The Only Woman in the Room

Usa Sangchantrarin, Systems Engineer GSI, JAPAC

Usa

I started my journey with Palo Alto Networks in October 2020 as a GSI Systems Engineer supporting the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region. My main responsibility is to work with our GSI partners and customers to accelerate their security transformation through Palo Alto Networks’ comprehensive portfolio of technologies and expertise. It’s my pleasure to join one of the fastest growing and most innovative cybersecurity companies in the world.

My Cybersecurity Journey

Two decades in cybersecurity – a male-dominated industry — has rewarded me with invaluable personal and professional experiences in life, from being the only female in a boardroom with military generals to having a husband working for a cybersecurity competitor. I grew up in a family that upheld a typical Asian culture and beliefs. I still remember the day when I gave my mom a shock by saying that I wanted to be an engineer.  She replied, “That’s a man’s job. Why would you want to do that?” She then tried to persuade me to become a lawyer or a doctor instead.  Clearly, that was a failed attempt.  

Now that I am an adult professional, I am in a cybersecurity family.  My husband and I both work in the cybersecurity space. In fact, there was an interesting time when we were competitors bidding for the same project. That’s when we introduced a ground rule at home to completely avoid talking about work. I can’t imagine how we would manage such a situation during Covid-19 when we are both working from home. Trying to manage the same deal without leaking information while in the same house would definitely have interesting implications for arranging conference calls, remote discussions, etc.

 For the past two decades in this field, I have been exploring the many aspects of cybersecurity, from being a network security engineer to a cybersecurity consultant, to a technology risk-management professional, to, now, a security architect. It’s true that in almost every engineering team I have been part of, I have been either the only woman or just one of two women. This lack of gender diversity becomes really apparent when I attend large-scale cybersecurity events where men make up the majority of attendees.  

As I mentioned earlier, being a woman in tech is rewarding personally and professionally. For the past 10 years, my job has required me to travel more than 50 percent of my time. Travelling has been an eye opener for me. I have gotten to meet with many people from diverse industries and backgrounds, especially in the past five years. My account manager and I were assigned to grow the business and partner ecosystem in emerging countries such as Myanmar, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Vietnam. There were multiple interesting situations in which I found myself. 

One of the most memorable of these situations was when I was the only female in a war room with my customers — a group of security experts from the Ministry of Defence. Everyone in the war room was in their uniform discussing a security incident. My role in that meeting was to become a trusted advisor and help them handle the incident and escalation to the forensic investigation team (if required). In such situations, it’s important to establish your leadership presence in the room and get your voice heard. We hear women say that they feel less effective in meetings than they do in other professional situations. Others say that their voices are ignored or drowned out. 

So what can we do?  We can’t afford to sit back and wait for someone to ask for our opinions. Instead, we need to empower ourselves and learn strategies and techniques to make ourselves heard.  One useful trick is to overcome your lifetime of negative inner talk and use a confident tone to communicate in a short and precise manner. Put your main point up front and follow it with precise supporting details. Women tend to use too many words in an attempt to soften what we are saying or avoid coming across as aggressive. This tends to distract your audience from the main message. And this makes you less effective in appearing as the subject-matter expert who can provide them with a confident action plan to resolve a problem. 

In my opinion, cybersecurity is an amazing field for women.  There are so many opportunities, and the careers are so diverse. Women are definitely an asset to the industry, and I would strongly encourage women to seek out the many career opportunities in the field.