This is the second installment of a two-part series for which Cisco asked a group of women cybersecurity experts to discuss someone who meant the most to them as an ally and how that person affected their career. Some of those experts’ responses appeared in a previous blog post . The remaining answers are presented below.
Inspiration from a Personal to a Global Level
There are so many sources of inspiration that it’s difficult for me to just choose one. If I focus only on women’s leadership and empowerment, Michelle Obama (Twitter) and Kamala Harris (Twitter) are at the forefront of my mind. There have been many influential leaders both personally and professionally throughout the years; however, these women stand out in various ways that I can identify with on a personal level. They both strongly believe in women’s empowerment. They have always been outspoken about women’s leadership, breaking barriers, and personal ambition. They have both also been the first ones to break barriers as Black women. Michelle was the first Black First Lady. Kamala is the first Black and Asian American female Vice President. Michelle and Kamala have inspired me in all of those ways and more.
My beliefs in women’s leadership and empowerment started very early in my life while growing up in a patriarchal family. I recall my mother’s undying support and encouragement that fueled my passion as a little girl and now as a woman. My mother always told me to be confident, speak my mind, believe in myself, work hard, and that anything is possible. When I was studying computer science at Georgia Tech, I was the only female in virtually all of my computer science classes. Being in the highly technical domain of cybersecurity, I have been challenged at times due to the lack of women surrounding me. In general, few women enter the computer science industry, and the numbers get even less as one climbs the ranks.
As one of the very few female leaders in cyber security, I strongly believe there is a tremendous opportunity for women to break many new barriers. It is important to find sources of inspiration like Michelle or Kamala to cultivate essential leadership qualities. And it’s also important to leverage these qualities for the betterment of yourself, your life, your business, and/or your cause. That is what can inspire change and make a lasting difference. I hope that I can inspire more females to pursue careers in technology and leadership.
I waited many years for the opportunity to sit down with Katie Moussouris (Twitter | LinkedIn) and interview her for Infosecurity Magazine. Serendipity came to the rescue and connected us in a bathroom at the RSA Conference in San Francisco in February 2020. What followed was a three-hour chat and an in-depth interview that left me feeling completely in awe of the pink-haired bug bounty queen. When Katie told me that she will one day run for President, I believed her.
Katie has ambition, drive, and determination that most of us can only dream of. She has testified in front of Congress. She fights tirelessly for pay equality. (She has set up the PEN Equity Now Foundation for pay equality.) And she challenges herself relentlessly. Katie’s passions radiate from her, and her philosophy of “have as much fun as you can because it’s later than you think” totally resonates with me. It’s impossible not to be inspired by Katie, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to get to know her.
Universal Truths to Build Bridges
The question of “Who has had the biggest impact on your professional career?” is a difficult one to answer because that’s not how my mind works or how my career has grown. I was an autistic child from an underprivileged and underserved socio-economic background. I saw learning as my way to a better life. My life has been a path of continual learning, much of it self-driven and influenced by the best business minds of our century – all initially for the price of a library card, which thankfully is free!
Though I have met lots of people that have inspired me on the way, my first foray into a “life-changing” mentor was through studying the work of Dale Carnegie in his landmark book, “How to Win Friends & Influence People.” His book helped me to better understand neurotypical social interactions and relationships, which I’ve observed are so often the key to success in business and in life.
Comedian Hannah Gadsby (Twitter) once said, “Being autistic is like being the only sober person in a room full of drunks or the only drunk in a room full of sober people.” Gadsby’s analogy not only describes perfectly how many marginalized neurodivergent people feel; it also highlights one of the biggest challenges to increasing diversity and inclusion in cybersecurity: the very differences that could make our industry stronger often block individual success and career growth.
When hiring, companies often ask “Will this candidate fit in with the team?” rather than “Can the team support this candidate?” The two questions seem very similar; however, the first fosters an environment of groupthink (business stagnation), whilst the second is likely to foster diversity, which according to some studies increases innovation, resilience, and profit.
After reading thousands of books and meeting and learning from hundreds of the world’s top business leaders and mentors, I’ve realized that the biggest universal truth is that success is inexorably linked to how well you serve people (both colleagues and clients alike).
The biggest gift I could give anyone in cybersecurity or in any other industry is a suggestion that they read a few of these books: Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends & Influence People,” Gallup’s “First, Break all the Rules,” Wickman’s excellent “Traction” series, and perhaps my favorite of all, Bob Burg’s “The Go-Giver.” It will be time well spent
The time spent with these mentors, both in print and personally, has helped me build bridges and connect with others (who often do not share my worldviews or ways of thinking) to foster mutual trust, respect, and success. Viva la difference!
A Supportive Community of Professionals
There have been a few people who were key to my journey into tech and security. In my previous field, one of our consultants, Joe Anderson (LinkedIn), and the IT Director, Christy Burnett (LinkedIn), pushed me to do things I didn’t know that I could and gave me the confidence to pursue a career in cybersecurity.
There were times when I was doubting my ability to even learn the basics – and they were always there to encourage me. There was never any question that was laughed at or that they were too busy to answer. They were always so enthusiastic to help.
As my career has advanced, my friend Cesar Bodden (Twitter | LinkedIn) has become my mentor. He is an incredible champion for diversity in the technology and security spaces, and he has the level of experience I can only hope to reach one day. He is always willing and able to listen to whatever problems I have then discuss them in depth with me until I am comfortable with the resolution we reach.
On Twitter, I have found an amazing community of women in our industry – strong, brilliant, and quick to cheer each other on. I don’t think I have ever found an industry, community, or group of friends that are as supportive! In a time when the need for women in technology is greater than ever, I see it as a very good sign that my best group of girlfriends emerged from the cybersecurity industry.
A Model for Achievement
During the summer of 2019, I was struggling with my identity in ways that I could no longer contain. I was finally realizing why my sense of gender seemed so incredibly different than those around me.
I was looking for ways to feel normal and ways to talk about what I was feeling at a time when I had no words or previous life experience to guide me. But Katherine saw. Her sharp eye, her openness, and her kindness were there with no hesitation or judgment. She was the first person to ask more than, “How are you doing?” Katherine was the first person to be confident enough to open a conversation with me about what I may be going through. She was the first person I actually talked to about transitioning.
Before that day, I always considered Katherine a terrific colleague, and now I consider her a trusted friend. Katherine engages the world with her intelligence, a great sense of humor, a phenomenal work ethic, and a clear sense of social justice. In work, she is a model for what achievement can look like, and she makes sure everyone has access to not only what she learns but also how to learn and grow.
The first time I met Katherine was at one of our security products workshops where I was surprised to find that she was not already working within our security sales organization. I watched her contribute her insights to the class while simultaneously supporting customers, building out new servers in her lab, and writing documentation. I made it a point to leverage my position as a visible leader within Cisco to tell every engineering and sales leader I knew or met that she was an asset that needed to be hired, that having her on one’s team would ensure success.
Because, that is what Katherine does. She ensures the success of those around her. She teaches, she shares her experience, she takes on new challenges, and she makes sure that others need not struggle.
From Introduction to Success
When I ask myself, “who made the biggest impact on my professional career?” hands down (or rather up) I would say Alan Paller (LinkedIn), founder and president of the SANS Institute. I first met Alan in 1991 when I spoke at the very first SANS Conference. My name had been provided to him by a person I worked with at the time. They told Alan, “You have to meet this kid.” Little did I know that the conference and that meeting Alan would change the impact of my career.
Alan became my mentor, and SANS became my proving ground. I was the third top-ranked speaker at the conference. Alan asked me to help with the next conference, then the next one, and soon we were discussing ideas on expanding SANS to include a wider focus of security topics.
Alan not only mentored me, but he also gave me the opportunity to lead the technical program track of the SANS Conference for seven years and the opportunity to do many firsts in the security industry such as staging the very first training session over the telephone in the mid-90s. One of our focus areas was always on getting more diversity, and especially more women, into the field of cybersecurity. We have had many, many conversations and strategy sessions on this topic.
Inside Cisco, I co-founded the “Cisco Women in Cybersecurity” group, and Alan was the keynote speaker at our global kick-off in 2014. Alan has provided guidance, ideas, and resources for efforts within Cisco for improving diversity in cyber. In the industry, the fruition of our efforts is now called “GirlsGoCyberstart,” which focuses on getting middle school and high school girls interested in cyber. We also started a larger non-profit organization called the National Cybersecurity Scholarship Foundation, for which I am now a board member.
Little did I know back in the summer of 1991 that an introduction to Alan Paller would lead to 29+ years of mentorship and partnership for a common passion.
Driving Success Together
When I think about people who have had a profound impact on my career, I’m very fortunate that I can think of many. However, the person who first came to mind when I was asked about this was Ayesha Prakash (Twitter | LinkedIn). She and I used to work together. She’s now at Kela.
Ayesha was on the sales side, and I was on the marketing side, and we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, which I guess is normal, right? We had some challenges, and that’s normal. Yet one of the things about Ayesha that profoundly impacted me in a very positive way was that, together, we found a method to work through those challenges, to come together, and to help each other be more successful.
I don’t know that I would have figured out how to unlock that talent in myself if it hadn’t been for her taking that first step. The other thing that’s so amazing about Ayesha is that she has created something for women in cybersecurity that also applies to women in general called the “pay-it-forward movement.” If you are unfamiliar with the pay-it-forward process, the way this works for women, or any marginalized group, is that if you’ve had someone help you, you don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to praise that person in public. You just have to help someone else behind the scenes.
I’ve always lived by the maxim of helping others to be successful, but I often had a hard time getting out of my own way until I met Ayesha; she helped me find that path. She also helped me learn how to focus on paying it forward. Thanks, Ayesha.