Women in Cybersecurity: Career Advice from NCSA’s Board of Directors
March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate the lives and legacies of women through history. The month provides an opportunity to spotlight the role of women in society today, and empower the next generation of women leaders. All month long, NCSA is spotlighting inspiring leaders in cybersecurity, starting within our organization. NCSA has ten fantastic women leaders in cyber currently serving on our Board of Directors. Several of them shared their stories with us, along with the advice they have for women looking to advance their own cybersecurity careers:
- Alyssa DeVita, Director, Global Information Security Program Reporting, Awareness & Services, Marriott International
- Anastasia Tsimiklis, Chief Marketing Officer, Terranova Security
- Jane Harper, Senior Director, Information Security Risk Management and Business Engagement, Eli Lilly and Company
- Lisa Plaggemier, Chief Strategist, MediaPRO
- Saleela Khanum Salahuddin, Cybersecurity Policy Lead, Facebook
- Tonia Dudley, Director, Strategic Advisor, Cofense
How did you get your start in cybersecurity?
Alyssa – I have always been drawn to opportunities involving change management and communications. Cybersecurity is never final, organizations need to continuously change and continuously improve, and communicate to their users to help them understand how to protect themselves from threats. I gravitated to a career in cybersecurity because I am driven by the excitement of change, and finding impactful ways to communicate about these changes.
Anastasia – I began my career in IT with Montreal-based Matrox – a global leader and manufacturer of video graphic cards. I was lucky enough to join during a period of incredible growth in the mid to late 90s. I learned a ton about the importance of product innovation, direct sales vs. channel, and the power of marketing. This was the era of big industry conferences, including Comdex in Las Vegas, where a younger Bill Gates would be the keynote on themes like “Information at Your Fingertips” and “The Road Ahead.” He would influence me to pivot my career to software and eventually to cybersecurity.
Jane – It really started as a little girl. I would rather tinker with and figure out how to take the radio apart and put it back together, than to comb Barbie’s hair. I literally tried to break the unbreakable Tonka truck without success.
Saleela – The majority of my career, both in the law and in the policy arena, has been focused on issues of intelligence oversight and national security, and the proliferation of cyber-enabled threats and needs to mitigate and neutralize those threats through legal, policy, and operational methods has been a natural outgrowth of time spent as a lawyer, drafting intelligence and cyber-related laws, and also developing and implementing policy and product solutions to cyber threats for billions of social media platform users. The start, therefore, has been steady and grown over time as the threat landscape has evolved over time — being constantly committed to learn new skills and abilities and adapt with the landscape has been key.
Tonia – After 5 years in IT Compliance, I was looking for what’s next. We had an opening in our Global Security group doing policies & standards and thought this would be a great way to learn about security. Two years into the role I was able to transition into our Security Architecture group.
What advice would you give to women interested in pursuing a career in cybersecurity or other STEM industries?
Alyssa – Embrace challenges – there will be many – every challenge is an opportunity to learn something. Keep an open, curious mindset, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and be brave enough to suck at something new – it won’t feel/be new forever. Hone the soft skills – facilitation, teamwork, building relationships, compassion and a willingness to listen – because these can transcend across all industries.
Anastasia – Cybersecurity and all STEM industries provide a fascinating environment and opportunity for self-challenge, growth and continuous learning and are accessible to anyone with an interest and desire to excel.
Jane – Research the industries and understand the skills and education expectations. Build a team of connections that can help answer questions and share practical experience with you. Most of all be committed to the journey by knowing your stuff and doing the work.
Lisa – I often hear the statement, “there’s nobody in the room that looks like me.” I have a few thoughts about that. First, the devil’s advocate in me has to ask, “why does that matter?” Be the first! Be the pioneer! You’re stepping into that room with your skills and abilities – nothing else matters. Focusing on that negative perception of the room isn’t good for your confidence. Power through!
Second, that statement implies that we have some sort of automatic connection or validation from other people who do look like us – just because they look like us. I’ve been the only woman in the room probably dozens of times in the last 25 years. I never let it stop me from finding like-minded thinkers or allies in the room to meet the business goals of the meeting. If you really want to celebrate diversity, hone your skills at working with everyone not just the people you feel you have something in common with.
The best mentors I’ve had in my career have all been men. There are a lot of men willing to be a part of the solution who are fantastic at mentoring young talent both male and female. Don’t limit yourself to finding a mentor who looks just like you.
Saleela – Learn the skills needed, be substantively strong, and aim high in pursuing opportunities. Identify leaders, regardless of gender, who inspire you with their work and their approach, and model what you can on approaches worth emulating. Be continually engaged with current developments to stay sharp. And, most importantly, share credit where team efforts have enabled success and be the best leader you can be to empower others as you advance.
Tonia – Many of the opportunities I had along my career journey were because people I already worked with knew my strengths and capabilities. Use your current skill set to get into a company that fits your values. From there, start connecting and networking internally to understand various elements about the organization to apply internally once roles become available. One organization I worked for allowed individuals to “shadow” someone in a department to learn about the role or department. Find ways to get exposure outside your current bubble. Join networking organizations that allow you to connect with people currently holding roles you have an interest in. Who you know can still get you a foot in the door, even if it’s just getting the opportunity to have an interview.
What resources are available to girls and women interested in learning more about cyber careers?
Alyssa – There are resources everywhere – from online training programs to YouTube videos, ask the expert events, and your own willingness to learn. Look on job search boards to see the broad range of careers in cyber that are available – it is a diverse industry.
Anastasia – There are so many but above all connecting and learning from a mentor is probably by far one of the most impactful ways to learn more about a career in cybersecurity. Start by exploring your network on LinkedIn!
Saleela – The Department of Homeland Security has a wealth of resources well-integrated with the private sector that are worth taking a look at. New America also has a list of helpful resources for those interested in cyber-related careers. Cybercrime Magazine also recently featured US- and global resources.
Tonia – Check out any networking group that has a focus on Women in Tech or Cybersecurity. I always recommend Women in CyberSecurity (WiCys.org). This organization provides a lot of resources for understanding several domains within cyber, as well as training and networking opportunities. I really enjoy this organization with their focus on catering to the “students” of cyber. The annual conference each year has reserved 50% of the attendees to students.
What can cyber professionals/ the cyber industry do to empower and encourage women to pursue cyber careers?
Alyssa – I have seen the best solutions come together when challenges are tackled by teams and when those teams have a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives. The cyber industry is ripe with challenges – and attackers get more sophisticated every day. Every person brings a different experience, different perspective – without women in the cyber industry, the industry as a whole would lack diversity of perspective, which is critical to developing creative solutions to the hardest challenges.
Anastasia – I think it is key to begin encouraging girls early on about the possibilities of STEM careers. We are taught math and science in elementary school. In parallel, we should be made aware of the connection to engineering, medicine, cyber – help girls link their strengths and interests to a future profession. This will open up a world of possibility.
Saleela – Pay forward any success you have by mentoring those who seek to enter or excel within the field.