Episode 5

Published on:

14th Dec 2020

Neurodiversity in Cybersecurity – Tia Hopkins

Neurodiversity is often associated with children, but adults with the same condition are often left out and ignored, especially African-Americans. Nathan Chung interviews Tia Hopkins, Vice President of Global Solutions Engineering at eSentire, founder of Empow(H)er Cybersecurity, and Professor at Yeshiva University. She won the SC Media Reboot Leadership Award in 2019 in the Outstanding Educator category. In 2020, she was named among the Top 25 Women Leaders in Cybersecurity by Software Report, and named among the Top 100 Women in Cybersecurity by Cyber Defense Magazine. She is also passionate about getting more women into cybersecurity while driving awareness of gender disparities in the industry with organizations such as Leading Cyber Ladies, the International Consortium of Minority Cybersecurity Professionals (ICMCP), and the Women's Society of Cyberjutsu. Recently, she was inducted into the American Football Events 2021 Hall of Fame. If you work in IT or Cybersecurity, listen and be inspired.



ia Reboot Leadership Award in:




That's a lot of awards and accolades.


Yeah, I was sitting here like, oh man.


So welcome.


Thank you.


First of all, you you founded Empow(H)er Cybersecurity a few months ago. Tell me more about it and, and your vision behind it.


Yes, so, um, you know, I know there's a lot of organizations, you know, focused on minorities, and you know, getting more minorities into Cybersecurity, getting more women into Cybersecurity. But what spoke to me is just kind of focusing on the intersection of the two. Because you know, the organizations that are already in existence offer a lot. they're fantastic organizations. But I find a lot of times when I talk to, you know, young ladies that I mentor, they they kind of feel lost. They don't really know where to start and are afraid to ask questions, you know, you go to a conference, you might ask the wrong person the wrong question. And then you know, you you, you're concerned that you may not be able to redeem yourself. So for me, it really is just a safe space to come and say, all right, I've got all this information, what do I do with it? You know, what, how does it matter to me? How is it beneficial? And you know, just be safe to ask the questions that you feel might not be the right question and just be totally supported and given guidance, and all those things.


Wonderful. With so many of those nonprofits and other organizations out there, helping other women in Cybersecurity, what sets Empow(H)er apart from from everyone else?


Um, well, I don't, I don't like to consider us set apart, I really want to contribute right? To the missions of those organizations, because part of the problem is that a lot of women, specifically women of color, think that the barrier to entry to Cbersecurity is just up there, you know, you have to be a coder, you have to be super technical, you have to be all these things. And that's what's presented, I think, on the surface in the market. So for me, it's really about debunking those myths, getting more women feeling confident that they can be successful both through by enabling them with the necessary information to kind of debunk that for them, but also being a representative of the possibilities as a woman of color, myself, so just having a lot of women of color representing supporting and driving that confidence to then build up the pipeline of women that are interested, and then you know, not hand them off, but introduce them to the other organization that have all the resources available that they would need to drive their success.


I love it. And I, I said the same thing. It is hard for women and women of color, but is specifically it's really hard.


Yeah, it really is.


And I do need to ask, you have so much going in your life: teaching, sports, advocacy. Where do you find the energy and who empowers you and drives your passion?


I think that missions empower me and drive my passion. You know, I'm inspired by individuals that are brave enough to even say I think I want to do this and so I'm like, yeah, I'll be the first one. I hope you figure it out, just come, all you have to have is passion right? I think that Cybersecurity could benefit from more diverse backgrounds where not only, you know, individuals come from maybe a traditional path where they came up through the ranks in an organization or got an official, like a degree program or went through the path of the certifications that were laid out, you know, there's a lot of very brilliant minds out there that just don't have access to these types of resources, and then self select out of even trying a career because they don't believe they'll be able to get very far and I just, those are the people that I want to pull in. And so that's what fuels my passion. Because the more we have, the better off we are as an industry. And then I feel like if I pull someone in, they know someone that they can pull in and they'll know someone. So just trying to really create a chain reaction here.


I love it. And this transitions us to our next topic, Neurodiversity. Because I think on top of all the issues you brought up, many women of color are not identified with a neuro neuro cyber, sorry, neuro Neurodiversity. And that's a tragedy. Because when people think of conditions such as ADHD and Autism, people think it's primarily a white male condition. They don't consider everyone else.




I personally feel that Neurodiversity could also be the key to encourage more women in Cybersecurity. The traits are often shown, that allow many Neurodiverse people to participate in and excel in technical positions. Traits, such as attention to detail, hyper focus. And the ability to see the needle in a haystack. Do you agree?


I agree. And I mean, just to touch on Neurodiversity in general, I think it's fantastic that Neurodiversity is a thing. It's because you know, to be someone with Autism or ADHD, and have it classified as a condition or disability or some sort of challenge is automatically setting someone back. You know, you're, you're starting me all the way back here, I feel like it's a disability. So I have to try that much harder to get at the same level as everyone else. And then I have to overcome what I'm, you know, functioning through every day. And so the term Neurodiversity in and of itself, kind of, you know, pushes it forward, because it doesn't mean that something's wrong, it just means that you're different. And there's all these other categories of differences out there that just, I can't think of a better word, but just normalize that as just another form of of being different or diverse. And, you know, to your point of attention to detail and finding the needle in the haystack, which really in Cybersecurity is a needle in a haystack of needles. Right? So being able to be meticulous, and really drill down and dig into the little details that would make, you know, some individuals just kind of throw their hands up. I just I can't find it. I don't know what it is. But Further to that, I mean, I think, as Cybersecurity professionals, our adversaries are just grabbing whoever's got the talent to pull off what they need to pull off. I don't think that they quite categorize talent pools the way that we do. So if we're going to be able to keep up again, back to the point of diversity, we have to be open to being as diverse as possible. And that isn't limited to just race, ethnicity, age, gender, it does include Neurodiversity as well.


Yep, totally agree. I recently attended a Neurodiversity summit hosted by Stanford, in the past month or two. In one session they discussed how African-American women are ignored. It's a tragedy. But what do you think can be done to help BIPOC, blacks, indigenous people of color, who have Neurodiversity, get the help they need in order to survive and thrive.


I think that the first step is recognizing that it is Neurodiversity and not some issue that you're afraid to bring up and, and talk about. And then it becomes finding the tools, right, that help you manage whatever it is right in a way that that will lead you to feel like you're able to be successful because you have to believe it, or else you're not going to try. And so when you have tools that you're comfortable with after we've gotten past, this is not a condition, there's nothing wrong with you. It's not disability, you're just different, right? And then that drives the confidence to say, maybe maybe I can do this and that's where we have to start right we have and it's similar to you know why I started the organization along the same lines. An individual is not going to pursue something typically won't pursue something that they don't feel confident in their ability to be successful, especially when it comes to a career, right? We all have bills to pay. So if I'm looking at a role that I think the barrier to entry is not so bad, I see a good number of people that look like me that seem to be able to do decent in this field versus I don't see anybody that looks like me. No one's really talking about Neurodiversity in a positive way. It seems like it might be a disadvantage, and a barrier to entry, so I have to learn all that and spend all that money. I'm gonna go over here, right. So I think I think we have to do a better a better job of lowering the barrier of entry on on a lot of fronts, honestly.


I totally agree. And I agree. Totally, I totally agree with you what you said earlier, there is such a stigma, when people hear of like ADHD or autism, it really comes down to being different and, we gotta flip the script and see it as a natural gift and not not a being a problem.


100%. Absolutely. And I agree with you.


In your experience, which cyberr jobs would be best suited for people who are Neurodiverse and who are women? Have you seen anything?


Well, first off, let me say I think all jobs are for women, all of them, women can do everything. But you know, specific to being Neurodiverse, if we're thinking along the lines of attention to detail and and really honing in, and things of that nature, a couple of roles that come to mind are like a SOC analyst, that is just drowning in data and literally has to find not only find the needle in the stack of needles, but understand how to, one of my colleagues likes to say how to take all the bread come bread crumbs, and reassemble the biscuit, right, because you can have all the data in front of you. But unless you can make sense of it, it's it's about as useless as it is in the system that you pulled it off from. Um, so I think that's important, you know, critical thinking and just thinking outside the box, I feel like can mean something completely different to an individual that is Neurodiverse, you know, versus the standard, what thinking outside the box means just don't think like everyone else, try to do your own thing. I do think it does bring a different element of that to the table, but definitely SOC analysts, red team, penetration tester, because I mean, in all of these roles, the devils in the details, and it's really easy to overlook things, especially when the tasks are repetitive. And we know that all these roles have methodology behind them, you know, a SOC analyst is going to have a runbook that they follow. And it's easy to fall into the trap of overlooking the small thing, because you're checking the boxes. So I think it'd be really beneficial in that respect.


Yep. Sounds good. So, based on your experience, what are some of the biggest obstacles women face working in cybersecurity, and what can be done to overcome them?


I think that I think representation is a is a big part of it. And I mean, there are emotional challenges too like imposter syndrome. So, you know, women that are successful, you know, the questioning, how did I get here? Do I do I belong here? I mean, can I really represent someone? Am I going to say the right thing in that meeting, because, again, to the point of, there's not a lot of people that look like you in that room, whether you're a woman, a woman of color, you know, what have you especially when you start to get into the leadership roles, you know, tech, the tech industry, in general is male dominant. But then when you layer leadership on top of that, you know, the, the margin shrinks even more right in terms of women that are in those roles. And so, when you think about the fact that you want women in leadership roles representing the possibilities of coming into the space, so that more and more women are interested in coming into the space, you sort of have a problem on on both ends of it. So I know there are a lot of other challenges, right? Like, you know, recruiters figuring out how to recruit more diverse talent. How do we even get more women interested in Cybersecurity, but the big the big, big one for me is representation. I think that just comes with tired of being the only one at conferences or in meetings or, you know, the, the the typical where, where there's just not a lot of us.


Yep. And so the, the obstacles I see in my experience for women: lack of career advancement, lack of support, working long hours, insufficient training opportunities, sexual harassment, family commitments, and overall society and culture that says, women should not be working in tech. That all has to change.


And support is at the root of all of that, right? Because society can tell me whatever it wants to right. But if I have someone that I believe in and that believes in me, and also looks like me telling me don't, don't don't listen to that, you can do this. And also, here's how you do this. That's how you change the game.


Yes, totally agree. Have you ever experienced any of these barrier yourself? And how did you overcome them?


I usually kind of run over barriers. I don't, I don't take kindly to things that are not intended for my good and not not to get too personal. But I did have to learn at a very young age to be sort of independent and self isolate. Because people are mean, you know, and I just, I learned to depend on myself, I learned how to just focus and push towards the things that that I wanted. And, you know, being bullied at a young age, I never thought I would consider it a blessing. But it taught me to compartmentalize, right, so if something happens, that's hurtful, or not meant for my good. How much does do I allow that, you know, to impact me? I feel like my mind is the strongest thing that I have. So something happens and I tell myself is devastating. It is. If I tell myself, it's not a big deal. It's not. And so that's how I overcome the barriers. I mean, me personally, I just have all of these, the merits, as soon as I walk in the room, right? I'm young, I'm a woman of color, I'm masculine of center, I have tattoos everywhere. And so it's like, we just don't we don't know what to do with this woman. And so since you don't know, I'm going to tell you, and here I am. And, you know, all I can be is my authentic self. And the reality of that is every situation won't be for me. But my reality is that I won't choose a situation that's not for me.


Okay, next question. What message do you have for girls and young women? Who get told that they cannot or should not work in tech? Because they're not smart? Or good enough? What message would you have for them?


I think that whoever saying those things you shouldn't be talking to them, they're just the wrong, you know, the wrong people to be talking to, you know, surround yourself with supportive people that encourage you, you know, even if they don't have the answers, you know, it's, it's not going to be common that you're going to find a bunch of people in the role that you want to be in, in tech, or cyber, whatever it is that you want to go that can also be supportive. So take the support, the support will build your confidence, the confidence will keep going. And then you'll find the people to show you the direction. So naysayers, nope, don't listen, don't listen to them find find someone that support you, even if they don't understand exactly what it is that you're trying to do, but they believe in you and your ability. That's that's good thing.


I love it. And for girls, or recent college graduates, What tips do you have for them, how to get started in cyber,


Be curious, don't do what everyone else is doing. You know, my motto for myself is I don't want to be where everyone is, I want to be where everyone is going. And that's a little scary because you you are even more in a situation where you know, not a lot of folks have done it before you but you get to pave your own way, and you get to leave your mark. So pay attention to the industry where the industry is going, what are people talking about, right, don't jump into, I'm just throwing this out there, and as an example, don't jump into pentesting because someone said it's popular because if it's popular, that means that there's a lot of other individuals going for that role as well. And the market might be a bit saturated, whereas you do some research and look for something that's up and coming, you actually have a better chance of landing a role because there's not a bunch of skill out there for employers to pick from. So then they're actually looking for different things to qualify candidates things that I think should be looked at in the first place like problem solving skills, critical thinking skills, and things like that. That's actually how I got my first, it wasn't not an IT role, but I was working for the phone company. When DSL first became popular, and people were starting to ditch dial up modems. None of the guys at the phone company wanted to leave their regular phone jobs. And so they had these openings. And I was like sure, I'll do that. And that was the that was the beginning of my career. So yeah, be curious, you know, get your hands on things spin up a lab. You know, cloud has made that really easy back when I was doing it. I had to buy you know machines from goodwill and run up my power bill. So you know, take advantage of resources that are available. And network of course.


You know, I'm happy You said you talked about cloud that. That is not emphasized enough today. Because when people think security, they automatically think pentesting or SOC, but not too many people are discussing how important the cloud is today.


Yeah. I mean, cloud is critically important today, especially given where we are with this, you know, global pandemic, a lot of organizations, we're still kind of trying to figure out, do I feel safe in the cloud, and all of a sudden, it's like, oh, business continuity, throw it in the cloud, we have to keep going. We can't go into the office. And so I think that, you know, if it hasn't started to trend that direction already, once things settle down a bit. And people can start to actually look at where their data is, and who has access to it and things like that, when they're not in like saying, you know, stay out of the read mode, there was going to be a lot of opportunities for security expertise in the cloud.


And this helps us transition to our next point. One controversial question that comes up a lot. Do people need to have IT skills to get into Cybersecurity? I I've seen the answers really dive in based on gender, like a lot of guys say, yes. A lot of women say no. How do you feel?


Well, I like to split hairs. And so the question was get into Cybersecurity. So the answer is no. Right? Do you have to have skills to get a job? Yes. So you get into Cybersecurity, you don't need skills, we all started somewhere, right? You figure out what it is you want to do and what those skill requirements are, and then you work at it. And then you work towards landing a role. You know, I don't know many employers that will hire someone with no experience. But I think another sort of split hair moment here is when job descriptions ask for a certain number of years of experience, they rarely specified professional experience. So experience, like if you want to be a pen tester could be captured the flag tournaments or labs that you've built at home or projects that you're working on. And I think a lot of people self select out, because they haven't done these things professionally, which in a lot of cases is not a requirement. So you know, to directly answer the question again, to get into Cybersecurity. Absolutely not. Because Cybersecurity isn't all about hands on keyboard, there's governance, there's risk, there's privacy. But yeah, if you do want to be hands on keyboard, absolutely get in, figure out the skills you need and work at it. And you


And you know what? What you said just it isn't said enough. Because like when people think experience, you're absolutely right. They think doing it in at work. But they don't realize, doing it as part of volunteer experience. CTFs. That's all experience. And that, and that all that counts.


Sure you got the degree, but:


I mean, I guess since we're on the topic of Neurodiversity, I guess, I kind of being able to be where I am is a bit of a success story, you know, to bring on bring it all together what we've been talking about. So I was recently, as in this year, diagnosed with ADHD. And all these years, I didn't know what it was, I dropped out of college four times, because I just couldn't concentrate in school when I had to go to school at 6pm on a Thursday night and be there till nine and learn this specific, it just didn't, it didn't work for me. I've never been able to read, I am a I'm a great reader, but I don't I can't focus on a book long enough to get through it. I probably I can probably count the number of books I've read cover to cover on on one hand and there was a time in my life that that was embarrassing for me, you know, because there are certain expectations of you like when you're in a leadership role, or, you know, when you're up and coming into your career or you know, even in tech. You're you're super smart and you're doing all these things with computers you read, right? Have you read this book? And you know, I would be embarrassed because now I not only have I not read that book, but I don't read books. So, um, but when I was diagnosed, things just made so much sense. You know, I went from feeling embarrassed to feeling empowered, because now I have a reason. But then the flip side of that explains why I'm able to do so many things. Because I can just focus on so many things. I actually need to focus on many things because you know, just a couple of things. I'm just kind of like, I don't want to work on this anymore right now. So I need to bounce between multiple things and kind of be over the tip of my skis at all times. So it really, I guess it came at the right time, you know exactly when it was supposed to come to bring it all full circle for me. So, I mean, I think if I could get through those things, not even knowing you know, they were they were a thing because I mean, as a black woman, things, especially, you know, 20-30 years ago, when I was growing up, ADHD, what is that? No, you're just, you're just bad. Go, you know, sit down and it just wasn't a thing. But I feel better knowing now. And yeah, now I'm not so embarrassed.


I can totally relate, I diagnosed with ADHD maybe around five years ago. So I totally relate. One gentlemen I interviewed a few weeks ago, I could see the difference. Like for him, he got diagnosed with his diagnosis for Neurodiverse conditions, when he was super young. So getting support early, getting it recognized, it's a huge difference.


Yeah. Cuz then, you know, you know, there's just something that you need tools to work with, versus there's this, this thing that you just can't, like, English was my worst subject. But I had the like, best grammar skills in the class best communication skills was my worst subject, because they always wanted me to read a book. I didn't have I didn't understand why. And so I didn't have the tools to help me navigate. And I wish I had, because I probably would have learned how to be a great reader. And I would probably read tons of books now. But alas.


And also, one last question. Looking at the future, what what do you want to see in the future, societal changes and what not that can help women, particularly women, African-American woman to advance in Cybersecurity? If you had a wish list?


Um, I mean, in the future, honestly, my wish would be that diversity discussions are no longer necessary, right? You know, we are where we need to be. There's no gender, race, any of those sorts of disparities and the pay gap, and all those things are gone, because we have figured out that we're all you know, better together, stronger together. And someone asked me recently, we were talking about my organization, you know, what, what success for you, years and years to come for Empow(H)er Cybersecurity. I said, for me, it means we don't need it anymore. Right? Because we've built the pipeline. And women feel confident that they can have this type of career because the pipeline is built, there's more women being represented. So more interested in coming in, and it's out there that it's actually a career and more young girls are interested in STEM. So yeah, that would be my dream to not need organizations like mine anymore. And then the diversity conversation is gone. Because we're all just people with skills.


You make a very interesting point. Because I'm fortunate. I'm fortunate to know many women of various races in Cybersecurity, and quite a number of African-American women. But I do see a lot of work needs to be done, especially in poor neighborhoods and cities like, but what do you think can be done there?


I think it's about I hate to, you know, keep going back to the intangible, but it really is about believing. And it starts with just having access and knowing these things exist, right? There's, you know, you go into some communities, and there's no, like computers in the schools, they can't afford computers and homes, they don't have access to the Internet. And so how in the world are you supposed to know that this is a viable career option for you when it's not even a part of your day to day, right? So access is one thing, but then, you know, we step up a bit from that and you go into neighborhoods, that maybe do have some computers in schools, and you know, access to the Internet is a regular thing, and it's not far fetched for home to have a couple of smartphones and tablets in them. But then there's the okay, do I want to go work? I'll just throw an idea out there and work at a factory. That's what my whole family did. Everybody was successful and don't have to worry about anything, family's taken care of. Not a lot of college debt, or do I want to pursue this STEM thing everybody keeps talking to me about. And it becomes a situation where we get back to representation and support because if a kid is interested in STEM, and then they go talk to a parent or relative that doesn't know anything about it, it's gonna seem far fetched, and it's going to be presented as far fetched, but if they have guidance or mentor, or some kind of program, tailored toward showing them the possibilities and how to get there and what to focus on, it changes those things. So again, access, representation support, you know, we just have to keep, keep giving back and creating that domino effect. Because I guarantee you back to my point earlier, you pluck a kid or two out of those situations and show them something, they become successful. They're going to turn around and pluck somebody out too. And it just, it should spread. You know,


I love it. Thank you for everything you do Tia.


Thanks for having me.


Have a great day.

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About the Podcast

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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Nathan Chung