Professional Development
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Find your niche, be adaptive: 6 women technologists on succeeding in cybersecurity

Lessons on professional development and advancing to leadership at the third annual HUE Tech Summit.

HUE Tech Summit organizer Jumoke Dada moderates a panel with Amelia Estwick, Christine Reese and Angelique Slagle. (Screenshot)

Women work in tech roles at a much lower rate than men. We know it’s not just a pipeline issue: Most women leave the tech industry before they have even reached the 10-year mark, often because of biases they face in the industry. In Philadelphia, this year ranking the 13th best U.S. city for women in tech, only 28.5% of local tech jobs are filled by women — and D.C., ranked second, still has a tech workforce of less than 40% women.

There’s work to be done. One part of the tech field that’s especially ripe with opportunity for disruption? The cybersecurity sector, which currently faces a dire talent shortage.

In its fourth annual iteration during Philly Tech Week 2021 presented by Comcast, HUE Tech Summit for women technologists and techpreneurs of color focused its lessons entirely on opportunity in the cybersecurity sector. From two HUE panels, here’s how six women discussed how they entered the field, the tools and skills they frequently use, and how others can find sustainable careers in cybersecurity.

Understand how global economics relates to the work you do in tech.

Tech Women Network founder Jumoke Dada moderated a “Women in Tech Leadership” panel that shared insights from women in top technical positions.

Angelique Slagle said she was first shown cloud technology by a family friend before being attracting to the dynamics of the field. She started her career at SAP on the consulting side before moving to sell supply chain software.

Today, Slagle leads SAP’s SuccessFactors team where she and her colleagues manage personal information: “Everything we do has to be around privacy or data technology,” she said.

Understanding how global economics affects the tech industry has given Slagle a broader perspective of her field and the work she does.

“From a business perspective, I would recommend having more financial knowledge and market knowledge,” she said. “Where I first stepped into tech I didn’t know how to read a financial statement, P&L or global economics and how that feeds into tech decisions. Spend a lot of time reading up on that using Bloomberg Surveillance and [other outlets] could help women advance.”

Cybersecurity roles often rely on critical thinking skills.

Dr. Amelia Estwick is the National Cybersecurity Institute’s director and had a military career before pivoting into cybersecurity in the civilian sector. For her, being in the military was the perfect precursor to the work that she would later do with the government as a cybersecurity professional.

As someone who always had an affinity for math, she was intrigued by the critical thinking needed for cybersecurity and said that job candidates for cybersecurity roles needed to exhibit a similar propensity.

“Demonstrate how you would tackle a problem,” she said. “I want to hear your thought process. This is a field where you need to be constantly thinking on your toes and understand how to tackle a problem from different perspectives.”

Estwick said that hiring has changed from when she was a college student and majored in computer science. Many roles do not require people to have computer science degrees, which she believes is for the better. She also said that companies are working harder to recruit talent from all institutions, including HBCUs.

Focusing on a niche in cybersecurity can take you further.

Lockton Companies SVP Chris Reese provides cyber risk transfer solutions for private and public companies and nonprofits. Reese has seen a demand for law firms looking to hire people who have a combined law and technical background. Lawyers responsible for tech-related cases often need to have an understanding of the industry, and those with a background in that space have a unique advantage.

“If you happen to have a love for the tech field and legal field, there can be many opportunities there,” she said.

Reese enjoys meeting job candidates that can show interest in life outside of work, and that has often been a factor in her decisions when hiring.

“Show people you can talk about things other than technology,” she said. “I’ve had great conversations with candidates talking about things like their families or their hobbies or the sports they’re interested in.”

Reese frequently works on cases in the cyber insurance industry and has noticed that that when data breaches happen at insured businesses, insurance companies usually have to pay for the repairs. As a result, technologists who can unravel what is happening in those instances are in high demand.

Having a core cybersecurity skill set can help when building your team.

In a session titled “Women in Cyber Unlocked,” three cyber pros shared advice for others looking to enter the field.

HUE Tech Summit panelists Bobbie Shrivastav, Angel Johnson and Gina Sharp discuss their cybersecurity careers. (Screenshot)

For Bobbie Shrivastav, hiring individuals with the right cybersecurity skills was an important aspect of laying the foundation for her company Benekiva, which helps companies sort and manage their data.

Shrivastav recommended that B2B professionals in fintech or similar industries focus on how they will find ways to incorporate someone with cybersecurity skills within their team, or learn it themselves. She frequently works with auditors and development operations teams to address cybersecurity issues and pays attention to every aspect of that work.

By working with a team, addressing cybersecurity issues can often be easier.

“From a product level, we knew that security was a focus for our organization, but what we did was make sure we hired the right skill set and right people with the right tools,” she said. “You have to have a cybersecurity acumen to even do the work. I learned you have to have the right understanding and got immersed by watching other individuals.”

Being adaptive is vital in a tech world that moves fast.

Angel Johnson is an information security and cybersecurity specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau and has more than two decades of experience in the cybersecurity field. Within the past four years, she also earned her MBA in cybersecurity from Johnson and Wales University.

In her work, Johnson runs security scans, works with developers, creates documentation and auditor features, and creates Plans of Action and Milestones (POAMs), aka “a plan that describes specific measures to be taken to correct deficiencies found during a security control assessment,” she said. “The POAM should identify the tasks needed to correct the deficiency and the resources required to make the plan work.”

In addition to her work as a cybersecurity professional, Johnson also works as a governor of Guapcoin, a cryptocurrency built on Ethereum blockchain created to address the economic and financial challenges of the global African Diaspora. Being open to new opportunities has helped Johnson build a career in an often fast-moving industry.

“Being nimble and responsive to change [helps],” she said. “When I graduated college in 2000, I had no idea what cryptocurrency even was.”

Empathy matters in cybersecurity management, too.

Gina Sharp has over 20 years of experience in cybersecurity and currently works as a cybersecurity lead at Booz Allen Hamilton, an IT consultation firm. In her work, Sharp uses gap analyses and tools like the Nessus vulnerability scanner to access the level of security risks in clients’ systems.

Sharp said having transferrable communication skills can go a long way in building a career in cybersecurity. Having worked in hospice care earlier in her career, learning how to convey ideas to the people she’s managing in a careful way helps her now.

“Having empathy is a plus in cybersecurity,” she said. “In cybersecurity, because so many [professionals] are coming in thirsty and hungry, they actually need managers or individuals around them empathetic to their needs.”

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

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