Tech needs women: an interview with the women leading security at 1Password

Tech needs women: an interview with the women leading security at 1Password

Stacey Harris by Stacey Harris on

On International Women’s Day, we shared highlights from our recent Women in Tech panel, where women at 1Password discussed the obstacles faced by women and non-binary people in the tech industry. One of the issues raised during the panel was how important it is for women working in male-dominated spaces to see other women succeeding. With that in mind, we wanted to highlight and celebrate our women-led Security team.

We spoke to Harlie Hardage (Security Training Coordinator), Pilar García (Privacy Officer), and Rainbow (Incident Response Manager) about their paths into the industry, the challenges they’ve faced, and their advice for women and non-binary folks considering a career in privacy and security.

What’s your role in the Security team?

Harlie: I coordinate our internal security training initiatives, so I spend a lot of time talking to other teams, as well as developing and leading training sessions.

Pilar: My area is privacy and compliance. I talk to people in different areas of the company, listen to their needs and then help them achieve their goals in ways that preserve privacy and security.

Rainbow: I currently manage our Incident Response team. We keep an eye on everything and try to step in before anything bad happens. If something happens, we’re the ones who investigate, remediate, and get everything back up and running.

What made you pursue a career in cybersecurity?

Harlie: I’ve always loved computers, but I never really thought of making it a career. I honestly thought I wasn’t smart enough for it. When I started college as an undeclared major I took Computer Science Basics as an elective and really loved it – it came naturally to me. I never looked back from there because I knew it was what I wanted to do for a living.

Pilar: I have a background in physics and math. I originally wanted to go into academia, but it became clear that it was not as glamorous as I had imagined so I decided to go into industry. I met Jeffrey Goldberg (Director of Security) at a company event and after a few hours of talking with him it was like, “Okay, this is where I want to be”.

I’ve always found privacy stuff very interesting so, as the company grew, I started volunteering for privacy-related things and getting more involved in that area.

Rainbow: I had always been into computers as I felt they were fascinating, but didn’t get much chance to play with them early on. In fact, my original planned career path was medicine, not technology. I got my hands on my own computer a little before I graduated high school and a friend gave me a Linux CD. I was immediately hooked and ended up having a bit of a knack for it.

At the time, college wasn’t an option and I desperately needed a job, so I started working at a data center. It was like a paid internship and that’s where I started: building servers and racking in a data center. I bounced through some tier one support positions early on, and eventually worked my way into Operations, before ultimately ending up in the Infosec space.

Have you ever experienced self-doubt – systemic, or not – and what advice do you have for overcoming it?

Harlie: I’m always going to be battling imposter syndrome, wondering if I should be here or if I’m still smart enough. A lot of that comes from tech being “a man’s world”.

We can all do a better job at reassuring each other. I try to reach out to my other female coworkers and say “you’re doing a great job”. Also, not being too hard on yourself and recognizing when you’ve done something awesome. When people compliment you or your work, write it down so you can go and look at it later and remind yourself to keep going and that you’re smart enough to do this.

Pilar: I hear a lot that, “If you’re in security and you don’t have imposter syndrome, then you’re doing it wrong”. It’s always said tongue in cheek, but I do think it affects women to a larger degree.

It can feel alienating when you realize that you’re one of five women attending a conference. You have to take a deep breath and say, “I will just have to get used to it”, and hope that if you get used to it, then it will be less of a thing for others in the future.

Rainbow: For women and non-binary folks, it’s really hard in this field. A lot of people in tech have imposter syndrome, but I think something that is hardly mentioned is that it’s excessively reinforced for us by others.

I can’t even begin to count the number of times where I was the only woman on the team, or how many times I was actively passed over for a promotion in favor of one of the guys, despite equal or greater output on my part. Those of us who identify as women (or non-binary) know we have to work harder, longer, and more intensely to even be seen as being on the same playing field.

What challenges have you had to overcome in this profession because of your gender?

Harlie: I’ve had to face lots of preconceived notions. I think that’s the biggest problem. It’s pretty shocking how bold people can be in their assumptions.

I remember on the first day of one of my upper-level computer science courses being heckled by a male classmate. Really, all you can do is prove them wrong. That same classmate later asked to partner on multiple projects because he saw I was putting in hard work. You can’t ever let those people get you down, you just have to use it as fuel and prove them wrong.

Pilar: It can be hard for me to be heard, let alone listened to. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been interrupted in the middle of a sentence while I was trying to convey something important.

Every time something like that happens, you have to make a choice: Do you let it go or make yourself a little bit louder? And the choice might seem straightforward, because you have something that needs to be heard. But the problem is that “Excuse me, I wasn’t done” can be seen as aggressive when it comes from a woman. So, I’m continuously trying to find my voice, and the right voice to communicate effectively.

Rainbow: I second what Pilar has said. Women are often seen as aggressive when trying to speak up. The most important thing for me was finding a place where I could be my authentic self. At 1Password I actually feel heard and that my opinion matters in meetings. That’s really nice. I’m not used to that.

Do you think women face different challenges when comparing security to the broader technology industry?

Harlie: It really depends. When I was doing IT in banking it was very much a man’s world, and it was hard to get my word out. Now that I’m in cybersecurity – and working for a more progressive company – it’s easier. But I think it can vary by experience and where you’re at, and I don’t think it’s limited to just any industry.

Rainbow: The security industry seems to be more open and accepting, and more equitable in a lot of ways compared to the rest of the tech and startup world. There’s still a lot of work to do in both worlds – it is far from being truly equitable – but there seems to be a tendency in security to look past who someone is and take them on their accomplishments and their abilities.

I found community in the security space that I didn’t have elsewhere. I want to be clear that this is not necessarily reflective of everyone’s personal experiences, but we can all work toward making this a more inclusive and equitable space. So I’d say we’re doing better than tech at large, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

Any advice for navigating hostile work environments?

Harlie: There’s a point where, if you keep getting interrupted and nobody is standing up for you, you need to walk away and find a better environment.

But don’t back down, even if it makes you seem assertive. If something is bothering you, call people out on it. And look out for each other, because speaking out on behalf of someone else can be perceived as less aggressive than them defending themselves. If someone gets interrupted and they don’t get a chance to speak up again, go back to them and let them finish.

Pilar: It’s important to be an ally and help share the load of stopping negative behavior. If people are doing that, the battle becomes a lot easier.

Rainbow: You can only shove your way in for so long, trying to make that space for yourself. Eventually, you’ll be exhausted and burn out. I’ve almost left tech a few times from burnout. It falls on management and your colleagues to help create that space. Find mentors and allies – people that will help you make that space at the table.

How has 1Password been able to build a women-led Security team?

Harlie: We have great male leaders on the Security team and are lucky that they notice when women are getting run over in meetings. They address the issue, give us the chance to speak and treat us as equals.

I’ve had bad male leaders in the past who make it difficult to get a word in edgewise, or make you feel like you don’t have a spot at the table. You have to put yourself out there and exert yourself so much more to make sure you don’t get totally run over.

We are very lucky to have women leaders on the Privacy and Security teams at 1Password, as well as male leaders who are mindful of breaking down barriers for us.

Pilar: Jeffrey Goldberg has been incredibly valuable because he’s always been aware of these things.

When he’s hiring, he knows exactly what kind of biases go into applications and does his best to compensate for those. The fact that we have the three of us here, in these positions, is due in large part to the support we have from him.

When it comes to resumes, a woman will only tell you she knows a programming language if she has written her own compiler for it. A man will say they know the language if he’s written a “Hello, World!” program for it. So when Jeff has resumes in front of himself, he says, “The man looks more qualified on paper, but let’s talk to both of them and see what they really know”. This recognition on Jeffrey’s part is how we ended up with a better gender balance on our team.

Rainbow: The senior leadership on the Security team does a really good job of making that space and making sure that we’re heard. Incident response is a critical role and many companies wouldn’t think to hire a woman for that kind of position. Yet here I am, doing a pretty spiffy job, if I do say so myself.

What should be done to increase the number of women in leadership roles?

Harlie: It takes all of us working as a team to make sure that women are heard and have the opportunity to advance into these leadership positions.

Pilar: If the question is, “What do you do to get more women in leadership positions within security?”, then the answer is you put them in leadership positions within security. Very few people make hiring decisions and they have to keep biases in mind so they can put different kinds of people in leadership roles.

Rainbow: There are so many people with untapped talent and non-traditional academic backgrounds – I especially want to give a voice to other women, and feminine presenting or identifying non-binary individuals; we need to consider people from all backgrounds and identities. It falls on hiring managers and senior leadership to hire these people and take a chance on these folks that don’t meet the traditional and preconceived notions of what a “hacker” is supposed to be.

As a hiring manager myself, when a resume comes through I want to see what a person can do and how they think, regardless of their education background or work history. I want to be an example for other hiring managers because we are the ones that need to make the space and put people in the roles.

What advice would you give to women who want to enter the technology industry?

Harlie: Start somewhere and try it. Take a course at your local college, go online, buy a textbook, or use free resources like YouTube and blogs. Or start with a “Hello, World!” program just to see if you can do it.

Pilar: I know it’s easier said than done, and it’s kind of terrifying, but put yourself out there. If you find a meetup, go to it and meet people who are doing things. Ask for help, ask for advice – a lot of people will be very excited to talk about it and give you everything they can to make your path easier.

Rainbow: We live in a time where we have access to the single greatest repository of human knowledge ever compiled. The resources are out there and I know that it’s daunting, but I firmly believe that you can do it.

I’m going to speak to the women and non-binary folks that might be reading this right now: I believe in you and know you can do it. Even if no one else is championing you right now, I believe in you, I am championing you, I want to see you succeed. So please put yourself out there! I can’t mentor or bring light to every single voice, but I’m trying my hardest, and I want to call on more folks to do the same.

Anything else before we go?

Pilar: We were talking about how there’s a trend that, because of having to find your voice and create a presence, women in security tend to go for really bright hair colors. The three of us here are examples of that.

Rainbow: Dr. Julie Percival coined the term “competency hair” – the feminine equivalent of the competency beard. We all know the greybeards at the Unix conferences – they’ve got Gandalf beards down to their toes and the longer your beard is, the more you know, or so it goes. So wildly dyed hair is the feminine equivalent. Most of us who are women or identify feminine can’t, or don’t want to, grow a beard, so we had to find another way of standing out!

It was an absolute pleasure to host this interview, and a privilege to work alongside leaders like Harlie, Pilar, and Rainbow. We hope that sharing more stories about women in leadership will help to inspire other organizations to actively address representation issues and create space for more women and non-binary folks to succeed in privacy and security.

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