“ICT isn't for women? Nonsense! ICT is for everyone!”
At SIDN, we are constantly working to help build a strong and stable internet for everyone. And that's not easy to do. It depends on having highly motivated people, committed to assuring security. People like Anne van Bemmelen. In the role of DNS Engineer, Anne has been part of our team for fifteen years, working at the heart of the .nl domain. On 2 September, however, Anne is taking well-deserved retirement. So, in this article, we look back at her career at SIDN, the part she's played in the 'masculine' world of ICT, and her love of the job.
Anne became a mother for the first time at the age of twenty-one. And decided to devote herself to caring for her family full-time. Which was quite normal at the time. Within four years, she had three youngsters to take care of. Nevertheless, Anne began to feel that she was ready for a new challenge, and after a while she returned to her studies. She took a course in maths, which introduced her to programming. "At the outset, I barely knew what programming was, but I soon found that I really enjoyed it." Her interest in programming and cryptography led her to specialise in the field, taking various courses and eventually doing a master's degree.
"The logical nature of cryptography and programming appeals to me. They are disciplines that demand efficiency and precision, which really suits me. If you write a program or script, you want it to work properly. And sometimes something you've written will later need to be modified by someone else. In which case, the structure of the program needs to be transparent and logical. That's the challenge."
"As well as being a highly skilled and analytical team member, Anne has shown that women can be completely at home in the ICT world. Precision is vital, especially where the DNS is concerned, and when it comes to precision no one is better than Anne. She's proved to be totally dependable and - in the eleven years we've worked together - she's shown amazing commitment. I wish her a wonderful retirement surrounded by her loved ones.”
– Cees Toet, Manager ICT, SIDN
In the minority
Entering the ICT world was clearly quite a change of direction for Anne. And perhaps not an obvious change to make. At a comparatively mature age, she opted for a profession that even now is dominated by men. Fewer than 10 per cent of the people working in ICT are women. "I've never known anything else, and it's never been a problem for me. The only thing I object to is when a colleague leaving at the end of the days says something like, 'See you in the morning, gentlemen.' I always point out that we're a mixed-gender team. When people think of ICT, they often think of it as tinkering with hardware, as the sort of thing that's traditionally assumed to be more suitable for men. There is some tinkering, yes, but there's a lot more to ICT than that. It really is a profession for everyone!"
At the heart of the Dutch internet domain
As a DNS Engineer, Anne has been working right at the heart of the Dutch internet domain. "The work is very varied, which I like. You have to constantly make sure that everything's running smoothly and make updates without inconveniencing anyone."
In fifteen years, Anne's seen some big changes. SIDN has grown from twenty people to a hundred. And the internet has expanded in a way that was almost impossible to imagine back then. In her role, Anne is acutely aware of how important the net has become. "A fault has more serious implications than it used to have. Consequently, everything has to be done according to a formal procedure. When I began, you would modify a configuration and then simply tell your colleagues what you'd done. Now every change has to be preceded by a written request."
DNSSEC is a security extension to the DNS protocol. It forms an extra layer of security, added after American hacker Dan Kaminsky revealed critical vulnerabilities in the basic DNS. DNSSEC protects name servers and other parts of the internet, and makes it harder for internet crooks to get hold of confidential information.
Proud of the digital signature
As you might expect, it's the DNS, especially DNSSEC, that Anne takes most pride in. The DNS protocol provides for the translation of IP addresses into domain names and vice versa. That's an essential part of enabling an internet user to look at a website, for example. When you type 'sidn.nl' into your browser's address bar, that's invisibly translated into the associated IP address. And it's the Domain Name System (DNS) that does that. "It's like the internet's phone book," says Anne. "If the DNS for .nl went down, you couldn't book a flight on klm.nl, or plan a train journey on ns.nl, and businesses would lose customers, who would get what they want from a .com domain instead."
The challenging nature of Anne’s job was emphasised in 2008. That was when the world's DNS engineers were confronted by the 'Kaminsky bug': an attack that American hacker Dan Kaminsky used to demonstrate a flaw in the design of the DNS. A flaw that made it possible for internet crooks to inject false information into the caches of DNS servers. In response, Anne and her colleagues implemented a system of digital signatures, known as DNSSEC. DNSSEC provides an additional layer of security that prevents scammers manipulating the DNS in order to get hold of confidential information and perpetrate other abuses. As a big fan of cryptography, Anne was pleased to make her contribution. "It's something we take very seriously here at SIDN," says Anne. "For example, the 'private key' that enables a digital signature to be attached to any .nl domain name in our database is stored in a device called a Hardware Signing Module (HSM). It's an intriguing bit of kit, which is used by very security-sensitive organisations, such as banks. Additional security provisions like that require significant expertise.
Handing on the baton
Although she's enjoyed her career, Anne is looking forward to retirement. "I won't be able to turn my back on the world of ICT entirely, but there are many other things I still want to do." So the time has come to pass the baton to the next generation. "Naturally, I'll make sure that there's an efficient handover. At the moment, however, we're still looking for a new DNS engineer. It's a specialist role, and a very responsible one. Especially when you're with one of the biggest country-code domains in the world. How challenging is that?" If you think that you could fill this dynamic role, take a look at our job advert for details of the challenges involved and the type of person we're after .