map

Before he started building firewalls, much less getting to the root of what makes a hacker tick, James entered the computer science graduate school program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). That led to opportunities to network at multiple career fairs and another unexpected twist on James’ journey.

“I hadn’t considered a career in health care at all,” James admits. “But I met with BlueCross representatives every time they came to UTC. I was intrigued enough by what I heard to say, ‘Maybe I’ll consider these guys.’”

What he heard was that BlueCross is a company that values its employees and embraces cultural competency. He also heard that BlueCross has a vast need for expertise in the realm of cybersecurity  and protecting the personal health information of its members. James began his BlueCross career with an internship in 2015. Since then, he has advanced to application developer, security engineer and now cyber threat analyst.
BlueCross James Barksdale cybersecurity expert
In his current role, James helps build peace of mind for our members.

“Every time you hear about a data breach at a well-known company, you can’t help but think, ‘How much of my information is out there now?’” James says. “As a cyber threat analyst, I feel I have a positive impact on that.”

“Securing our members’ data directly affects their health; it’s hard to have peace of mind when you’re stressed out. If the security of their data is one less thing they have to worry about, I’ve done my part.”

Sometimes called threat hunters, James and his team analyze situations that could potentially escalate.

“We pull in a ton of information from the internet, from articles, blogs, social media — things that are already out there,” James says. “Then we comb through that information and pull out all the relevant data that shows a potential threat. That helps us determine whether or not someone has the desire and potential to breach our systems or compromise our members’ information.”

Of course, the key to data breach prevention is preparation. James’ team frequently uncovers “penetration tests” created by our external security partners to keep them sharp. “The fewer people in the know, the more effective the test is going to be in showing our readiness,” James says.

Always looking ahead

Having the right tools and supports in place is one thing, but simply following technology trends is another. Using tried and true technology to manage and protect members’ health care data is one of the many things about BlueCross that continues to impress James.

“We don’t just go out and grab the latest things, but we’re always evaluating what’s out there,” he says. “We look at what’s new and ask, ‘What are the capabilities? Does it fulfill our needs? Does it result in a better experience or increased sense of security for our members?’”

“That was one thing that surprised me when I started — yes, we are in many ways a ‘legacy’ company, but we’re forward-thinking. That was big for me. I didn’t think those could coexist. I thought legacy meant stuck in our ways.”

James spends a lot of free time with “housemate” Gunner, a 7-year-old purebred German Shepherd. “My mom described him as a small horse,” James says with a laugh.

The sunny side of the street

The threat of data breaches is a reality for large companies across the globe. James admits there’s a certain amount of stress that comes with his job — he plays Motown tunes on guitar or goes to the gym to unwind — but he prefers focusing on the positive aspects of his work.

“The most important thing I’ve learned is that maintaining a positive mental attitude is crucial, as well as having a spirit of coachability and cooperation,” James says. “You can be taught something, but if you can’t accept feedback or take correction, you can only go so far.”

That positive attitude is a gift he got from his mother. She may not have built her son a computer, but she helped build a mindset that he could do anything he wanted to do if he just committed to it.

“She was … annoyingly positive,“ James says with a pause, followed by laughter. “I would say, ‘Mom, this is hard.’ And she would always say, ‘You’re able.’ I always knew it was coming, but every time I heard it I fought it. But she was right.”

“With so many careers, it’s hard to see how your work impacts others. For me, saying, ‘Hey, I found this, it doesn’t look right and might be worth checking out,’ and seeing that lead to more protections for our members, I know what I’m doing matters.”

About Jesse Thompson, Senior Communications Specialist

A photo of the authorJesse joined the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team in 2017. A Chattanooga native, he has more than 15 years’ experience in content creation, management, and strategy for consumer audiences, including a six-year stint in health care marketing.

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