Fifteen to One – Adam Toulson

Chief Information Security Officer Adam Toulson tells us all about his role, his connection to Scarborough and his appearance on GMTV.

Adam Toulson, a white man with blonde hair, smiles at the camera.

Can you describe your role in 100 words? 

I oversee the digital security of our university and student data by protecting our infrastructure and assets from cyber threats. 

I’m responsible for: 

  • cyber governance, risk and compliance – this covers IT policies and processes, and ensuring we comply with legislation and regulations; 
  • cyber security operations – allowing us to detect and respond to cyber threats and attacks;  
  • cyber architecture, consulting, and engineering – working with projects and teams to build appropriate controls into new or upgraded assets; and  
  • identity and access management – ensuring everyone that accesses University and student data has the right to do so. 

How have you enjoyed your time at the University so far? 

It’s been a whirlwind! I can’t believe it’s been 18 months. Truthfully, at times I’ve felt a little overwhelmed – a sentiment that I’m sure will resonate with many members of our team. It’s no wonder; we’re building a comprehensive cyber security function almost from the ground up, while simultaneously trying to deliver lots of new technology and change, with an almost entirely new team. It’s essential though, as the malicious actors (the people or groups who intentionally threaten and harm IT and online security) that we’re fighting, aren’t slowing down or going anywhere!  

What’s really impressed you about Leeds? 

The quality, knowledge and kindness of our team and my new colleagues. From the support of the VC and University Executive Group, to the vision, leadership and drive of Dan Simms (Chief Information Officer), and the skills and passion the cyber team have for working together to develop our security controls and decision-making. It is really refreshing and not what I expected.   

What is the one piece of key advice you would share with colleagues to help them manage the University’s, and their own, cyber security? 

We’re already living in a very different world from that in which we lived twenty, or even ten years ago. In 2023, our physical and digital lives are completely interwoven.  This presents vast new opportunities and a few risks. Cyber security isn’t the responsibility of ‘that guy’ in IT anymore, it’s part of the day-to-day for each and every one of us. It’s really important that you understand cyber security risks associated with your activities, your responsibilities, and the controls necessary to keep our data and services safe. Our Information Governance Training is a great introduction and guide. 

What are you most looking forward to working on? 

We’ve got so many cyber security initiatives coming up that I’m looking forward to!  For example, we’re improving our Identity and Access Management Framework by strengthening access permissions to University systems and data, and simplifying how you get that access. Implementing new network technology will mean we can adequately protect important central and shared data, and infrastructure, whilst enabling our researchers, academics and external parties to have appropriate access. This solution and the associated process changes are going to be significant and far reaching. 

Is there something, or someone, that has inspired you in your career? 

My great great grandfather, Stephen Toulson, started a karting business in 1911 in Sheffield, not far from where Meadowhall stands today. The family were far from wealthy, and the business was a means to get by. As Stephen’s children started work, they worked for the family firm. Together, they gradually replaced the well-loved horses with lorries and expanded into one of the biggest sand and gravel businesses in the region at one time. Stephen, Betsy and their children went from a single room above a greengrocer’s shop, to employing more than 160 people and owning thousands of acres of land across Yorkshire, including what was until very recently Doncaster Sheffield Airport (then Finningley Hall) and what is now Otley Sailing Club. The business was sold in 1974 and now forms part of Amey plc. The assets and money are long gone, but the network and tight connections amongst now relatively distant cousins remain, as does the entrepreneurial drive and belief that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. I hope I can pass a bit of that on to my children, the people I work with, and teams that we build. 

We all have that professional or personal achievement we’re incredibly proud of – can you tell us yours? 

I think in my professional career, my greatest achievement is becoming the first ever Chief Information Security Officer at the University of Leeds and being lucky enough to work with such a fabulous bunch of people. 

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career that you know now? 

That’s tough to narrow down! Cyber security spans so many different competencies and technologies. It’s taken me a long, long time to accumulate enough knowledge to feel like I can call myself a professional in cyber and I still manage to find a surprise or two almost every single day – it’s important to listen and be able to leverage perspective, knowledge and skills of others.  

If you didn’t work in HE, what would have been your chosen career? 

I enjoy working in HE at the moment as I think it’s the ‘soft underside' for cyber threats right now, and it’s where it’s at for cyber professionals, in my book. I enjoy the challenge of the academic and research environment, particularly using known cyber tools and services in new ways to solve different problems. The thing that gets me up in the morning, though, is the challenge. My next gig might be in security in a completely different sector. Or I might reinvent myself as a veterinary surgeon. Why not? 

What are your campus highlights so far? 

I enjoy spending time on campus. Unlike my previous workplace, it’s a great place to walk around. I think the fact that I sometimes need to allocate ten minutes or more to move from room to room and I get a lovely walk and some thinking or networking time between meetings is probably my highlight. 

Have you found a favourite location on campus? 

Well, it’s certainly not the IT building! I quite like a good graveyard, so you might find me in St George’s field on a lunchtime with an iced coffee from The Edit Room when the weather’s good! 

What’s still on your ‘to do’ list to visit? 

The blue plaque tour is on my to-do list this summer, and there are also a number of archaeological artefacts around the University I’ve read about that look interesting.   

What do you do to relax away from University life? 

I’m an avid genealogist and coordinate several family history projects, One Name Studies and DNA projects. I’m particularly interested in consumer DNA testing. I’m regularly involved with societies and higher education institutions, including the East Riding Archaeological Society, who do a lot of work with the University of Hull. It’s not completely disparate to cyber, either; there’s actually a very interesting correlation between identity and access management and the development of a global genealogical and genetic family tree, and of course, there are some interesting cyber and privacy implications around commercialising genealogical data (and particularly the use of consumer DNA databases in criminal investigations).  

Where’s your favourite travel destination and why? 

My wife Sarah and I have two boys aged 11 and 8, so our preferred holiday destinations are mostly European holiday resorts - think sunshine, waterslides and snorkelling rather than the seven wonders or fine wines!  We particularly like Italy, the Greek Islands and the Canaries (primarily for Canarian potatoes – yum!).  

If you were to ask me my favourite place though, it’d have to be Scarborough. I can’t pinpoint exactly why, some parts of it are admittedly awful! My Dad grew up there, my grandfather and I spent much of his latter years there, and even my great grandmother had a holiday home on the Esplanade, which is still in the family, so I guess I feel a deep connection. Get me past Morrisons on the A64 at Eastfield and I’m in holiday mode. That, and the fact that the vastness and rage of the north sea in winter makes any problem seem small, makes it my number one place to visit. 

What’s your random claim to fame? 

Sarah and I once appeared on ITV’s GMTV (now Good Morning Britain) on their ‘Wedding of the Year’ feature. We came second and just missed out on the prize wedding! I understand the winning couple sadly split after six months of marriage, so every-so-often I like to send an email to Kate Garraway and Andrew Castle saying “I told you so”. 

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