Cindy Murphy

The impossible happens every day.


Cindy Murphy is a retired law enforcement detective and has over 20 years’ experience in cybercrime investigations and digital forensics. Cindy worked in law enforcement for 31 years, starting her career in 1985 before joining the Madison Police Department in 1991. She began investigating computer-related crimes in 1999 before being promoted to detective the following year in 2000. Since then, Cindy has become one of the foremost experts in the digital forensics field due to her many years of experience, thirst for new and challenging problems to solve, and above all, the passion she has for her work every day. From the procedures and quality assurance measures employed in the processing of every case, to her work with our engineering team on advanced digital forensics tools and techniques, Cindy ensures that Gillware remains at the forefront of the digital forensics industry.

Where did the idea for Gillware come from?

“Gill” is a family surname, and Gillware was founded in 2004 by two brothers, Brian and Tyler Gill, after Tyler’s college hard drive failed and left him stranded without his valuable data. Gillware began as a professional data recovery lab specializing in recovering data from mechanically failed storage devices. Gillware was founded on the principle that data recovery shouldn’t be a prohibitively expensive service and our process reflects this idea, ensuring that quotes are fair. In 2016, Gillware recruited me out of the law enforcement world in order to expand their offerings to digital forensics, incident response, and e-discovery services.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I’m not sure that there really is any such thing as a “typical” day here at Gillware. On any given day, something new and different is likely to turn up and present a new challenge. That’s part of what makes this work so compelling. We might be dealing with a corporate customer crippled by ransomware, attempting to extract and decode data from a Point of Sale card swiping device, GPS device, or drone for a law enforcement agency, or working on a data theft case for a small business. The challenges we face can be as focused as repairing a badly damaged cell phone so that we can extract data from it or consultation with attorneys about the minutiae of how the flash memory works, or as expansive as an Office365 data breach resulting in multi-million-dollar fraud from an international corporation or dealing with large scale banking trojans.

I make my days productive by strategically triaging the challenges that come my way and focusing on the tasks that are right in front of me that need to be done to move things forward. Sometimes it’s like being a chef in front of an 8-burner stove with several pots starting to boil over all at the same time. I focus on what needs to be done right at that moment to be sure nothing goes awry with any one case, while also keeping in mind the ideal end goals for each case and moving them forward towards that end.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Having an original idea and seeing it through to fruition involves not just technical background knowledge of a particular subject, but a great deal of imagination and creativity as well. For me, most of my best ideas and solutions start with questions. From that starting point I look at what I know, and then start thinking critically to explore the question further. Using empirical evidence and applying logical reasoning, combined with a skeptical attitude about what I think I know is true, I work through the problem and adjust my understanding of it to develop the idea further.

I find that for me though, critical thinking and the scientific method are not fully effective without addition of creativity, intuition, and synchronicity. A “gut feeling” can often lead to a breakthrough, and more often than not, answers to hard problems present themselves while I’m playing music, dreaming, or in the shower. Also, great solutions and ideas are rarely born in a vacuum. Talking through ideas and problems with other experts or even just with a trusted friend can often help move the process forward.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I am excited and encouraged by seeing more women and minorities among those choosing careers in high tech, especially in the digital forensics, incident response, and cybersecurity realms. When I started in digital forensics in 1998, I could go to a national level forensics conference and be extremely lucky to see another woman in the crowd, let alone featured as a speaker or subject matter expert. While we still have a very long way to go, there are many more women and people of color working in the field by far than there used to be. This has been an extremely positive trend in terms of inclusivity of different ideas, background knowledge, and approach to the work we do, and one that will need to continue in order to meet the future employment needs of our field.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I deliberately place value on my off time as much as on my work time. I know that it often feels like in order to get everything done that needs to be done at work we need to be there for more and more hours but burnout is a real and extremely damaging threat. I am conscious of and place limits on my work hours, and attempt to work smarter, not harder. I have found that allowing myself dedicated time to focus on my personal interests (playing music with my band, spending time with my family, friends, and dogs, spending time outside, etc.) allows me to be fully present and invested in what I’m doing when I’m at work. If I allow that balance to shift too far, I am far less productive at work because I am distracted by all of the other things in my life that I want and need to do and am less able to focus on the work in front of me.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Relax a little and let things happen rather than trying to control things. Life is going to happen the way it’s going to happen, and while you can have some influence on the general direction of your life, there’s really no way to fully control the outcome of anything. Often times, even when things don’t go as you wanted or expected, the outcome is as good or better than you expected.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

The impossible happens every day. Here’s one example:

About a year before I retired from law enforcement, I had a really great intern in my lab who I was teaching mobile forensics to over the summer. We processed three phones from a drug overdose death investigation that day, one right after the other. Two of the phones belonged to the victim and the third to the suspect. The suspect’s phone had been cleaned up before being seized and didn’t contain a lot of data. After doing the three phones, I was working on writing the report, and to keep my intern busy, I told him to grab a phone from a box of cell phones that were found property – lost phones turned in by citizens who found them in the community. During less busy times we would attempt to figure out who the phones belonged to so that they could be returned.

The intern picked out a phone that had been found in a snowbank about five months prior. He processed the phone and I noticed he had become silent and had turned ghost white. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me he thought he had messed something up and may have co-mingled data from the phone he was working on with the death investigation case. He hadn’t. Instead, he had picked out a phone from the found-phone box that the suspect from the death investigation lost five months prior. That phone contained communications with the victim related to prior drug deals. I wouldn’t have believed that was possible if I hadn’t been there when it happened. What were the chances of that occurring? I don’t know for sure, but as a skeptic, I know they’re very, very slim. That was probably one of the strangest police reports I ever wrote!

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I question myself every day. Not in a judgmental or anxious way, but in a way that is cognizant of the reality that I am fallible, recognizes that I don’t know everything, and takes into account that life is a time-limited proposition. So, whether it’s questioning my own assumptions about what happened in a case or reviewing my own work to see if I’ve missed anything or asking myself whether I’m still doing what I want to be doing with my life, I reflect on the various possibilities. And then I trust my gut enough to tell me if there’s anything I need to change, whether it’s my understanding of a problem or the direction I’m going in life.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

I trust my business partners and employees to do what they do well, and I focus my energy on doing what I do well. I don’t micromanage. Gillware has grown as fast as it has precisely because it is grounded upon the broad expertise of its partners and employees. This doesn’t mean I’m totally hands off, but I recognize that no one can know everything or have expertise in every area of the business. Giving people the space and support they need to do what they know and do it well has been integral to the growth of our business.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I once pushed for us to hire someone based on having known that person for quite a long time, liking that person, and thinking I knew that person and their skills better than I actually did. As a fairly young business, we invested a lot of resources in recruiting and hiring the person. The fit wasn’t right, and the person left shortly after coming on board. It felt like a failure at the time but was probably actually a blessing in disguise both for Gillware and the person.

I think that “failures” are really just opportunities to fine-tune things. As a result of that experience, we changed our mindset about how to recruit and hire employees and have found a strategy that works much better for us. Gillware is constantly changing and adjusting as a business. We try something, and if it doesn’t work, we adjust course and try something else.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I think there would be a great business opportunity for someone who is a psychologist or psychiatrist and who also has a lot of technical knowledge to consult with people specifically regarding the intersection of technology and mental health. This idea is based on the number of calls we get from people who really probably need a mental health professional or marriage counselor rather than a forensic examination of their cell phone or computer.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I recently spent $100 for a donation through as Christmas gift on behalf of a relative who has everything they need and wants for nothing. That $100 will pay for a year of school for two girls in places like Afghanistan, Congo, or Lebanon. If there’s one thing that can change the world for the better, it’s investing in education and giving young people the tools they need to change the world themselves.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

We use AXIOM by Magnet Forensics as one of our primary digital forensics tools. It’s a great help in many of our cases because it pre-processes, parses, and organizes a lot of the information we need to start digging into a case. While there is no one tool that does everything in digital forensics, AXIOM sure can give you a head start. We use the tool for quick triage work and also for deeper diving into a variety of cases we do.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I would highly recommend The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (and really any of his other books as well). Taleb’s books delve into risk and probability in really approachable ways. His thoughts about finding ways to better understand the world around us are extremely insightful. I come away from reading his books with the impression and appreciation that life is truly an adventure especially if we keep our eyes, our minds, and our hearts open to the possibilities.

What is your favorite quote?

“Life is a potentially self-replicating system of linked organic reactions catalyzed step-wise and almost isothermally by enzymes that are themselves a part of the system.”

My father, Joe Hegmann was a professor who taught statistics, behavioral genetics, and zoology. Along with the scientific method, critical thinking skills, and a whole lot of philosophy, he taught his kids (and grandkids) this definition of life. It probably originates from an update of British biochemist John Perret’s definition of life from the early 1950s. It makes me feel smarter just to know it. It also makes for a great sound-check at my band’s gigs or a conversation starter when I’m around really interesting and smart people.

Key Learnings:

  • The field of digital forensics is constantly evolving and every day brings new and unique challenges
  • *Carefully balancing work and life is very important and helps to prevent burnout.
  • The impossible happens every day.


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