Some people see problems as obstacles. Others, like Sailaja Birudavolu, view them as opportunities that can result in both personal growth and camaraderie.
Sailaja grew up in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. She describes herself as always having a desire to solve problems — a drive she credits to being part of a science-loving family.
“My father is a professor in veterinary science and my mother has a bachelor of biological science,” Sailaja says. “I have a very loving family; my mother especially helped me with every step to become an independent and confident person.”
“My family has been an outstanding inspiration to me. They continue to play a huge part in defining who I am, even as I’m on my own journey.”
Similar to those of her parents, Sailaja’s professional journey began with science. She earned her bachelor’s degree in computer science in India before uprooting to the U.S. to attend the University of Virginia.
“I’ve always been drawn to the technology world and to the digital space in particular,” she recalls. “I chased my dreams to pursue my master’s in computer science.”
Even with the support of her family as her dream came to fruition, the culture shock was real — though Sailaja is quicker to point out the difference in weather. “School started in the fall, and you realized you have to survive the winter,” she says with a laugh.
From software to crimebusting
After earning her master’s, Sailaja found work as a software developer. She moved to Tennessee and joined BlueCross in 2010 as a security engineer. Today, she serves as a cybersolutions architect.
“At BlueCross, our ultimate goal is to improve our members’ health outcomes, and part of that is advancing them toward a seamless digital experience,” Sailaja says. “But information security is critical, so my team ensures the security of our members’ health data is never compromised. That’s a huge part of peace of mind, and a huge part of better health.”
“As a former software developer, I have transferable skills I bring to the table. I can look closely at the development of software itself and then securely move it to implementation.”
Her role as a cybersolutions architect combines three areas Sailaja is passionate about: the digital space, problem-solving, and creating structure. She guides the implementation and monitoring of company-wide security solutions, enforces security policies and standards, and safeguards our use of proprietary data. Protecting against external threats includes evaluating and recommending emerging security technology, as well.
Simply put, she’s always on guard duty and looking for potential threats. It’s no surprise she compares herself to a famous detective.
“We know cybercriminals are out there,” she says. “When you look at cybersecurity, it’s part strategy. Whatever applications you develop, there’s always somebody trying to hack them. So if we plan ahead and consider where and how these criminals are likely to attack, we can improve and protect on the front end. Thinking about what it could be gives us the opportunity to be innovative, as well.”
While Sailaja and her team are constantly countering cybercriminals’ attempts to undermine our members’ data and security, she sees these evolving methods as problems to be solved.
“The reality is that anything connected to the internet is always potentially under threat,” she says. “Pretty much everything — medical equipment, Fitbits and Apple watches, speaker-based smart homes — connects to the Internet. My job is to not only ensure our members have the best experience possible, but that they know their personal health information is safe and secure when accessible to them through our digital systems.”
Encouraging others to problem-solve
Sailaja hopes to see more students consider a career in cybersecurity, and BlueCross has a new program designed to get them started quickly.
In 2021, BlueCross launched the BlueSky Tennessee Institute through a partnership with East Tennessee State University. Beginning in fall 2021, Tennessee students will be given the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in computing and a job offer at BlueCross, all in just two years.
“I always tell young people that this is one of the few areas where you actually help fight the bad guys,” Sailaja says. “Cybersecurity combines strategy with problem-solving innovation. It’s a creative field that truly helps people around the world go about their digital lives with confidence.”
“I think that through BlueSky, students can learn how we make sure our members are safe. If they’re anything like me, they’ll enjoy what they do and never look back. It’s ever-changing, and I’m always growing my skill set.”
Embracing all opportunities for growth
The COVID-19 pandemic has of course changed the way Sailaja works, but true to form, she approached the last year as a challenge to be solved.
“I focus on what I can do rather than what I can’t do,” she says. “I’ve been able to structure my schedule with a 0-mile commute. And I enjoy anything I can do to improve myself. Learning a new skill, learning a new recipe, anything that makes me grow, I’m always inclined to that.”
One hobby that’s brought particular fulfillment is painting.
“I enjoy abstract and oil painting, and some portraits, too,” Sailaja says. “For me, it’s an act of meditation. You can forget everything, and it relaxes you. I used to paint as a kid in India, and picked it back up after moving to the U.S.”
Unfortunately, family time isn’t quite as easy to pick back up as paintbrushes. Sailaja’s parents remain in India, and even before the pandemic, travel was difficult due to the 22-hour plane ride. However, she still carries their love and support with her every day.
“It’s been a long journey,” she says. “Getting to this stage of life has taken a lot of work, but nothing compared to the hard work and sacrifices they made. So any of my success is totally their success.”