Be Fearless: Advice to My 15-Year-Old Self on Pursuing a Cyber Career
I’ve been fortunate to have a great career. While I was drawn to math and science in school, it was rare for a woman to get a STEM-related job in the 1980s, but I did, and at NASA! What a start. That role led by happenstance to my working on the Morris Worm, one of the first big computer worms in history. From there, my career in cybersecurity was launched and there was no looking back. Until now.
National Cybersecurity Awareness Month (NCSAM) is a great opportunity to reflect on my personal journey over the last thirty years. I’ve learned some interesting lessons about things that never occurred to me as a teen, but that would have been useful to know when dreaming about what course my life would take. Women, especially young women, please allow me to share my learnings in hopes of helping you move more confidently down the path to STEM-centric occupations.
- Get involved in after-school tech programs and projects. Join a club; take a Saturday workshop; volunteer. Find a fun way to learn about something. For instance, the local high school where I now live sponsors an annual robotics competition. Kids from diverse backgrounds compete. Depending on their means, some make fancier robots than others, but everybody learns and has fun too.
- Teach yourself to code, or take a class in coding. These days, it’s a basic skill. It will teach you how to think in a structured way; it will help you learn to troubleshoot. It will apply to all kinds of situations for years to come, even like setting up new devices in your home.
- If you solve a hard problem, teach it to someone else. That will help you learn the topic better. It’s always better to share knowledge than to keep it close.
- If you are trying to figure out how to do something for the first time, do some research and then trial-and-error on your own before you ask someone else for help. You’ll learn from figuring it out.
- Your job should be something you’re passionate about. Most of us are going to spend a large percentage of our waking hours and productive years working at something, so that something should make you excited to get up, go into the workplace and tackle it for the day.
- Success requires life-long learning. There’s just no way around it, especially in the digital age where things change continually and often dramatically. It’s ok to take a pause now and again, but always be thinking about what the next technology will be that you will need to learn and understand.
- Along that same line, have a career vision in mind. Be thinking about “3 to 5 years from now, I want to….” With the pace of change in technology, that could take you to some new places. Entire fields exist now that didn’t even ten years ago. Read up on where technology is going and see what excites you. But stay open to how that might evolve into an actual role. You could end up with a job that doesn’t exist today.
- Encourage and support others – you’ll be stronger for it in the end. Even if it feels hard or like helping someone could cost you in some way, life balances out. There’s always getting in the giving, and you just might make a difference in someone’s life.
- It’s ok to fail. That’s how we learn. Don’t be afraid to step out of the box and take some risks. When you do occasionally fail, and you will, just get back to it and keep moving forward.
- Connect with other young girls who share your interest. Help each other out; swap ideas and resources; stick together. The same goes for boy advocates you may meet. STEM-inclined folks tend to sniff each other out; form a supportive network early.
- There may always be more boys in tech; just get used to it. View it as an opportunity to stand out and demonstrate your skills.
Most of all, be bold and fearless! Step out of your comfort zone and go for it! The need and options in cyber are endless for the foreseeable future. If you’re curious about exploring that path, you can check out the perspectives of other women who’ve already done so here. You can also check out CyberStart Challenges as a simple and fun way to discover if this area interests you.
One quick footnote: Ada Lovelace is recognized as the world’s first computer programmer. The second Tuesday of October is celebrated as Ada Lovelace Day, which aims to highlight women in STEM role models and encourage other girls and women into the field. You could be following in the footsteps of a giant!