Senior Vice President, Engineering, Security Business Group, Cisco discusses life in the cybersecurity sector and beyond
In a candid interview with ET Edge Insights, Shailaja Shankar, Senior Vice President, Engineering, Security Business Group, Cisco, talks about her journey in the cybersecurity space. She discusses numerous themes, including the rising number of women in technology, and mental health, among others. Excerpts
Q) Being one of the few women in security, what has your growth curve been like?
I found the field to be very addictive for the purpose it serves. When you are purpose-driven, doors do open, as I have found. I’m grateful for the many opportunities that I’ve had and thankful for the mentorship I’ve developed. My experience has in some way been unique because I was part of the founding team of McAfee.com, the industry’s first SAAS security company. So, the start of it was charting my own path, and subsequently, it was more about digging my heels in and sticking with it. We are seeing more women/people from diverse backgrounds get drawn to it, drawn to the purpose, which is hugely gratifying. There is no doubt that the more varied the experiences and thinking of an organization’s people, the better the outcomes.
Q) In cybersecurity, you must always be prepared. What is your “Being Prepared” plan?
Cybercriminals are as innovative and motivated as those of us working to fend them off. My plan for “being prepared” is to help organizations be more resilient to cybersecurity threats and attacks, which are constantly evolving. Cyber defense is about human-machine partnerships, so training the organization and setting goals for business leaders on security outcomes will help.
Q) You are a mentor for the Women in Tech program. What has been your experience?
Invigorating, in a word. My involvement in Women in Tech and similar programs is rooted in my own experiences of believing I needed to do what I had to do just to be “one of the guys”, even as a woman of colour, of Asian descent, and a non-native English speaker. The realization that it could pave the way for others from diverse backgrounds by acknowledging my background was the start for me. This motivated me to take on the role of mentor and a model for women and minorities so that they can maximize their impact and value to their organizations. We all know when you get a group of people with shared goals and ambitions, we develop an agency to advocate for everyone.
Q) You have been a proponent of mental health. What are your thoughts on the same? How can organizations nurture a culture that normalizes mental health?
Cybersecurity is a 24x7x365 endeavour. To help our people strengthen their mental health, there are three things organizations can do.
One, we must embrace the idea that it’s OK not to be OK, meaning we should never stigmatize mental health issues. Struggling is a human experience that no one is immune to.
Two, combating cybersecurity threats is an “always-on” task, so we must find creative but meaningful ways to balance responsibilities among individuals and teams effectively. This means creating an organizational culture that encourages its people to disengage from the responsibilities of their work and devote time to non-work-related activities.
Three, and perhaps most importantly, we must be better at taking care of each other. Be mindful of the signals that your peers and employees may be sending, sometimes subtle. Pay attention to the cues of people who seem to be struggling. Likewise, we must be bold enough to open up and ask for help when we ourselves are struggling.
Q) What is your advice to women who want to break the mold and get into the security business?
Data states that currently, women constitute less than 25 percent of the cybersecurity workforce. My first piece of advice is to seriously consider a career in cybersecurity. It’s an amazing industry to be in and the work is as fulfilling as it is demanding.
Before entering a field like cybersecurity, you should use the proximity principle to your advantage. This principle suggests that people closer together in a physical environment are more likely to form a relationship than those farther away. You can achieve this by cultivating a network of mentors with diverse backgrounds and experiences to get a sense of what working in cybersecurity is about and whether it is for you.
We must also continue to remove barriers to entry and cultural obstacles that may be preventing women from joining our workforce. The more interest women show in wanting to be a cybersecurity professional, the more incentive companies must knock down these barriers and create a true level playing field.
This article is a build-up to the 3rd Edition of “The Economic Times and Femina” FEM-TECH: Inspiring Women Leaders in Technology, which will be held on March 3, 2023