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Q&A: Dinah Davis


Dinah Davis, VP of research and development operations at Arctic Wolf and the founder of Code Like a Girl, a volunteer-based organization that aims to amplify the voices of women in technology, talks about her experiences in cybersecurity and how women can be empowered from a young age to overcome the “STEM cliff.”

Lindsey O’Donnell-Welch: Can you talk a little bit about your background in cybersecurity and tech and how you found yourself in the industry in the first place?

Dinah Davis: Yeah, so it actually goes all the way back to high school where I just loved doing mathematics and would pride myself on getting grades better than the boys and I went to my high school counselor to figure out what I should do because I really had no idea. And they were like, well you're good at math so you should be a math teacher, with the subtext there that I was a woman. But if I'd have been a guy with the same marks I had, they would have been like you should go into engineering or computer science or other things. And I was 17 and naive. So I went to university to become a math teacher and I very quickly realized that I loved mathematics more than I loved children - I love my children, I love other people's children - But I loved math more. I just wanted to learn more math and I didn't think I would be as passionate about just building relationships with children; I think you have to be really passionate about that to be an amazing teacher and I was more passionate about the subject matter. And so I decided “okay I'm not going to do this teaching part of my degree,” and then I was like “uh-oh, now what,” I have to find a job after this with a bachelor's in mathematics. And so I had actually waited until my third year of university before taking a computer science course because all my friends who were in humanities and political science said it was really hard. When I got into the class I can still remember the classroom, I can still remember the professor explaining things, and I went “wow, this is another way for how I think, like computer science is just math digitally.” It's just an extension of that and that's where my love of computer science came from. And the following year I needed to get some job experience. So I joined what we call the co-op program. In the United States you might call that an internship program except that you get paid. And I saw this job posting for a mathematician who could code, and it was for the Canadian government and I thought I could do that. So I applied and it turns out it was basically for the Canadian version of the NSA and I went there and they gave me the bluetooth protocol, the spec to the bluetooth protocol and said could you please code this in C++, we want to evaluate it. And turns out, you know, bluetooth is not very secure. But it had great purpose and usefulness later in life, and this is where I learned about basically cryptography and cybersecurity. And that pushed me to go and actually get a master's degree in cryptography, and so that's how I got there. Then I was able to start my career at BlackBerry, which was a dream job out of university. I was one of five people who were on the BlackBerry security team in the early 2000s, and we were the team that were responsible for security in BlackBerry and if there's one thing people remember about BlackBerry it is like that's a big deal right. So it was just so amazing to be on, we always said, it was the “bleeding edge” of mobile security. And so that really got me into the industry.

Lindsey O’Donnell-Welch: Talk about why you decided to found Code Like a Girl and the mission behind it.

Dinah Davis: I created Code Like a Girl for a number of reasons. One, when I was in my undergraduate program, that school had a ratio of women to men of six women to one guy. It just happened to be a weird school where for some reason that was the ratio. But if you went into a second year or an upper year computer science course, your ratio was 60 guys to one woman and that's so that's startling when that happens. So one, I noticed there was a big problem from a gender diversity issue then. When I was at BlackBerry, I really wanted to be one of the guys. I didn't want to call attention to the fact that I was different. But I didn't want to make any waves, I was very scared, I was early in my career, and what happened was after I left BlackBerry I went to this other company and I had a horrible experience with a boss that was not kind, that was very misogynistic, and in a matter of months just completely destroyed my self-esteem. And so when I decided “okay I have to leave here I cannot stay here,” I decided that I also didn't want that to happen to anybody else and so I knew I would have to start talking about it. I would have to start talking about what it's like to be a woman in technology and that the next company I chose had to be okay with that, because if they weren't I just wasn't going to stay there. And so I started blogging and then about three years later I created this as an actual publication on Medium and I realized, what's more powerful than just my voice? Well, it's thousands of voices talking about their experience.

And so the main purpose of Code Like a Girl was and is to change perceptions of women in technology. And it's got three main pillars to that. One is to be there to support women who are in technology today. Two is to get more young girls into technology, to be a resource basically for parents and teachers on what they can do to keep young girls more interested. Typically interest falls off in what I call the “STEM cliff” at 13, and so if you can get them over that gap, you can keep them in. And then finally, how can we support male allies? They want to help, they don't know what to do in so many cases, and they're kind of scared to in some cases, because they don't know if what they do will get looked at the wrong way or whatever. So we provide a resource for that. So that's a lofty goal there. But, that's what we do and really, I just love getting stories from anybody, anybody who identifies as a woman or anybody who wants to write about how they're supporting women in technology. I think one of the successes of Code Like a Girl is that I wasn't hugely selective on who should write for us and what articles should be in there. It's like anything you want to write about, let's just amplify the voices of all of these women and people that want to help. Let’s listen to their experiences.

Lindsey O’Donnell-Welch: What do you see as the overarching challenges that we're facing in better incorporating diversity into the cybersecurity landscape and the tech industry as a whole?

Dinah Davis: I would say in the last five to 10 years, we've made more progress on diversity of women in cybersecurity and technology in general than we have in the 20 years before that. We really saw this amazing push with the #MeToo movement. It also stemmed a lot of this information, a lot of awareness and we've gotten a lot more people who really want to help. What they don't realize often, some of the people who think they're helping, is that they still have a lot of unconscious bias and this is the most difficult thing to talk about. Because they totally believe that they are doing the right things, and it's very hard to tell them at specific times that they're not. And that they're unconsciously doing things that are not helping. And so that can create a lot of frustration I think for a lot of the women that are in tech right now when we see that; and so the best way for us to combat that is to be an ally to the other women or people in a minority situation in the room. So when somebody naturally - because this is maybe how they grew up and the norms that they had - cuts a woman off and just totally interrupts her and starts talking, the other women in the room, or the other men in the room if they see that happen can step up and just say “oh hey Joe I think Susan was already saying that, could we just hear Susan out?” And kindly do these types of things and you can make a big difference. In fact, there's a great story that came out in Obama-era times where the women in his close circle would often get overspoken by various people in the government and they had made this pact that they would help each other and these are the types of things that they would do. Maybe they expressed an opinion and it wasn't listened to and three minutes later a guy in the room is expressing it, then somebody else needs to go, “Oh well I think Julia already mentioned that, Julia what else you have to say; I think you're the expert in that area.”

So just how can we in positive ways help to amplify the voices because the people who are interrupting them are honestly unconsciously stealing their ideas and are not intending to do that, and over time they will realize what's happening and even may never really realize, but the behavior of other people in the room changes, and that's how we can get it forward. It's a lot less about like “rah rah diversity, we’re gonna do this, gonna do that,” no, now it's like living the amplification.

Lindsey O’Donnell-Welch: It's really tough to change behaviors and biases at a day-to-day level. What can we do to change the culture of an environment in a business when we look at challenges to promoting diversity?

Dinah Davis: Microsoft actually did a study a number of years ago and they actually have this graph where you can see how much girls choose to like STEM and STEM topics and it literally at 13 does this nosedive - which is unbelievable - which is why I call it that the “STEM cliff.” What’s interesting though is when you look at that graph over a period of time, the amount that girls who are about 10 or 11 years old care about STEM and love STEM is about the same as women in their thirties, and so if you think about what's the common thread of a girl who's 10 and a woman in her thirties, the common thread is they don't care what other people think. Whereas when you're 13 you're 14 man do you ever care what your friends think. Your social life becomes much more important than anything else. So if technology, if math, if cybersecurity is viewed as not a cool thing to do by your friends, you're likely to not do it. And so how can you combat that? Well you can combat that by giving your kids another outlet for it or another place where there are people who think that that stuff is cool, right? It doesn't mean that they have to keep doing those things in school, they could be doing them outside of school and there's just other groups of people that they're with that think it's super cool. And then they're gonna stick with it. So it's about even having those conversations with your kid, telling them “I know this is maybe not as cool, but this is what you love so we should still do that.” And just being able to have those conversations will help them get over that “STEM cliff.”

Lindsey O’Donnell-Welch: What do you think about the role of mentorship in all this?

Dinah Davis: The topic of mentorship is one of my biggest pet peeves. Yes, it can help. Do you need a mentor to be successful? I feel like there's so many groups or people out there that are like “you've got to find a mentor.” And then I have all these women coming up to me going like, “where can I find a mentor?” and I’m like no - you need people in your life that are supporting you that you need, and if they also have been through the same thing as you it’s a bonus. But there are so many women out there and works you can read like. To me that is why I have Code Like a Girl, like all the women that write those stories, they're all my mentors. I just don't want to put so much stock in the fact that you need a mentor to be successful. Will it help you? If you find a good one, yes, it’s not going to be a bad thing. But does it have to be a woman? No, it absolutely does not. And the more important thing to me than having a mentor is having a sponsor. So a sponsor inside the company you're working for - or outside can work too - the more you have a sponsor inside the company, somebody who's rooting for you, somebody who is going to say good things about you when you aren't in the room to other people, that is very very powerful. And again, that's not something you can manufacture. You have to network within your company. You’ve got to talk to people. You have to become known as somebody who gets stuff done and that's where from my perspective I have this formula that I called my formula for success. But the way you get noticed in a company is by solving the problems no one else is willing to solve. The problems that everyone ignores. And you can find those problems by looking for where there's frustration in the company, where you're hearing about talking at the water cooler about how frustrated somebody is about this process or or this tool or whatever, where there are miscommunications actually happening inside the company and where mistakes are being made. Those are fertile areas for you to stick your hands into and go “Okay, how could we make this better” and you don't even have to solve it. You just have to lead the solution. You just have to be there to keep pushing and pushing and pushing and offering up solutions and working with people to do that. And that's how you get noticed. And so for me, that's like really important and that's how you find sponsors too, because as you're doing that people start to notice you then maybe they notice you, say a few good things to you and you have a conversation with them or they become your boss one day.

Lindsey O’Donnell-Welch: Are there any other tips or takeaways here you wanted to mention having to do with women in the cybersecurity landscape?

Dinah Davis: I just think that as women in tech we need to persevere. There are going to be bumps in the road. It is going to be a little bit harder for us still today. But it's so rewarding. It's so rewarding and it's worth the fight and it's getting better, and so there's a lot of other women out there that have have been paving the roads for us and I will continue to help try to pave the road for the people behind me. And there's so many more men in the industry that are supportive, more than there used to be, and so I think it's really worth it. But you have to persevere.