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Bringing New Voices to Cybersecurity

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Deborah (Deb) Snyder is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Government (CDG) and the former chief information security officer (CISO) for New York state. In this Q&A, she discusses the importance of bringing new voices to cybersecurity and describes how she has done so in her role as a technology leader.

Q: Early in your career, you served as director of human services modernization for New York state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA). Tell us about your journey to the role of CISO.

I began my public service career in the counties. After watching staff struggle with outdated systems and manual processes, I moved to the state where I helped overhaul programs through legislation reform, systems modernization and so on. Safeguarding confidentiality and data was a key requirement for federally funded projects and became part of my skill set. When the state directed agencies to appoint a chief information security officer, my hand went up, and I became OTDA’s first CISO. I had the opportunity to build its cybersecurity program from the ground up. Over time, I found I was good at translating the value of technology into business terms, so I stepped up to serve as deputy CISO, and then as state CISO.

Q: Who were important mentors on your path, and what did you learn from them?

I’d have to start with my grandmother. I was raised to believe I could do anything that I set my mind to doing. She worked outside the home, and she raised her children and ran a family farm through the Depression. So, I had a strong female role model and a work ethic. I’ve been privileged to work with some of the most inspiring leaders of our time. When I accepted the acting CISO position, the female CIO encouraged me to find my voice at the table. She used to say, “If you’re in the room, you’re in there for a reason.” She constantly made sure that I was confident in speaking up. I’ve also had invaluable male mentors and peer mentors.

Q: More women than ever are entering the security workforce, but they’re still a small percentage of the cyber workforce overall. Why is that?

When I was New York’s state CISO, I was one of only four female state CISOs in the nation. We’ve made significant strides, but the gender gap still manifests itself in employment opportunities, pay equity and compensation, leadership opportunities, and perceptions and biases in the workplace. Many women don’t consider STEM careers because they’re not exposed to them as an option at an early age. They don’t have female role models who they can talk to, be mentored by or emulate. Once in the workplace, they’re likely to encounter stereotypes and barriers. Good leaders are typically assertive, strong, direct and vocal; yet, women in leadership roles are often labeled strong-minded, aggressive, intimidating and insensitive. Women also need to unlearn some things — like getting stuck in perfectionism, second guessing ourselves and listening to the negative voices in our head.

Q: How did you approach recruiting women as part of your role in New York? How did you create a culture that celebrates diversity?

We worked hard at that. Diversity is more than just meeting a quota. It’s an important business differentiator and is essential to solving innovation and productivity issues. By bringing together different cultures, races, genders, generations and backgrounds, diverse organizations have as many options and viewpoints on the table as possible in terms of problem solving and getting things done. To shift the culture internally, we became very intentional. We recruited beyond traditional conferences and job fairs; made our hiring panels more diverse by pulling in female managers from other units; and ensured that training, career paths and opportunities existed equally for all. It was also important to look beyond degrees and certifications.

Organizations can build on a solid base of business and soft skills to train up security internally. I’m proof of that.

Q: Working mothers and women in leadership roles are dropping out of the workforce at higher rates than ever. What would you say to women who are struggling to make everything work?

Women juggle a lot of balls every day. Some balls can be dropped, passed or allowed to sit without significant repercussions. But three crystal balls must always be kept in play: family, spirituality and personal health. If you drop one of those balls, it will shatter irrevocably. I suggest that women look for options that fit their life and family.

In addition, organizations have to enable a better work-life balance. That includes updating policies and providing meaningful development opportunities. Women need to feel they can take advantage of flexible working options without risk of career penalties. With organizations starting to rebuild the workplace of the future, there’s never been a better time to build with gender equity and women in mind.