As a soccer goalie in college and today as manager of a cyber threat detection and response team, Payton Landy is no stranger to excellence in defense.
“I feel like as a goalkeeper, my job was, in a sense, to manage the team in our defensive positioning,” said Landy, a December 2021 graduate of Montreat College. “You need to be able to see all the moving parts at the same time and stop your opponent from attacking, which is the same concept as cyber. I think you’re always trying to add more obstacles for them to go around.”
While defense comes naturally for Landy, she wouldn’t be where she is today without an offense-minded approach that helped her land a valuable internship in her freshman year at Montreat College and a manager position as a woman in the field of cybersecurity at just 23 years old.
After spending the first 17 years of her life in Gurnee, Illinois, Landy’s parents retired as police officers and moved their family to Waxhaw, North Carolina, just south of Charlotte. Despite the transition before her senior year of high school, she quickly fell in love with her new location.
“I will always say I’m from Chicago, but the Carolinas have me hooked now,” she said.
While she looked into attending colleges back in Illinois, her desire to continue playing soccer and staying closer to her family weighed heavily on her college decision.
“I wanted to play soccer and I liked the idea that my family could come to watch my games instead of flying back to maybe watch only one game,” she recalled.
In addition to soccer, Landy was interested in cybersecurity, inspired by her mother’s career in computer forensics for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Through a former co-worker of her mom, Landy learned about Montreat College. Not only was she impressed by the program’s designation as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education by the National Security Agency, but she also quickly was intrigued by the hands-on opportunities Montreat offered.
“I decided to go with the smaller school and play soccer where I could earn a cyber-specific degree,” she said. “Those early conversations about internships really kickstarted my drive to strive for an internship already my freshman year.”
To accomplish that goal, Landy needed the support of her professors. Instead of being met with resistance as a new student, she remains grateful for their desire to not only accept her idea but to challenge her to accomplish even more.
“Truthfully, I feel that if I went to any other school, there’s no way I would be where I’m at right now,” she said. “I think Montreat really pushed me to work harder and supported me every step along the way. I had to adjust some classes and take some out of order to meet requirements. At a bigger university, you’re not going to get somebody like that to help a freshman who has been in the door for only four weeks.”
Landy accomplished her first goal by landing a summer internship at Wells Fargo after her freshman year, and ever since then, she hasn’t looked back, graduating a semester early with a degree in cybersecurity and a business administration minor. Her determination to expedite her graduation stemmed from the belief that job offers were coming sooner rather than later. After starting her post-graduate career at Wells Fargo, she was surprised to receive a generous offer from Walgreens within her first year. Needing to decide between keeping her first job out of college and moving on to a different opportunity earlier than anticipated, she turned to Greg Sayadian, one of her cybersecurity professors at Montreat College, for advice.
“Even post-college, he was someone I leaned on for advice,” she said. “I really valued his opinion, and I was glad he answered the phone late at night because I had only 24 hours to make a decision.”
After a lot of internal debate, Landy decided to leave her first position. Today, Landy is pursuing an MBA at Queens University of Charlotte and has a thriving career at Walgreens as manager of the Cyber Threat Detection and Incident Response team, a position that speaks to her dedication, ethical responsibility, and skill, as well as the quality of her training at Montreat College in the realm of cybersecurity.
“Montreat really challenged me to think outside the box and had courses structured around thinking through problems an organization might face,” she noted. “That problem-solving mentality and training at an early stage has really helped me in my success as a manager.”
To Landy, striking a balance between security and business needs is an important key to success, emphasizing that cybersecurity professionals should not be seen solely as blockers of business but as enablers who ensure that businesses operate securely. For businesses to reach their full potential, they need to be willing to take challenges and make changes, something she learned from her non-traditional path at Montreat College.
“It’s not normal for a freshman to get an internship. It’s not normal for somebody to jump jobs after six months of full-time work. It’s not normal for somebody my age to be a manager,” she said. “I think the biggest thing we can do as a cyber industry is challenge the status quo. The way we’ve done it, or the way we continue to do it, may not be the right answer. We need to be thinking about new ways to do things. I think if you challenge the norm and push it, that’s how we get better.”
As a young woman in cybersecurity, Landy also recognizes the importance of supporting other women in the field. She regularly meets with female colleagues to discuss ways to acknowledge one another and challenge stereotypes. In addition, Landy has joined the Montreat Alumni Association Leadership Council as just one way she can support the college and the people who gave so much to her.
“I’m now on the flip side, getting to see what it means to be a part of an alumni network and seeing how much Montreat students want to help current students, as well as alumni regardless of their generation,” she said. “If you pour into Montreat, Montreat will pour back into you. The amount of benefits you can reap from Montreat College are way beyond any other university.”
Whether as a student-athlete at Montreat College or today as a professional, Landy has never been afraid to push the boundaries and explore new horizons with high expectations.
“Truthfully,” she said, “to glorify God is to use the gifts that he gives us and do everything to the best of your ability.”