Eric O'Neill was once a counterterrorism operative for the FBI, where he played a major role in capturing the spy Robert Hanssen (his boss at the FBI, whom he was hired to spy on — for more on that, check out his Wikipedia page). His role in capturing Hanssen became the subject of the movie Breach (2007), starring Ryan Philippe as O'Neill.
Now Eric is the national security strategist at Carbon Black, as well as a renowned thought leader on counterintelligence, cybersecurity vulnerability assessments and espionage. He frequently appears on US national broadcast shows across CNN, Bloomberg, Fox Business and others to weigh in on breaking national security news. Here's how he works.
Location: Washington, DC
Current gig: National Security Strategist for Carbon Black; Founder, The Georgetown Group; public speaker; spy hunter; proud dad
One word that best describes how you work: Leap
Current mobile device: iPhone
Current computer: Macbook Pro
First of all, tell me a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I was a Navy kid who didn't follow my father's footsteps into the Naval Academy. I corrected that omission by joining an elite team of counterintelligence and counterterrorism undercover operatives at the FBI. Computer systems, programming, hacking and building have always been passions of mine since my first computer (Apple IIgs). My knowledge of computer systems led me to be handpicked for undercover work during the Robert Hanssen investigation. My efforts led to the smoking gun that eventually led to Hanssen's arrest and conviction for espionage.
I left the FBI to practice law in the areas of government contracts, affairs and national security law. After five years in big law, I started a company with three other investigators named The Georgetown Group. Last year I accepted a position as the National Security Strategist with Carbon Black — a perfect fit for my cyber security experience. Professionally, when I am not investigating issues for The Georgetown Group or putting my futurist hat on for Carbon Black, I'm supporting a global humanitarian charity or I'm on the road speaking at events around the world.
What apps, software or tools can't you live without?
My iPhone and iPad are my go-to information devices. I can't survive trips without my Kindle, and my Fitbit is always reminding me to take the stairs instead of the elevator. My favourite apps are:
- Flipboard and WSJ for all things newsy
- WhatsApp to keep in touch with my foreign pals
- 1SE (one second every day) to chronicle my life in seconds
- Google Maps because who can live without it these days?
What's your workspace setup like?
I work best when I'm on my feet and use a standing desk to help me concentrate. The only chair in my office is one of three in a sitting area away from my desk that probably would remind you of your grandfather's den. I also use this curved piece of plastic that looks like a skateboard without wheels to stand on all day. I can sway back and forth and it keeps my feet from aching. The wall closest to my standing desk is coated in whiteboard paint and is filled with thoughts, ideas, random pictures drawn by my kids when they come visit, to do lists, and other mental chaos that requires physical expression. At the office I use a monitor, keyboard and mouse. At home, just the laptop. I keep it simple.
What's your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
Flipboard. I have the app programmed to give me a curated news feed that keeps me up to date on all the things I speak about. I use it to send information over to my Twitter feed. If you'd like to see my Flipboard magazine, it's called "Chasing Shadows".
What's your favourite to-do list manager?
I use Reminders — the native iPhone app. Often I just use the Notes app. Pleasantly, both sync to my Macbook and iPad.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What's your secret?
I know how to focus my attention on a task throughout the workday and then totally turn off when it's time to go home. This allows me to recharge and renew myself for the next day. It's like a fighter getting back into the ring refreshed after each round. I have rituals and routines to help me with this. The first thing I do when I get home from work is to change into comfortable clothes. The ritual of taking off the suit or business casual "uniform" helps me shed the worries and stress of work. This, in turn, helps me be present for my family. The work I do is all for them, after all.
What do you listen to while you work? Got a favourite playlist? Maybe talk radio? Or do you prefer silence?
When I am concentrating I like silence, especially when I'm writing or reviewing a contract or complex document. It's important to remove all distractions and be at full capacity to complete the task. For lighter work or basic research, I listen to podcasts or NPR. I couldn't drive anywhere without my podcasts.
What are you currently reading? Or what's something you'd recommend?
I am currently reading Robin Hobb's latest book. I do so much technical and analytical writing that I prefer to read fiction whenever possible to let my mind dream.
How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?
The best way to recharge and forget about work is to spend time with my wife and children. I am also a lifetime devotee to martial arts and recently got into CrossFit. Working up a good sweat is a tried and true method to take the mind off everything except the next deadlift or flying side kick.
What's your sleep routine like? Are you a night owl or early riser?
I am a night owl. My wife calls me the ghost that haunts our house after everyone else is asleep. I'm a lifelong insomniac, so getting to sleep is always a struggle — except evenings after I've been awake since 5:00AM for a CrossFit class. Those days sleep comes easy!
Fill in the blank: I'd love to see _________ answer these same questions.
Writer/director Billy Ray.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
My father's advice: "Sleep is a weapon." I recite this advice each night like a mantra because, as with so many things, my father is completely on point. Sleep helps us organise our minds and exorcise the demons of the day. We are sharper after plenty of sleep, thought comes faster and we become more in tune with our surroundings. The most critical part of my process before a keynote is to manage a great night of sleep the night before. Connecting with my audience, finding the words that will excite them, and pacing and measuring my thoughts all come faster after a restful night.
Is there anything else you'd like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
Working is something we do to improve our lives. We also spend quite a deal of time working. My most successful career moves have in many ways been leaps of faith into areas that excite or challenge me. If you love what you do, find it fulfilling and consistently feel a sort of forward momentum, you'll never think of your job as work. Once things start to feel routine, boring or stalled, it's time to make a change. That's when you make your next leap.
We've asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.