By Cynthia Hetherington
I have always looked up to my father. He still is my go-to guy when I have questions on business, life, and construction. He ran an electrical contracting firm right from my house, and my brother, years ahead of me, became a summer apprentice when he hit his teens, so I thought I would follow in his footsteps, but my dad said, “no.” My 12-year-old inquisitive self retorted: “But my brother is, so why can’t I?”
My father’s jobs were often in dangerous parts of town, and he didn’t feel it was safe for me to accompany them. While he has always cherished and supported me, my father has also been deeply protective of me. And truth be told, I really wasn’t mature enough to handle the manual labor required of the position. My adult self recognizes this was the right call—but explain a strong-willed young girl who just wanted to make a few bucks and hang with her big brother and dad. My father’s “no” was probably the best gift he ever gave me, as it put a chip on my shoulder.
Little did I know his words would ignite a fire in belly—one that didn’t take flame until well into my twenties … when I took a job as a stage electrician. For several years, I walked around with that chip on my shoulder. I was a dedicated co-worker, but I grew aggravated, because I was female and stood out from my coworkers. So, I did what many aggravated women do: I complained to my mother. She wasn’t having it and gave me the best advice I ever received: “You can do anything you want, if only you try for what you want and grasp what you get.” Mom explained that competing with the men is noble—but not always the best use of my skills—and to consider my education more seriously. In other words, work with my brains and not with my attitude. Both parents saw that chip on my shoulder, but they knew how to direct my energy and, at just the right moment, point me towards a path that was best. They set me on fire!
And I got curious—curious about what other professional opportunities were waiting to be discovered. My nose led me to the world of library science, a field heavily dominated by women (82.1%), whose average annual salaries are roughly $7,000 less than their male counterparts. As it turns out, being curious is quite useful as a public librarian. One day, a man walked into my New Jersey public library and asked for help classifying poisons. I got curious: Was he an author needing help with his antagonist’s modus operandi?
This gentleman introduced me to the world of private investigating. He was a PI, whose client suspected her husband of trying to kill her. Fueled with a passion for information technology long before Google, I scoured the internet and discovered a forensic scientists’ listserv which provided him with the information he needed to prove his client’s husband was indeed trying to kill her.
My early adventures in cyber investigations helped save a woman’s life and put a man behind bars. For me, curiosity led me to where I am today: A CEO of my own cyber investigations and intelligence firm. I am forever grateful to that gentleman, because he set me on a new and fulfilling career path.
It was then and still is a profession primarily dominated by men, but I am committed to help change that. I was fortunate to have several male mentors who looked beyond my gender and encouraged me professionally—highlighting that communication between men and women is key to increasing women in the security sector. Following in their footsteps, I have stepped into the role of mentor to young women, inspiring them to get curious about cybersecurity and information technology. There is something magical about working with aspiring girls—they are eager, inquisitive, supportive of each other, and unafraid to fail.
And when they do, that’s where mentors come in. We lift our mentees up, dust them off, and encourage them to try and grasp what they set their minds to do. One of my most favorite aspects of my professional life is speaking with young girls, listening to their dreams, and inspiring them to get curious. A few days after I gave a keynote for the 2018-2019 Aspirations in Computing Awards, sponsored by NCWIT and hosted by CybHER at Dakota State University, I received an email from one of the awardees. She had failed several times at her school’s IT competition and felt like giving up. Here’s what she wrote:
Let’s just say you were the swift kick in the pants I needed to stop feeling defeated and to keep trying. I created new goals and wrote them down. They’re in a place where I see them every day. I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for reminding me that hard work will get me farther in this field than talent or dumb luck. Thank you for showing me I don’t want free handouts, or my hand held to get the success I want. Thank you for reigniting that fire in my gut. Thank you for saying what I needed to hear.
Her words were touching, because I had shared similar feelings to my mentor many years ago, when I, too, felt defeated and wanted to give up. I am forever grateful for those who came before me and for those who helped me along the way to be where I am now. I am humbled by this young girl’s strengths and commitment. I am honored to know her and to encourage her.
My advice to women in my profession: Get curious about how you can get involved in mentoring young girls and young women about the vast possibilities cybersecurity and information technology have to offer them! As Andie Kramer wrote for Forbes Magazine in July 2021, COVID-19 has increased women’s needs for mentoring relationships. She cited data from a recent study which showed that “mentors and mentees feel empowered by the relationship and reported greater confidence and career satisfaction.” With that in mind, I encourage you to celebrate National Mentoring Month by committing to becoming a mentor in 2021.
Here are a few places to explore, engage, and learn more about becoming a mentor this year:
- The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) “leverages the skills and experiences of professionals with diverse backgrounds to further their mission and make sustainable change.”
- Mentoring Her “breaks down the barriers of access that girls and women face by creating a powerful network that empowers them to succeed through connections, communication and community.”
- Women in STEM Mentoring Program’s mission is to “cultivate mentoring relationships that provide women with guidance, support and community connections.”
- Million Women Mentors’ mission is to “encourage girls and women to pursue, persist, and thrive in STEM careers.”
Cynthia Hetherington, MLS, MSM, CFE, CII is the founder and president of Hetherington Group, a consulting, publishing, and training firm that leads in due diligence, corporate intelligence, and cyber investigations by keeping pace with the latest security threats and assessments. She has authored three books on how to conduct investigations, is the publisher of the newsletter, Data2know: Internet and Online Intelligence, and annually trains thousands of investigators, security professionals, attorneys, accountants, auditors, military intelligence professionals, and federal, state, and local agencies on best practices in the public and private sectors.