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Monique Head, Founder of CyberTorial.org and Sr. Partner, Information Security Communications, Awareness & Education at Netflix
Monique Head is respected across the industry as a dynamic, accomplished, bilingual Senior Cybersecurity Leader and Educator with progressive experience in guiding cybersecurity training & awareness, compliance, and strategy development for industry leaders like Palo Alto Networks, PayPal, HP, and Visa.
She is the founder of CyberTorial, a non-profit with a mission to uncover the unrealized and untapped potential of minority women, by creating experiences that educate and improve cybersecurity acumen, with the end goal being to get young females of color interested in cybersecurity as a profession.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NCA: What were early signs growing up that hinted cybersecurity might be your place?
Monique: You have to understand when I was growing up computer science, not to mention cybersecurity were not career choices offered to me…Of course, my father always encouraged me and tutored me in math early on, so that gave me a strong background. But during that time, it wasn’t something where someone said, “Oh, you can work with computers.” I didn’t even know what it was till I got to college. And that’s one of the things that propels me today, educating young people, to let them know what is possible early enough to prepare themselves. Like so many young people I was focused on popular professions that I saw everyday like modeling and video production. So that was my focus early on, while also learning about technology in school.
I would say early on I had a hacker mentality; I was always thinking outside the box, asking “why”. I was always looking for an alternative way. I was always trying to understand how something worked. I remember sitting at the dining room table questioning my parents on some issue with the response, “Well, why? Why?”
My mother would get frustrated and respond, “Why are you just asking ‘why’ all the time?” I think when you understand the “why” then you can control the narrative going forward, or you can understand how to navigate and work within that realm.
NCA: What is your educational background?
Monique: It says on my resume industrial engineering for my bachelor’s, which is true, but actually my focus was Furniture Manufacturing and Management Engineering.
That is a long way from technology and cybersecurity, but that was my academic journey. While I was in college, in the summer we had to actually go out in the forest, we had to cut down a tree. After we cut down the tree, we had to take it to a kiln to have the wood split and dried. We made furniture from the original source all the way to the finished product, which had nine or 10 different finished layers on it. Even today, I like building furniture as a hobby.
NCA: What got you interested in cybersecurity as a career?
Monique: In college, my best friend was in computer science. I found out I liked computer science, too, but I couldn’t go into it because I had a scholarship specific to Furniture Manufacturing. I started taking all the classes I could as electives in computer science. And I took one class in C++ where we had to make these little LEGO pieces move. When I saw that my code made the LEGO ferris wheel move, I was hooked!
NCA: How did you get started in the cybersecurity field?
Monique: I was a consultant working for a company and we helped to train teachers on how to use computers in the classroom with their students. This got me interested in technology as well as sharing knowledge with others and I pursued a Master’s in Instructional Design. A few years later I got my first assignment to create a social engineering cybersecurity module and I was hooked.
I loved the subject matter so much, meaning how you can educate people to be safe, to be secure. I enjoyed working with developers and software engineers to figure out how to take this more complex idea and simplify it so others can understand how to protect themselves online. And so, I’ve been doing this ever since.
NCA: You received the 2019 Women in IT Award and the Security Champion 2019 for Silicon Valley as well. What do these awards mean to you?
Monique: I can only speak for myself, but I think some women, in particular women of color, benefit from seeing people who look like us get public acknowledgement for some of the great work we do. There are those lurking questions: Could I have done that better? Am I on the right track? Am I making a difference? The awards helped to validate me. It helped me to understand, hey, I’m doing some great things. to do. It gave me the fortitude to go forth and to try to do even more to support others in the same way I have received support from my tribe.
NCA: What does it mean to be a woman in cybersecurity?
Monique: I think it’s an exciting time for women right now. We do see that with the shortage in the cybersecurity labor market, there is a greater shortage of women in cybersecurity. But the thing is, that’s seeing the glass half empty. Let’s look at filling that glass with talented women and people of color as well. And I might add, companies should not focus on just entry level positions, but positions of leadership where the status quo can evolve.
In that way we can actually do certain things to become more a part of the narrative to make things happen more equitably. Our time is now – we can empower ourselves to rise, to be bigger and better and effect more change.
NCA: What inspired you to found CyberTorial?
Monique: CyberTorial is my ‘next BIG thing’. I started thinking: What about people at home? They need to know how to be safe online, as well as people in the workplace. And again, the shortage of women and minorities in the cybersecurity field needs a new approach. Not to mention that our young girls need to be taught as early as possible how to safeguard themselves online.
When children learn to walk, you teach them to look both ways before they cross the street to be safe and cautious. We must do the same thing with social media and any other technology that is out there. So young people know not just how to use social media but how to do with skepticism in mind.
That’s where the idea for CyberTorial was born, to help young girls understand how to navigate the internet in a safe way. We are introducing the first female cyberhero, CyReina. We are in our first year and are launching a crowdfunding campaign to help build our animated modules. Check out our CyberTorial website AND join our fundraising campaign – one day we hope to be on TV with entertaining modules free to all young people.
NCA: How has your passion for instructional design methodologies helped to optimize learning ecosystems?
Monique: In my current role, I do cybersecurity communications, awareness, and education. So again, that focuses on content, but I really think a lot about the technology side of education. xAPI is a technology that will expand how we can record learning events beyond the traditional online platforms used today – this is the future.
Experience API (xAPI) is a relatively new protocol for learning technology that makes it possible to gather information about the many different experiences of a person, both online and offline. This API collects data on a person or group’s activities across numerous technologies in a consistent format.
Monique: It works with knowledge sharing whether you are on social media, a website, sharing information via interactive video, or you’re reading a blog to gain information. It’s a way to harness and track that exchange of information and knowledge.
NCA: What do you think the cybersecurity industry should be focusing on as it pertains to improving diversity and inclusion across the board?
Monique: In industry in general, we must do more to educate recruiters, so they understand that what powers success and innovation is diversity – diversity in thought and diversity in how you carry out your mission.
For that type of diversity, you need to have people that come from all walks of life, whether it be color, origin, nationality or whatever. That’s really important. They must look at what makes things tick. You shouldn’t just look at the package. You have to look at what’s inside the package.
NCA: Do you think the bachelor’s degree route into cybersecurity jobs needs to change?
Monique: If we continue to look at just the traditional four-year college education, and you do get some great people that way, but there are a lot of good talent with a two-year degree, and that’s a great way to start off too. There are some people who complete a training program to learn where they need to go and that is another path. Organizations like Minorities in Cybersecurity, Cyversity or Black Girls Hack which partners with CyberTorial can help someone find the path that works best for them.
There are a lot of different ways that people start off and we must look at all these different sources because college is so expensive, you are only going to get a pool of people who have the money to afford that education, not necessarily the pool of the best talent.
NCA: What do you think needs to happen on a leadership level?
Monique: We strive to get people into entry level positions from cyber security, but what really needs to happen is diversity in leadership. We need to see diversity in leadership, more CISOs of color, as well as women. More people in the executive suite. If we make a difference there, then the change will trickle down- it will happen organically. But if we just concentrate on these entry level positions, then I think we’re putting a temporary band-aid on the problem.
NCA: Can you talk to us about misconceptions and stereotypes that are going on about the cybersecurity field?
Monique: I think one of the common stereotypes includes cybersecurity is for the techy, nerdy person who is great with technology and that they have no people skills at all. That’s not the case at all, I should know I can be nerdy and I like it. People need to know that cybersecurity is an industry. You need people from all walks of life, technically inclined and otherwise. You need people with a business mindset. You need people who know how to help educate others. You need to have people who do all different types of job. It’s not just for the technically inclined but for those positions that support technology as well.
NCA: What would you say to someone trying to get into the industry now?
Monique: This is what I tell young people today – be willing to work at it. Don’t expect instant gratification but keep at it, perseverance. Everything that is worth having is worth working for and it happens over time. It’s good to have some type of roadmap, a strategy in place to guide you, that way you can keep your eyes on the prize and work toward it.
Have a certain amount of time where you’re saying ‘I’m willing to work at it. I want to get to this point by this time in my career, so on and so forth.’ Look at it from that perspective.
Also, expand your network! Meaning, make sure that you network, and you connect with people who are like-minded, and also those that are not. I have people that look like me, and I feel most comfortable there and it works, and we help and empower each other, but I also have included in my network, those that don’t look like me, and they really help me keep an open mind and think of others.