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Artfully coded: A computer science professor's journey

Megan Squire’s nontraditional pathway to computer science has allowed her to see computer code in a different way.

Megan Squire works with students in a computer lab in Duke Building.

By Owen Covington

During a time when it seems every week brings news of another expansive data breach, Elon’s Megan Squire is doing her part to help people shore up their cybersecurity defenses and protect personal and financial information from hackers and criminals. Signing up for a new online account, registering for the latest social media startup or making your latest online purchase? You’d do well to heed her advice.

A professor of computer science at Elon, Squire has recently gained widespread exposure across a variety of media outlets for several articles she penned about passwords and cybersecurity. Her article, “Why we choose terrible passwords and how to fix them,” was published by outlets including TIME, CBS News, Business Insider, PBS, Quartz and Real Clear Science. “People can feel so overwhelmed by cybersecurity threats,” Squire says. “It’s almost like they think, ‘there’s too much for me to worry about, so I won’t care.’ They feel powerless. But I know, and want them to know, that they’re not powerless.”

Along with helping educate the public, Squire is integrating cybersecurity more deeply into the classroom. “For companies and software engineers, security needs to be a top priority, while also keeping the user in mind,” Squire says. “In computer science education, we’re trying to not teach security as an afterthought. Security should be in every unit of every class, and not just one class you take at the end of the curriculum.”

Ironically, for Squire, a career in computer science was not what she first considered. Hanging on the wall of her office at Elon is her diploma from the College of William & Mary, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art history and public policy. This is not the typical academic pedigree for a professor of computer science such as Squire, who along with her work in cybersecurity has become a leading scholar in the fields of open source software and data mining, and a go-to source for information about how software teams work together to craft programs and apps.

While the study of art might not seem conducive to a career in programming, it was the art world that provided Squire with her first dive into computer science, a move that sparked an enduring passion for exploring realms within the field, with the human experience always in mind.

Working for a company in South Florida that organized art fairs, Squire began gathering information to help connect potential buyers with works of art. “I started keeping these files more and more organized, and pretty soon I had developed a database,” Squire says. “We decided we should put some of that online, and then I began working to create a website.”

An initial community college class in programming would lead eventually to a master’s degree and doctorate in computer science from Nova Southeastern University. Squire left the art world behind as she moved into positions with tech companies that focused on web hosting and cybersecurity. She worked for a web hosting company called Highway Technologies in the 1990s when the concept was still relatively new and the internet was very different from what we know today. “We were inventing web hosting and trying to figure out how to make that work when the idea of hosting someone’s website was brand new,” Squire says. “I was working all day and would go to school at night.”

A data mining position at a Raleigh company brought her to North Carolina, and the dot-com bust in the early 2000s, along with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and subsequent funding shifts in the software industry, made a move to academia particularly attractive. Squire began her career at Elon in 2003. Along the way, she became a major advocate and resource for the use of open source software, which can be modified and shared because its design is publicly available. Combining her love for open source software with her skills handling large quantities of data, Squire began compiling massive datasets and making them public. The datasets allow for a more comprehensive view on how open source software is developed and the ecosystem of teams that develop it.

“I’ve always used it and loved it—the ethos of it both politically and emotionally, that’s where my heart is,” Squire says of open source software. “Putting out the source code, and having it open for anyone to see is how I learned to program. If I didn’t have that ethos, I wouldn’t be here. To me, that’s the way to do software, period.”

While cybersecurity is still an interest, open source software is the area Squire chose as the focus of her research when she arrived at Elon. “Open source just felt right,” Squire says. “It felt like something I believed in and something I could stand to spend the next four decades or more working on.”

Much of Squire’s expertise had been in collecting data, organizing it, finding patterns within it and providing access to it. She took that expertise and applied it to open source software to begin collecting and organizing data about projects, the programming teams, and how people interact with the projects. That expanded to include all of the source code, the bug reports and logs of chats among collaborators. “The goal is to learn whether this software and the open source method makes better software, makes more secure software and how teams interact as they work on this software,” Squire says. “A lot of this is mapping out the ecosystem. It might sound boring, but it’s really foundational. A lot of the reason people will use my data is that the work of organizing it and cleaning it gets done, and they can see how I did it.”

For Squire, it’s important that the projects and topics she undertakes as a researcher translate directly into experience and knowledge she can provide to her students in the classroom. “The biggest thing is that I can teach them one-on-one by doing daily hands-on assignments together in the classroom,” Squire says. “I can’t do that in a big class. I couldn’t have even gotten through all the rows of students. Here, everything is about the best way to teach students, and the best way to teach them to program is to have them program in front of you. I can look a student in the eye and say, ‘Did you get that? Why did that code work?’”

Squire became the first faculty member in Elon’s Department of Computing Sciences to publish a book, “Clean Data,” published by PACKT Publishing in 2015, which she followed in 2016 with a second book, “Mastering Data Mining with Python: Finding patterns hidden in your data,” also with PACKT.

Squire believes that she’s able to form connections with students thanks in part to her nontraditional pathway to computing sciences and programming. “At some point, I know these students are going to find something that really sparks them. At some point, they’re going to find something they can’t stop working on,” Squire says, “just as I did.”

Turning back to cybersecurity, Squire notes that widespread concerns about viruses that were generating the most headlines a decade or more ago have now been replaced by worries about password security or large-scale data breaches. But just as the computer science industry helped reduce the threats from viruses, advances will help increase password and data security over time, Squire says.

“Breaches are definitely not going to stop, but I’m hoping that in the same way threats from viruses settled down a bit, the same will happen with passwords,” she adds. “Companies are going to focus more on making it easier for us to choose more secure passwords, and that will be a big help.”

Top tips on choosing a password

  • As tempting as it may be, do not reuse your passwords.
  • Don’t share your passwords with other people.
  • Focus on making longer, rather than more complex, passwords. Mathematically, “mysuperstrongpassword” is much harder to crack than “Elon!17.”
  • Use a password manager software program. This software will generate strong passwords for you and keep track of the ones you’ve already used.
Keren Rivas,
11/17/2017 11:25 AM