Increasing gender diversity and encouraging women into the tech sector has been a topic in the news for many years, yet women still remain largely underrepresented in IT and tech-focused roles. Gender parity is not recovering, according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022. It will take another 132 years to close the global gender gap. The data is staggering and calls for action. At Fortinet, we are committed to diversifying cybersecurity talent by building an inclusive, equitable, and diverse workforce within our organization and across the industry, with the goal to train 1 million people by 2026 across a wide and diverse audience through the Fortinet Training Institute’s programs.
March is Women’s History Month in the United States. Introduced in the late 1980s, this month is a celebration of the numerous, but often overlooked, accomplishments of women across history, culture, and society. To help commemorate the accomplishments of women in cybersecurity during this month, we spoke with two Fortinet employees Amy Arnold, SLED Systems Engineer, and Ronke Babajide, Systems Engineer Manager about their career trajectories, achievements, and advice they have to offer other women interested in cybersecurity.
Amy: I didn't take a direct, traditional route into a career in technology. I have an undergrad degree in arts and humanities and planned to be a lawyer. After starting law school, I quickly figured out that it wasn't the path I wanted to be on and spent the next few months figuring out what would be next. To further explore my interests, I took a programming and networking class at a local college. The programming class was just okay, but the networking class had me hooked. I picked it up instantly and started taking all the networking classes I could, while also taking certification tests as well. After a couple of years, I landed a position in the public sector doing all things network engineering routing, switching, voice, wireless, and of course, security. After years in the networking industry, an opportunity to be at Fortinet came up and I’m enjoying cybersecurity.
Ronke: I've been in tech for about 25 years, but I actually started with a Ph.D. in chemistry. My Ph.D. thesis at the Institute of Theoretical Chemistry looked at the 3D structure of proteins and I ran computer simulations to see how mutations change that structure. This was my first exposure to Unix/Linux systems and programming. That was also about the time when the internet came to Austria. I was very fascinated by this technology and the possibilities it offered. At that time, I decided that I wanted to reorient myself.
After I was done with my thesis, I changed careers. I found a job as a web developer at a company that made free TV for the internet. Then I became a Unix/Linux specialist at a company that developed insurance software. In 2007, I moved into presales systems engineering. After several different presales positions with major vendors, I became a Lead Systems Engineer for Cybersecurity at VMware. Last year, I decided to take a four-month sabbatical to build a community platform for women experts (The Queen Bee Hive). During this time, I was approached by Fortinet. They asked me if I wanted to lead the Enterprise System Engineering team here in Austria, and of course, I said yes.
Amy: Of my many municipal projects over the years, I enjoyed the projects focused on cybersecurity quite a bit, largely due to the significant impact on the organization and because these projects involved all aspects of networking technology. I established a deep knowledge of Fortinet’s FortiOS operating system and security principles over the years and had built many public sector relationships as well. A State and Local Government and Education systems engineering role happened to be open and it was the perfect fit.
Ronke: I always wanted to understand how things worked. That was also the reason why I studied chemistry, because I wanted to understand how things come into being. Curiosity was a major driving force behind my success. If you have that, coupled with passion, you can have the motivation to learn anything. And that was the reason I was able to change careers. First from chemistry to tech, then within the field from applications and servers to networks, and finally to cybersecurity. I was always excited and curious about the topics I was learning and had the motivation to acquire the skills I needed. At every step along my journey, there was something new to learn.
In addition to technical skills, I also learned how to communicate better with people, give meaningful presentations, participate in workshops, etc. I really enjoy working in cybersecurity because I believe we're helping to protect society. There are people who try to exploit the world of technology to steal data, money, and information. I've always found the race between good and evil fascinating. Cybercriminals are extremely knowledgeable, but so are those who work in cybersecurity.
Amy: My experience as a woman in tech is like many others. I was the only female in my networking classes, often the only female on the team, and often one of only a handful of women at conferences, meetings, and events. I've experienced the extra work required of women to "prove" our skill sets and to be taken seriously. Fortunately, I have spent most of my career at organizations placing a high value on diversity and breaking down stereotypes. Having strong leadership helped me to establish my career, as well as a love for technology and the legendary stubbornness of being a redhead.
I also connected with a large community of engineers over the years who not only provided help on technical issues but actively encouraged, supported, and mentored engineers of all types. I found a niche in reaching out to those just getting started, those in historically underrepresented groups, and those dealing with imposter syndrome. I recognized the value of contributing to the industry and helping others to do so as well. Through blogging, publishing articles, landing guest spots on podcasts and panels, and attending tech events, I have been very fortunate to meet with and learn from amazing engineers, as well as mentor and support engineers in the field. I have also been fortunate to win several industry awards for my blogging and community contributions. In 2021, I even won the WiFi Awards Individual Contributor of the Year. I earned many certifications in my career, including CWNE. At the time I earned CWNE, there were only six other women CWNEs.
Ronke: I've very much enjoyed my career path. Tech is a world where you can constantly acquire new skills and grow. As I mentioned, the internet was just beginning when I was at university, and I'm really proud that I was able to be a part of this transformation and become so successful in this field. But I'm even more proud that I can help other women succeed in this field. I work very hard to bring more diverse talent into the industry. Technology is shaping the society of the future. To create a future where everyone feels comfortable, we need more women and underrepresented groups to participate in the development of technology.
Amy: Early in my career, I didn't have much in the way of formal training or mentorship. That's one of the reasons I have been so passionate about mentorship and community building over the years. There is so much that we can learn from each other and there's no reason anyone should have to go through it alone in this industry. It’s great to see Fortinet’s efforts to attract more women into cybersecurity. As part of this focus, Fortinet partners with women-focused organizations such as WiCyS, WOMCY, and Latinas in Cyber, who provide their members with cyber training in Fortinet and also offer tutorials and resources.
Ronke: When I was at the beginning of my career, mentorship wasn't a thing. I didn't have access to a mentor. That has changed a lot. I see a lot of great mentoring programs that I think are very impactful. What I did have, on the other hand, was sponsors. Every step of the way, I had people who said, "I believe you can do this." They gave me opportunities and jobs that I might not have applied for myself. That helped me a lot in my career. And I still believe that even though mentorship is helpful sponsorship is the key to a successful career. You always need someone to believe in you and mention your name when there is an opportunity to do so.
Amy: Reaching out and mentoring others, especially the underrepresented, and supporting programs that encourage those same groups to be in tech holds significant value in cybersecurity. In particular, there are very few representations of women in cyber for young girls to see and that representation matters. I recently attended an industry conference in which there were only about 20 women in a room of almost 300 engineers. There's still so much work to be done. It's easy for women to feel like they don't belong when they most certainly do. I work with cyber camps focused on girls in STEM and I often hear about how seeing women like myself who have these careers shows these girls that they are capable of doing these jobs as well.
Find community in groups that welcome and celebrate diversity and look for others who you can support, even if you’re just getting started. Don't be afraid to let your voice be heard whether that be in blogging, podcasts, or whatever forum you are interested in.
Ronke: I think apart from receiving more sponsorship, it's important that we build our own networks. The number of women's networks has increased, and I think that's really great. I strongly believe that we need to learn how to network better and share information and opportunities with each other. I think it's also important that we raise our voices to demand things that women need, like part-time work or having spaces where women can breastfeed their babies and so on. Things that make the workplace more equitable and make daily life easier for women that men don't think about.
I think as you move up in your career, you should do everything you can to equalize men and women in the workplace and create an environment where everyone can be successful. As women, there are things that are important to us that we need to be successful. We have to go out and communicate those needs. I have a podcast not affiliated with Fortinet, but rather a personal passion project, where I interview women in tech about their career journey. They’ve given me a lot of insight and good advice about how to approach a career in tech as a woman.
Women’s History Month is a reminder for all, including organizations, to reflect on our own behaviors and be aware of how we can raise up girls and women. Though we’re talking specifically about women’s impact in tech, the equity gaps that exist are not solely the responsibility of women to solve. Everyone has a stake in this effort, and it takes all of us to continue to make progress.
Learn more about Fortinet’s upcoming Women in Technology conference in the US as a way to further advance women in their careers.
Find out more about how Fortinet's Training Advancement Agenda (TAA) and Training Institute programs—including the NSE Certification program, Academic Partner program, and Education Outreach program—are helping to solve the cyber skills gap and prepare the cybersecurity workforce of tomorrow.