I never really gave a thought to working in computer technology until I took a martial arts class. My instructor, who also owned a tiny tech company, encouraged me to study programming. I did.
I became good at it. So good that he gave me my first job as a programmer (in BASIC!) and system administrator for their HP 3000 minicomputer.
Two years later, I found my way to an intern role as a lab administrator for a contractor to NASA, Ames Research Lab, working with a team of all male scientists. My job included everything from making coffee and cleaning the lab to writing programs for their research experiments. Most of the men were supportive, but there were challenges to prove my value as a capable contributor to the team. I often worked extended hours on my own and never took my job, or their support, for granted.
Perhaps that was partly because I was one of two women in the Lab. At that time, in the 1980s, it was rare to see a woman in a STEM job, and getting your foot in the door required a lot of self-promotion and perseverance. And then once we got in the door, instead of being able to work together for mutual benefit, we were left to work more independently. We focused on our own singular tasks and responsibilities so we could achieve the same level of respect as our male counterparts. At the time we didn’t understand the power of collaborative problem-solving — that we were, in fact, on the same team. My outlook would soon change.
Not long after my internship, when the Morris Worm emerged in 1988 (one of the first big computer worms in history), I was working as a system administrator at Ames. When they got hit, I found myself in the thick of the response effort. It was thrilling and terrifying all at once, but I learned first-hand the strength and productivity that comes from team problem-solving. I was brought in to help because of my knowledge and experience with Ames’ systems and data. In moments like that, gender was not an issue; you call on the employees who have the skill sets you need. Along with technical expertise, being a self-starter is often one of those skills. In that all-hands-on-deck moment, I transitioned from a driven individual to a key member of a team. Between the sleepless nights and over-caffeinated days, I earned a voice as a valuable contributor, and continue to use that impressionable experience to build and lead teams of my own to this day.
Fortunately there is now an increased camaraderie among women in STEM, who embrace collaboration and build each other up for the good of the work. Particularly with cyber security, the need for skilled talent is great, as is the imperative of a highly collaborative team dynamic to combat the diverse and evolving threat landscape. We can no longer afford gender-based silos.
Recently, I co-founded the Cisco Women in Cybersecurity Initiative to inspire women who are new to the vocation. In our first year, we grew the community to more than 200 members. Ninety percent of them probably would never have gone after certification on their own; our concept was to do it together, then pay it forward and encourage the next generation. The industry needs to keep up efforts like these — especially in convincing young women in middle school and high school to make this journey.
I strongly encourage anyone, but especially women, to pursue their cyber passion. And ladies, don’t give up, even if you face challenges along the way. Fight for your career goal and your right to be there. With the critical demands of cybersecurity, the industry needs women on the team.
Michele D. Guel is a Distinguished Engineer and Chief Security Architect with Cisco’s Security & Trust Organization. She is the winner of a 2016 Women of Vision ABIE Award from the Anita Borg Institute. She recently co-founded the Cisco Women in Cybersecurity Community, which focuses on developing the next generation of women cybersecurity leaders. She has been an avid participant, speaker, teacher, influencer and evangelist in the cybersecurity industry for nearly 30 years. Follow Michelle on Twitter @MicheleDGuel.