September 14, 2017

The Girl with the IronKey – Experiences of a Woman in the Cybersecurity Field

Jessa Gramenz

I grew up in a technical household. My father setup our first PC without any help and I watched in awe as he upgraded the RAM in our second computer. For me, it was pretty normal to know how a computer works and to edit the design of my Xanga page with HTML code. I grew up in an era where I could easily find the answer to most of my questions online. If I didn’t know how something worked, I looked it up. My first search engine of choice was and always has been Yahoo. I am a nerd. I am a proud nerd too because I am not afraid to admit that I love computers and technology. Yet, I grew up in a small town and despite being the only student in my Web Design II class in High School, I was encouraged to pursue a degree in nursing or an administrative position. Those were the typical roles for a female in her senior year of high school to consider. I did stray a little with my first major of interest, photography and graphic design. Luckily I had a smart phone all the way back in 2007 and with my slew of apps, and the ability to take pictures with my iPhone, I decided to hold off on that pursuit. Three years later Instagram was released, and the future of photo editing changed forever.

While I spent time figuring out life, I knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to go to college but I just couldn’t pin point what path to take. Then, in 2014 I decided it was time to quit putting it off any longer and I stopped by to talk to an advisor at a local community college. All I knew was that I loved computers and thought surely I could find something computer related to major in. When I walked in I wanted a degree in computer science, but after I walked out I knew that computer forensics and cyber security were exactly what I wanted. It took me seven years to end up in the right place at the right time to figure out where the future of my career would lead me. There isn’t a single guidance counselor that could have advised or predicted that path. Here I am, at the end of my third year of college and I could not be happier with the career path I have picked. I have made sure to pay it forward as well by participating in volunteer efforts to help get more women involved in the field. I have worked with several women that were considering cybersecurity as a career path and I have given them pointers to encourage them along the way.

So often people tell you that you’ll be the only woman in the room working in cybersecurity, but I am here to tell you that isn’t always true. My first day of class at my community college, there was one other woman. There were some classes where I was the only woman, but over time I saw that shift. By the time I graduated with my Associates the number of women in computer science classes had grown significantly. I was worried about starting in my IT field and feeling really out of place. Honestly, where I am now, I feel so welcomed that it seems like the complete opposite. Am I the only girl in my office? Heck no! My boss is a woman as well, and even when she isn’t working in the office there are other women in our IT department. When my boss is at her other office location I am the only woman in security, but I would never know it if I wasn’t thinking about it.

As many times that I thought I had to prepare to be treated differently or prove myself to be taken serious, I haven’t had to once where I am now. Either the tides are shifting, or I am oblivious to the preconceived notion that being a rare find in an IT department is a bad thing. I like to look at the bright side; the ladies room is usually always open. I am still working to get more women interested in the field but now I can share my experiences so that women are not scared away by the fear of being the only woman in their department. Let me be the encouragement you need if that is what you fear in this field. If you love computers and want a field that is always evolving, consider cyber security. If you are pursing your degree and worry about feeling out of place, do not let that hold back your passion. Encourage more women to pursue cybersecurity. Get involved in community events. The Girl Scouts is now offering a cybersecurity badge. How awesome is that? With hindsight, I am so glad that I did not back away when my advisor warned me that I would be a minority in my field. To me, that was a challenge. I hope that challenge and my story can inspire you to make cybersecurity your future.