A professional singer, a mother, and an association administrator are the backgrounds of five of the honorees for this year’s IT World Canada Top Women in Cybersecurity event.
That came out at a panel discussion on careers during Wednesday’s fourth annual celebration honoring women in the industry.
Consider these five women and their varied journeys into cybersecurity:
— Melanie Anderson, executive director for cryptographic security and systems development at the federal government’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE).
On entering the University of New Brunswick, she had a choice of studying music or computer science. She chose the latter because the department was recruiting women and thought, “Maybe this tech thing could be super cool.” She joined CSE — the branch of the government that protects federal IT networks — served time as a liaison with the U.S. National Security Agency, took time off for a singing career and is now back at CSE as director of cryptographic security anticipating quantum computing.
“You can be creative and do all the things you’re passionate about and bring your whole self to cybersecurity,” she said.
— Tracey Nyholt, founder and CEO of Calgary-based identity and access management startup TechJutsu.
“I worked my way up by offering to do tech documentation for people above me and letting them pass it off as their own work until I learned their job and eventually moved into their position.”
— Juliana Zaremba, strategic partnership and product director at Difenda, an Oakville, Ont., managed security provider.
While studying math at the University of Waterloo, she became interested in computer science. Her first job offers were as an associate statistician, which seemed “a bit boring.” So she decided to work for a tech firm, which led to a job at a cybersecurity services provider.
— Elaine Hum, director of cybersecurity partnerships at Scotiabank.
“Cybersecurity found me,” she said. As a manager at the Canadian Bankers Association, one day she was told she had to facilitate regular meetings of the CSOs of the country’s banks. That led to a career in cybersecurity.
— Andrea Stapley, chief information security officer at Oanda Corp., a Toronto-based foreign currency exchange.
Looking for a way to pay for university, she took a job on the Bank of Montreal’s cryptographic services team. Since then she has worked for TD Bank, Sun Life, Rogers Communications and now Oanda, doing a wide range of cybersecurity jobs. Along the way she took years off to have a family and then returned to work.
Several of the panelists mentioned that it helped being a woman in the 21st century, when labour laws and corporate policies make it easier to be a mother and have a career.
Zaremba, who has two young children, has been able to work from home. “I could be who I needed to be when I needed to be throughout the day,” she said, crediting her partner, her employer, and customers.
All of the panel also said that having a mentor — a woman or a man — has been important in their careers.
Anderson credits the dean of computer science at the University of New Brunswick, at the time a woman, with encouraging her. Another mentor was a manager at the NSA, and a third a leader at CSE who would bring Anderson with her to co-present at big government forums. Without “her honest and direct feedback I would not be where I am today,” she said.
Hum said that at a previous job, a woman who believed in her helped get her first managerial position. She now tries to do the same for others. Recently she hired a woman with a mental illness who ended up performing well in part because she’d been given a chance.
Stapley said one mentor early in her career just said, “You can do this” when she was “scared to death. … It pushed me out of my comfort zone and paved the way to building my confidence.”
And sometimes it takes bravado. When Nyholt and a friend were founding TechJutsu, she didn’t have anyone to staff a project being pitched to a potential customer. The friend pretended she was that employee. They made a presentation, won the account, and created the startup. That friend is now a full-time staffer — and Nyholt’s mentor.
The panel also offered sage advice to women who want a career in cybersecurity.
“Be resilient,” said Hum. “Challenges and setbacks are inevitable in any career. Developing resilience to really bounce back from failures and obstacles is something that’s important.”
“Keep pushing forward to your goals,” she added, “and make sure they are aligned with your values and aspirations.”
The way to be resilient is to be brave, said Nyholt. Boys are socialized to get up if they fall in a playground. Girls, on the other hand, are socialized to be perfect. “We need to let go of being perfect, we need to take risks. If you fall down, get back up.”
“Bring your authentic self to everything that you do,” said Anderson. “It resonates with people so they can be their authentic selves.”
“People skills are really critical,” said Stapley, “because on our jobs we have to convince people to secure the organization … You have to hear people who are overworked and stressed and have other priorities, and as a security professional you have to help enable them and remove barriers and support them in order to get your job done.”