Episode 4

Published on:

1st Dec 2020

Neurodiversity in Cybersecurity – Lisa Ventura

Neurodiversity is often associated with children, but adults with the same condition are often left out and ignored. Nathan Chung interviews the world famous Lisa Ventura, advocate of all things related to neurodiversity and winner of countless awards for her tireless devotion to cybersecurity, women, and the industry where she shares her personal stories of triumph and success working in Cybersecurity while being Neurodiverse. If you work in IT or Cybersecurity, listen and be inspired.



Hi, welcome to the NeuroSec podcast where we unite people and organizations to support and advance Neurodiverse people in Cybersecurity. My name is Nathan Chung, and today my special guest is Lisa Ventura. She is founder and CEO of the UK Cybersecurity Association. She's also a strong advocate of all things related to Neurodiversity, and winner of countless awards for her tireless devotion to Cybersecurity, women, and the industry. Welcome, Lisa.


Pleasure to be here, Nathan. Thank you.


Okay. To kick things off. Benedict Cumberbatch recently portrayed two characters who are often described as being Autistic. The first being Alan Turing in the in the movie Imitation Game, and the BBC series, Sherlock. For me, his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is very relatable and the show is incredible. Articles and research studies have diagnosed the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes as being on the Autism spectrum, due to his brilliant mind using his brilliant mind solving crimes, his antisocial personality, and his nervousness. Some people use the character as an example of what being on the Autism spectrum looks like. What are your thoughts? And how do you feel?


On that Nathan, I, I think it's just that so much with it being a spectrum and so much that, you know, it varies so much that it's kind of difficult for me to say. Is this a true representation? Is it not? I kind of steer clear of that, because whenever I say to people, I'm Autistic people automatically think, oh, you're like Rain Man. And it's like, no, no, no.


Ah yes.


There's this those connotations as well. And I think it's very individual. So for myself, rather than sort of say, I'm like this person, I'm like that person. I'm very individual, and everybody that is Neurodiverse Autistic is also very individual, with the traits that they have and the things that they exhibit.


Great. So next, and I heard the Rain Man is referenced a lot. I do believe it, it is similar to how you how you described where it is inaccurate to think like when you see Rain, Man, that's Autism. Like, that's wrong, because Autism is a spectrum. So there are many, many, many people who are there, they're all going to be different. Not two people will be the same.


Absolutely. Very true.


Yep. And next, transitioning to cyber jobs. People who are Neurodiverse are often cited as being a great fit for cyber jobs, like pentesting, pentesting, and hacking or, like come to mind right away when people Google it, how do you feel?


I think that's, that's generally true. And that comes from the analytical mindset and the precision that can come with with with coding and pen testing, and so on. So I think that's that, that's fair to say, it's been shown that a lot of people that are Neurodiverse are very well suited to careers within the cybersecurity industry. And I do a lot of work in terms of nurturing people that are Neurodiverse to consider careers in the industry.


Yep, I agree there too. I'm Neurodiverse as well, disclaimer. And yeah, I've done many cyber jobs, but I find it it does fit much better than regular IT jobs. Okay, so next, among all those cyber jobs, from your experience, which cyber jobs are best suited for, for a person who was on like ADHD, who have ADHD or Autism?


Again, a kind of a tricky one for me to answering that. I'm Autistic but I'm all about the people side of cybersecurity. So I do a lot in terms of cyber awareness and cyber awareness training, and teaching people to be a lot more alert to all the gray threats and phishing and ransomware and all that that stuff that goes on. So I think my advice would be to find the niche that you're comfortable with. There's lots and lots of different ways into the industry and lots of different facets to it. And so what might not be good for one person might not be suitable for for for another. But certainly along the the coding side certainly work very good for people that are Neurodiverse.


And what I'm seeing nowadays, like, especially in schools, now, they're teaching a lot of technical skills at an early age. I actually feel comfort in that because like, when I was going to school, they didn't even teach coding. Huge difference now.


That's true. And I was the same way when I was at school. And what got me into computers was that I had a BBC Micro, which was my first computer and then a spectrum and then amigas, and I had the five and 600. And I don't know if you've seen the photos that I posted online, but my husband, I have actually developed a retro room at the moment, we have models of all these old computers from our childhood.


By the way, I have a question. I received a question a few days, few weeks ago from a friend in Canada. She has a family member who is a 16 year old female who is Autistic, and really good with computers. She's asking how that person can transition into cybersecurity.


I think if she's got an interest in the areas, read up as much about it, do as much research as possible. And make those introductions, get those, you know, any kind of work experience or any assets into the industry network as much as possible. And I think networking for me, it's been a key in a lot of what I do. So having that extensive pool of people within the industry to draw on. And another thing I would say is get a mentor as well, I have a couple of amazing mentors, and I also work with a coach in cybersecurity, and to help keep me on track and make sure that I am accountable for your all my goals, and I'm on track to achieving everything that I want to achieve. And and that's been so helpful to me.


Yep, I totally agree. And one thing I would add to that is to try everything. Well, I think one difficulty of cybersecurity is when people think of cybersecurity they just automatically assume, hacker or defender, which is not true. Because similar to the Autism spectrum, there's just so many, many, many, many cyber jobs out there.


Yeah, I totally agree.


And I think that in the industry, overall, it has to do a better job of showing all those various job skills. Because, as is it, it seems like the industry oftentimes pigeonholes people into those two main roles, attacker or defender.


Yeah, absolutely.


Shifting gears, can you share any personal stories about your you, yourself being Neurodiverse, and how how that has affected your life? And how do you cope day to day?


Well, I growing up, I always knew that I was different. I always knew that I didn't fit in. I had interests that just were not shared by any of my peers whatsoever. And I really struggled to relate to people. I really struggled to make friends growing up. And I was always sort of far better being, I suppose on my own and having interest in activities that were very much sort of solo ones as opposed to team or or group ones. And I would get super stressed about any, you know, team games or anything that involves having to do things with other people, because I just couldn't cope with it. But I did what a lot of women and girls have found to tend to do if they're Autistic, which is I masked it. So I pretended that I was super confident and could fit in and but inside it just wasn't a natural thing for me at all. And it actually brought me a lot of anxiety and stress and I just absolutely hated it. And I actually went through a lot of my life like that. So when I went out to work, I found that working in an office with a team of people was super, super hard and difficult for me but I masked it and I did it because that's what you have to do. You have to go out you have to get the job, make money and do that that thanks to Monday to Friday. And it would literally take me the entire weekend to get out by the time I started feeling semi okay, it was Sunday night and I'd have to start all over again on a Monday. So it's really impacted me throughout my life and then the the actual diagnosis. It's kind of funny because I wasn't seeking it at the time, I got it as such, and attended my doctor's office for something completely unrelated. And then I apparently flagged upon this system because Worcestershire Healthy Minds in my area was doing a study looking for undiagnosed Autism in women between the ages of 40 and 45. And I'd flagged up on the system as being in that age group. So my doctor asked me if I'd fill out a questionnaire. Thinking no more of it, I did it, I handed it into reception. Had a phone call later in the evening to say I'd scored really highly on it. And would I be willing to come in and spend a few hours with the lady that was doing the research and more questions, and so on. So the following week, I did that I asked a lot more questions, a lot more sort of exercises and tests and things. And at the end, she concluded, I was definitely on the Autistic spectrum. And Nathan, it was like a light bulb went off in my head, because it was like, at last. Now I know why I feel so different. Now I know why my interest is so singular, and how I know why I'm so feel so different to everybody else. And armed with that knowledge, I was then able to fully really be myself and make changes accordingly. So for example, I now work solely from home, I don't work in an office, and I've done that even before the pandemic hit myself as opposed to working for somebody else, no thinks things like that. All stuff that allows me to be the best I can be within the confines of yeah, we'll have about I don't see it as a disability or something that holds me back, if anything. Now I know. And now I'm armed with that knowledge, it's actually empowered me, I think, it's not the parallel between my achievements in cyber and the awards and so on I've won have been in line with getting my diagnosis over the last couple of years. And I don't think that's that that's, that's something that's, that's kind of gone hand in hand. So armed with the diagnosis, it's allowed me to be the best that I can be.


I love it. I think in overall in summary it sounds like, once you got diagnosed, you're free to be yourself. And that is beautiful. Unfortunately, we live in a society where it's, there's still stigma around it is like, the workplaces are kinda still kinda like a factory. And soon as a person says they have Autism or are Neurodiverse, it's like, no, you're not a team player, you can't function. Because there's that negative stigma. And based on your experience, in the in the United Kingdom, do you feel that that stigma is changing in society?


I think it is. And I've seen some organizations do some amazing work within diversity and inclusion in all aspects, some Wise campaign that I was involved with recently, certainly do a lot of work in that area. And I think we're just starting, though, I still think there's a lot more that can be done, particularly, as you say, to educate businesses and companies to the benefits of having people in their workforce that are Neurodiverse. And it is very much now on the agenda of the C suite. And I'm certainly seeing and hearing a lot more conversations about it here in the UK. So I hope that just continues to, to grow and grow.


Brilliant, and and the other thing you brought up as I read stories on the Internet, it is very common for people, especially a girl, the young women to have be to be Autistic and Neurodiverse and to go years and years without knowing and suffer through your lives. And then amazing stories such as yourself, where you get diagnosed, even even at the late stage. I think that's amazing. And I think a lot of people should do the same, because I believe that a lot of people are going to be similar, especially girls and young women who are suffering like this. They shouldn't should not have to suffer, they should be free and open to be themselves. Now, one thing I am noticing, especially here in the US is one big blocker. The diagnosis and testing for Autism is not covered by insurance. Is it that way in the UK as well?


It's more that there's a very long waiting list.


Oh my.


So we have the we have the National Health Service, and it is absolutely wonderful. And I'm so grateful for it in so many ways. But when it comes to getting a diagnosis, for something like Autism, or anything that involves mental health, it's very limited and there are very, very long waiting lists. You can go private and pay for a private diagnosis yourself, but that's very costly to do. And obviously not a lot of people have the resources to be able to do that. So I feel very fortunate I'm very lucky that my diagnosis came about because I flagged up to take part in that study. Had I not flagged it I would never known to this day. Quite, quite possibly because it wasn't something that was on my radar or that I was thinking about. So, yeah, I just I couldn't imagine that in the states with the insurance assignment. It'd be very, very difficult. And I've got a friend at the moment who's seeking a diagnosis. She's roughly my age, and the waiting list is around about two years.


Oh, my. Two years.


Yeah. And that's, that's the way it is over here. And that's not because of the pandemic, that was before the pandemic, it could well be even longer now.


Oh, my. That's insane. Because, for myself, I also believe that even without formal diagnosis, people can still research and self diagnose, because lack of a better term, kind of like Cinderella, if the shoe fits.




And shifting gears, since you are openly Autistic, how has it affected your married life? How do you, because I traditionally people with Autism struggle in social relationships? How do you make it work with your husband?


For example, we had a son in:


Oh my.


There were other bereavements.


That was a lot.


Yeah, it was a really tough time. And we felt like we were always in funerals. So for a good couple of years or so, to having been through all of that, I think we've had to work really, really hard. And I, you know, I'm not the easiest person to live with being Autistic. I know that. And I know that there are ways I do things that drive him absolutely insane. But I try my best to sort of, you know, understand that and, you know, work with him. And it was a team and and i think that that that helps us as well. But equally, he's also very understanding of it and did his own research when I was diagnosed. So I think that's that's helped a lot as well.


Yeah, I think that's I think that's the key. Just understand understanding the the conditions and accepting each other quirks quirks and all.


Absolutely. And believe me, I have plenty of them.


Yes, I do as well.


Not easy for him.


Yep. So on a more positive note, congratulations on your new book, the Rise of the Cyber Woman volume one, filled with inspirational accounts from women who are taking the cybersecurity industry by storm. And the and in your latest book, the Varied Origins of the Cyber Men. So what inspired you to write these amazing books? And how did it all come together?


we separated and divorced in:


Brilliant, thank you for doing that. That is amazing. And I think you're right, like, when girls are in school, it is so hard for them to imagine themselves being in a technical role, much less cybersecurity. Because in industry, there's just this perception that majority of people in cyber are tend to be white male, which is not true. There's so many incredible women such as yourself, who are just changing the world and rocking the world.


Yeah, like definitely.


Like that has to be shouted from the rooftops like, yes, women can be in cyber and they can succeed.




So now now that those two books are published, what is your next project?


ed Threats, which came out in:




Strange interest I know.


Not really, because I remember back in when I was, I was going through school, I had a similar interest. Like, I didn't know why. But fortunately, the Cold War's over. But yes, as as the saying goes, as more things change, more things stay the same. We still have nuclear warheads and everything. And, you know, we talked about your passion, but besides cybersecurity, or Neurodiversity, what drives your passion for all these all the work you do? Like what gives you all that energy?


I'm giving back to what I mentioned a little while ago from when my son was was stillborn. Because I thought I was going to be on a particular life path of being the mother to a son that had, I knew before birth that he had some disabilities that he would need 24 hour round the clock care. So I prepared for that life of being a full time mother to a son that had those challenges. And that didn't happen. So everything I've done since then has been around that and with with him in mind, because I don't have any other living children. And so I thought something's got to fill my time and this is it and okay, that that didn't happen. And I didn't get to be a mother, which is something that I always wanted. So I'm channeling my energy and my time into this because I still feel that I can make a positive difference, you know. Helping people into those careers in cyber, but also a lot of my awareness raising about the cyber threat and staying safe online spotting those malicious emails or ransomware or anything that could you know, compromise systems, and not just for businesses, but for the general public, as well. Even people like my parents, I've jammed it into them. Do not open anything. Do not click on anything. Don't do it. Don't do this. And again, just just even making that age group, you know, more aware to stop them losing their life savings because they've clicked on something and given out information inadvertently, that that's what drives me.


You know, you brought up an interesting point that came to mind. Because when people think of Neurodiverse conditions such as ADHD and Autism, people automatically think it is something that only affects children. But one big demographic, that are often ignored. What about those who are transitioning into retirement? The elderly. How are things in the UK? Like, is there much awareness around that? And how is the society they're prepared for Neurodiverse people who are retiring?


I'll be honest, I've not seen much around that demographic, and you've given me some food for thought there. Because I'm approaching 50, I could have easily gone through my entire life not knowing. And the cogs are turning now with regard to that, because I think that's a really interesting point. And I think a lot of it is sort of geared around the kind of younger generations and so on. But actually, I think there must be a lot more people like me, that have gone through their entire life. I am convinced that my dad's sister before she died was Autistic. She was so similar to me and so obsessed with her interests, and was very much a sort of alone person that's so odd. But obviously, she's past now, we'll never know. And maybe she was, and maybe it runs in the family? I don't know.


Yeah, because when I researched the subject a little bit, it is clear that at least in the US, there is a say, disconnect. Because when people go to the care homes and retire, they get automatically, people automatically assume well, this person is schizophrenic or something, something other than Autism, or ADHD, or Neurodiverse conditions, and that is a potential tragedy. It's like, it's like potential tragedy waiting to happen.


Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, as I say, my achievements and the things I've accomplished in the cybersecurity industry are in direct parallel with when I got my diagnosis, because I was able to understand myself so much more and how I work and what makes me tick. And I believe that that's spilled over into my work as well and allowed me to be the best I can be.


For that, I still think it's brilliant, like it opens the door to allow you to be who you are. And I think, essentially, taking off the mask. I think, that is something as a society, globally, that's that's where we need to get to where everyone can take off their masks and not be afraid to be themselve. And for employers, family to accept them for who they are. But realistically, it's a long way until we can get there. But it's like the Agile process of incremental steps, we gotta keep prototyping and keep moving forward. No matter what we got to keep moving forward.


Yeah. Especially so after this year, that's for sure.


Yep. So other than that, is there is there anything else about yourself that you want to share?


No, I think I really enjoy what I what I do. And if there's any one piece of advice I can give us even if the waiting list is long, start that process of diagnosis, if you think you, you may eill be autistic or Neurodiverse in some way, start that process of looking into it, research it and try to get that diagnosis because it changed my life.


Yes, I agree. And to add to that, what helps me is just reading the stories like because there are many many articles out there about famous people who are clearly have had Autism even the stories about Steve Jobs are often cited as having Autism. So it makes me think if famous successful people like that are cheered and famous and, and cited as labeled as being successful. Like why not all the other people who are Autistic and who have ADHD? Why should there be a stigma. Everyone, everyone should be celebrated for their special gifts and they're what they bring to the world.


Yeah, totally agree with that Nathan and yeah, and I look forward to seeing a world where where that happens.


Agree. And thank you, Lisa. For today and everything you do it. You're an incredible person and in spite all the pain and hardship and everything you've gone through your life. Thank you you're incredible.


Thank you for having me, Nathan. It's been a pleasure.

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On a mission to flip the script on Neurodiversity in Cybersecurity, Technology, Society, and Culture
Uniting people and organizations to support and advance Neurodiverse people in Cybersecurity.

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