By Steve Blanchard - February 19, 2021
Hugh Percy compares his job in cybersecurity to that of a James Bond film. His team isn’t securing Britain’s national security like MI6, but it is tasked with protecting Moffitt Cancer Center’s data systems from internal and external cyberattacks.
Percy takes pride in his role and is inspired by his parents, particularly his late father, who always encouraged him to be his best.
“He taught me this: ‘Never rest until your good be better and your better be best,’ ” Percy said of his father, who was treated for non-Hodgkin lymphoma at Moffitt in 2019. “My parents both worked incredibly hard and instilled in me that same work ethic.”
Although he was raised in Florida, Percy was born in Jamaica and came to Florida at 6 years old with his parents and three older sisters. His early interests were not unlike most young boys his age: video games and sports.
“I had a lot of friends who would come over and we’d have Super Nintendo nights,” he said. “We would play Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat when we weren’t playing basketball or football at the fire station down the street.”
The more he enjoyed video games, the more his love of computers grew. In college, he majored in computer science and mathematics with a focus on programming. Eventually, he developed an interest in system administration and networking on his journey to earning a master’s degree in Computer Information Sciences.
“I’m the black sheep of the family,” he joked. “All of my sisters have a doctorate degree. Education was very important to my parents and they instilled that in us. The idea of hacking into computer systems and protecting those systems — choosing whether to be the good guy or the bad guy — really intrigued me. I knew I didn’t want to be the bad guy. I wanted to be the cyber superhero.”
Percy uses those computer superpowers as Moffitt’s manager of cybersecurity, where he protects patient data and the computer systems doctors and nurses use to save lives on a daily basis. He sees the role as a symbol of opportunity to the Black community at large.
“It says a lot about Moffitt that the opportunity is here,” Percy said. “I’ve been in meetings with peers at other health care providers and I’m usually the only Black guy. But I’ve come to recognize nods from others who show their support and that is refreshing. As a manager, I can interview young Black men and women and they see a Black guy who won’t have biases or preconceived notions.”
Percy is no stranger to those preconceived notions. His own journey to Moffitt began well before he arrived in 2015. It started when he met Moffitt’s chief information security officer, Dave Summitt, when both worked at The University of Alabama at Birmingham. It was a meeting that would help chart Percy’s career. But it was also a meeting that very nearly never happened.
“Remember, I was in Alabama,” Percy said. “That’s where a lot of injustice and marching occurred and it’s not the most comfortable place for a Black man. When Dave came aboard looking to build a team, I saw an opportunity. But I wasn’t sure how he would respond to me, a Black man.”
Percy said when the elevator opened to the floor where he was to approach Summitt, he saw a sea of white faces. Even with his master’s, Percy wasn’t sure he was ready to confront potential discrimination from his peers and colleagues on his way up the career ladder.
“When the elevator doors opened, I saw all those people and I chickened out. I didn’t want to walk past them because I was afraid of the stares, slurs or other comments,” he said. “That’s the pressure of being Black. I walked about 5 feet and turned around to go back to the elevator.”
But before the doors reopened, he reminded himself of his credentials and his desire for a better position and a better life for his family.
“I turned back around and walked down the hall and into Dave’s office and introduced myself,” Percy said.
Soon, Percy found himself as part of the cybersecurity team at UAB. When Summitt relocated to Tampa, he urged Percy to join him at Moffitt. Percy declined at first.
Eventually, however, Summitt’s persistence paid off and Percy landed in Tampa in 2015 with a new position on Moffitt’s cybersecurity team.
“I really think that God brought me to Tampa and to Moffitt,” Percy said. “Not too long after I arrived, my dad was diagnosed with cancer and I was able to get him in to see Moffitt’s doctors.”
Percy credits Moffitt hematologists Tim Kubal and Bijal Shah with extending his father’s life. It’s his father’s own cancer journey that helped him realize the gravity of the work he does at Moffitt and how he helps patients, even if it’s indirectly.
“I see cybersecurity as an unsung hero kind of role,” he said. “It’s rewarding and exciting and we operate like a guardian angel. You don’t always see us, but we keep you and your systems safe.”
Percy is used to being one of only a handful of Black professionals in the world of IT and cybersecurity. But he knows that he represents opportunity for young boys of all races who may not think they can achieve the career goals of their dreams. He also wants to be an example to his four daughters.
“When these kids, or my co-workers, see a Black man in a suit speaking on a panel or discussing cybersecurity, you see that not everything you see on television is true,” he said. “When you hear so much about the challenges and disparities, it can discourage you. But this is my opportunity to show everyone that your good can become better and your better can become your best.”