Nichole O'Brien on the value of diversity in cybersecurity
During her 30-year tenure at Dynetics, a Leidos subsidiary since 2020, Nichole O'Brien discovered her penchant for cyber and IT management, and raised two children.
Currently director for cybersecurity and IT solutions, Nichole began her career in the early 1990s. She remembers being outnumbered twenty to one, often the only woman and the youngest person in the room.
“I started my career here at a very young age, and there were just a handful of women in the entire company," she says, noting her encounters with the 'glass ceiling.'
Age was a factor, too. “It was tough being 'the baby,'" she says.
Then, after she'd married and had her first child, Nichole received the “mom" label, which she thought cast her as less than a true professional.
She decided to focus on what she could control, like how she supported her teammates and eventual direct reports and built strong customer relationships.
Nichole's career can be characterized by steady determination and knowing when the time was right to advocate for herself and others.
“Now, I make a point to speak with younger employees about not letting anyone diminish their potential due to lack of experience, and I encourage my lower-level managers to carve out specific tasks for less experienced employees to lead."
Why cybersecurity and diverse candidates are a perfect match
“Cybersecurity is deep and wide, and it requires a plethora of ideas and perspectives which makes it a great place for leveraging diversity," Nichole says.
Cybersecurity benefits from a diverse workforce (socioeconomic status, gender, race, age, etc.). It's a discipline that provides exciting opportunities, creating exciting career paths for diverse candidates.
“Cybersecurity never stops evolving. People constantly create technologies and exploits that you have to learn to defend. So there are many instances when experience and perspective, not necessarily education, are your most important assets," Nichole explains. “In our organization, we have philosophy, music, business and marketing majors; former military members and several people without a degree. You can come from any background and add value to cyber."
The value of diverse employees
Nichole notes that society tends to label groups of people, which can, unfortunately, hold people back. She argues that we should instead realize that someone with a different label likely offers a useful perspective. This outlook can help us see and value each person as an individual rather than focusing on stereotypes associated with their labels.
“For me, DEI goes beyond the most discussed traits of gender, race, and culture. It also includes age, experience level, educational background, and personality type," Nichole says. “All possible types of diversity are important."
For instance, she notes that young employees are often sidelined as “knowing nothing" or being “too optimistic" about what solutions may work.
“But innovation can greatly benefit from the ideas young people put forth," she says. “Sometimes less experience yields new thinking and interesting concepts worth exploring."
Tips for diverse candidates and employees
Nichole offers the following tips from her own experience as a diverse employee and a manager of diverse teams.
- Don't let people pigeonhole you based on labels—and defend yourself against internalizing those messages and starting to believe them.
- Focus on using your strengths, especially those unique to you because of your background. For instance, as a mom, Nichole was a dynamic problem solver. She used this skill to bring unique solutions to her customers, who began to sing her praises to her managers.
- Invite straightforward conversations and communicate openly with a goal to connect and build bridges. This can help you uncover and address unconscious bias, setting an example for how to influence positive new norms.
- Shine a light on the value of parenting and caregiving. Emphasize that these roles help build skills and experiences that make outstanding managers.
- Advocate for yourself, starting from a place of reason, such as your skill set. Nichole served as acting deputy division manager multiple times but was passed over for a permanent role each time. Multiple external hires came and went, some she even trained. With nothing to lose, she advocated for herself by identifying how her approach to team leadership, employee development, and customer satisfaction are foundational elements for strategic growth, which led to her finally receiving the promotion.
- Develop people and business management skills, and pursue self-improvement and continuous learning opportunities, like obtaining certifications to stay relevant and increase your value.
Unlocking the full potential of diverse teams
“It's one thing to have a diverse team, but it takes deliberate steps to get everyone involved," Nichole says. “Those who have been overlooked in the past may not be comfortable pushing their way to the front."
Nichole suggests the following tactics for managers who want to foster inclusivity and realize the full potential of diverse teams:
- Figure out the strengths and weaknesses of each member of your team. Make space for everyone to speak so the loudest, most comfortable public speakers don't consistently take the lead which would minimize diversity in thought and approach.
- Meet separately with quiet types to find out what's holding them back. Listen respectfully to show that you want to hear their ideas. Then consider carving out assignments that encourage them to speak up.
- Be aware that minority employees of all types may feel internal pressure to overcompensate, working harder than their peers. Acknowledge their behavior and monitor them for burnout.
- Listen. Don't multitask when speaking with employees. People need to know you are listening to feel valued.
Have questions for Nichole? She'll be speaking at a virtual Leidos Collaboration and Career Event on July 19 from 12:00–2:00 p.m. EST. Register to attend.