How I Found Success as a Woman in Cybersecurity

Next story

In 2016, ESET launched its first Women in Cybersecurity Scholarship, which awards $2,500 to a female student who aspires to a career in cybersecurity. Our inaugural winner, Chelsie Power, is an example of why this scholarship is so necessary—both to support young women and to bring a range of experiences to the diversity of threats that will face us. Her application essay will ring true to women in all areas of business, and we share it here with her permission as inspiration to girls and women everywhere. She is pictured (above right) at the awards ceremony with ESET VP of Human Resources Celeste Blodgett.

By Chelsie Power

“Chelsie, please come to room 101.” Everyone turns toward my desk and I realize it’s happened again: a computer broke on campus and they want me to rush over to troubleshoot. My high school, a small, underfunded, all-girls environment, was not the most technologically focused. Our machines were ancient, and broke frequently. Our campus website was a single page with flashing images and glaring colors. As a freshman, I approached the campus webmaster with a proposal: Let me use the lab to teach myself HTML, and I will redesign and update the website. My reputation only grew from there, and I even began to mentor young women by starting the first computer club on campus and encouraging others to join.

Mentorship is very important and I have a mentor, an incident response engineer at Google. I hope to mentor other young women when I make my own mark in the cybersecurity field. But, as I sat in my first programming class as an undergrad, I looked around the room and saw only male faces. I was not only the solitary female, but one of the few minorities in the class. I heard my high school career advisor’s voice in my head saying, “Well, of course you’ll go into computers,” but even with her confidence I couldn’t help but feel alone and anxious. It was clear that many of the students had already had programming experience in high school, while mine had just provided basic typing and Internet searching skills.

I changed my major.

Can problem solving be considered a hobby? As a cybersecurity expert, you need to be a proficient and thoughtful problem solver. Ever since I was a child I remember being drawn to video games laden with puzzles, much to the bewilderment of my friends. Every career test I took resulted in adjectives like “investigative” or “problem-solving.” Even now, a hobby of mine is beating “escape rooms,” which require solving puzzle after puzzle to escape a themed room, and actually paying money to do so. When I changed majors, I decided to try and solve the ultimate puzzle—people—by switching from computer science to psychology, drawing on the same problem-solving skills that would eventually propel me toward a career in cybersecurity.

I learned that my choice to switch majors mirrored the choice of many women before me—many women who felt intimidated and alienated in the classroom.

Most experts will tell you that cybersecurity starts with people. A company can heavily invest in network, server and system security, but it’s the human factor that is responsible for most breaches. People can be tricked, manipulated or have a poor business process that puts enterprises as well as personal information at risk, or they can simply make mistakes. My psychology background now offers me a unique perspective and contribution to the field in this regard. You not only have to be able to predict the behavior of users, but that of malicious attackers. What at the time felt like a career detour actually makes me uniquely qualified for today’s cyber threatscape.

Did I give up tech completely while pursuing my undergrad degree? Absolutely not. A student position in the college’s IT department led to an offer for a full-time helpdesk position. I did this for six years before joining the Information Security team as an analyst in 2014, a position I still hold today. While the skills I picked up in psychology still permeate most everything I do, I decided to pursue my original passion and I am currently enrolled in a cybersecurity master’s degree program at Cal State University San Marcos. I just could not escape the drive to finish what I started, and with a few technical skills under my belt along with the high demand for cybersecurity professionals, there was no excuse. This is what I was meant to do all along.

In many ways I am motivated by a sense of responsibility to society. I decided to pursue a career that will allow me to ultimately protect people. I’m protecting their jobs, identity, life savings, photos of their children and privacy, and helping give people a certain peace of mind. It also helps that I thoroughly enjoy all that such responsibility entails. Additionally, my personality is perfect for this kind of career. I’m patient, calm in a crisis, and have enough introspection and situational awareness to work well with most people. I often hear that these kinds of communication skills are lacking in this industry and are necessary for the next generation of cybersecurity professionals. In fact, the curriculum for my master’s program at CSUSM was developed in conjunction with a cyber industry advisory committee that recommended a mandatory communications course. Interpersonal skills are highly sought after.

Cybersecurity is my passion, and I possess a combination of both technical and psychological skills that are essential to any expert in this field. Now, I am committed to paying it forward. I hope to inspire other women, especially minorities, to pursue technical careers even though the path ahead may seem difficult.

There are many exciting options in the world of cybersecurity, from penetration testing, incident response, intrusion detection, data recovery/forensics, secure coding and network security to disaster recovery planning, auditing, information assurance, risk assessment and data classification. There is something for everyone, and I hope to encourage other women to embrace their passion, continue to learn, and join the women and men at the forefront of one of the fastest-growing industries in technology.

Chelsie Power currently works as an Information Security Analyst and is pursuing her Professional Science Master’s in Cybersecurity at Cal State University San Marcos.