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How My Non-Traditional Path Led Me to a Career in Cybersecurity

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By Anne Leslie

On paper, nothing predestined me for a career in cybersecurity. I graduated from business school with a dual degree in European business, spent several years working in banking, and the best part of a decade as a stay-at-home mother to my three kids before returning to work in a succession of business development roles in technology companies.

I might have stayed on that track, had it not been for a decision to return to school to do an Executive MBA in 2014.  That marked something of a watershed for me because it was the first time that I gave some really deep thought to the kind of work I wanted to do, the kind of people I wanted to work with, and the kind of company I wanted to work for.

I realized that I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself, to work with people who are motivated by more than money. I wanted to work for a company that understands that it has a responsibility to society that goes beyond quarterly results and shareholder returns.

My first step towards my current role as Senior Managing Consultant in IBM Security came about when I was still a software seller in a different company, looking to make a pivot in my career because I had reached a point where simply being told to hit an annual sales target wasn’t enough to sustain my motivation and engagement.

I yearned for purpose, for a higher meaning. I wanted more than a job. I wanted to make a difference.

Pivoting towards purpose

Sometimes life throws us a bone by bringing people into our lives at the very moment we need them the most. A fortuitous encounter with a long-standing cybersecurity practitioner, who runs an initiative called CyberWayFinder that exists to increase diversity in the cybersecurity workforce, flourished into a friendship and mentorship. Soon after, I began looking seriously at the viability of cybersecurity as a future career option.

In 2018, I started working towards my first industry-recognized certification in Cloud Security from (ISC)². I attended a bootcamp where a shame-inducing question from a fellow student — “What on earth are you doing here, you haven’t even got a degree in IT?” — made me recoil and forced me to confront my impostor syndrome head-on. I got to grips with a body of knowledge that was largely alien to me and made my peace with the fact that, while I had a lot to learn, I didn’t need to know everything.

I studied nights and weekends… and I nailed the assessment. In getting my Cloud Security Professional certification, I proved to myself – and to all the people who doubted me – that I was both serious about moving into security and capable of it.

In spite of being a divorced mother of three. In spite of having no degree in IT or engineering. In spite of having ‘no technical security experience’.

Or, actually, maybe because of all of that.

Explore opportunities in IBM Security.

Hiring for potential

Today, I work in cybersecurity at IBM because two exceptional managers hired me based on my leadership potential, my intrinsic capabilities, my transferable skills, and the values that define me. Instead of focusing on everything that I’m not, these two managers identified my attitude, my determination, my adaptability and my ability to learn as key success factors for succeeding in cybersecurity. They saw what I wanted to be, they believed in what I could be and brought me in to IBM to give me a career and life-changing opportunity for which I will be forever grateful.

On paper, I was the consummate ‘risky hire’: I don’t have the ‘right’ qualifications, I haven’t followed the typical career trajectory and when I started out, I had little technical security experience. All of which were factors that had caused other companies to either reject my job applications summarily or make me feel small and ashamed in job interviews for not being the archetype cyber professional they believed they needed.

For sure, there is still little about me which matches the traditional cyber-professional archetype – and yet, I have never been more successful or happier in my career.

Bringing my whole self to work

I’m finally working in an environment where I feel an unprecedented level of psychological safety, where I can be authentically me and really do my best work ever. I’m finally working in an environment where the corporate values aren’t just words on the walls and in the annual report: they feel real, I can identify with them, and I’m proud to be associated with them. I’m finally working in an environment which nurtures potential, celebrates learning, protects difference, and upholds integrity.

Ten years ago, I was a stay-at-home mother. Today, I’m a mother AND a senior consultant in cybersecurity. IBM invests in my development as a professional, provides me with the flexibility I need to be the parent I want to be and offers a culture where I can be the kind of person I want to be.

In the face of a massive industry-wide cyber-skills shortage, my story is evidence that there is cyber-talent out there just waiting to be found; but finding it means defining talent differently, hiring differently, onboarding differently, and managing career progression differently.

This is exactly what IBM is doing and it’s the reason I am where I am today.

I consider myself to be immensely fortunate to be in a role in a company that gives me purpose, fortunate to work with colleagues who support me and drive me to be better, and fortunate to have a manager who believes in me and challenges me to reach even higher.

I came to IBM by chance, but I will stay by design.

I’m proud to work in security and even prouder to be an IBMer!

Explore opportunities in IBM Security.

About the Author

Anne Leslie is a Senior Managing Consultant at IBM Security. Passionate about responsible technology, she has spent much of her career at the intersection between financial services, regulation and IT, in pivotal roles in both sales and advisory. Today, her focus is on Security Intelligence & Operations Consulting, specializing in Cyber Talent Transformation and the application of Design Thinking to the most wicked problems facing Security practitioners.

Originally from Ireland, Anne has lived in France for over 20 years and today lives happily in Paris with her three children and her partner.

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