Earlier this year, the Gurus caught up with Ilona Simpson, CIO EMEA at Netskope, to talk all things wellbeing in cybersecurity for The Cyber Mindfulness Corner. What transpired during our short Infosecurity Europe interview was that Ilona had a wealth of valuable industry knowledge and insight to share. So, we caught up with Ilona again to discuss her journey to the top, diversity in cybersecurity, and banishing the boy’s club.
On Herself and Her Rise to the Top
When Ilona describes herself, she says: “I’ve been in IT for 20 years. I’ve been in executive teams of very famous and admirable companies. I have two kids and a lovely husband… I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I’m a chef, I’m a cleaner… That’s it, you’re not going to get a façade.”
When it comes to family, Simpson notes that she once felt “awkward” telling people she was a mother. But it gave her the will to take a risk and try different jobs that hadn’t fitted into her career progression until then.
Simpson was born and raised “in the slums of the Soviet Union”. She emigrated to Germany at 21, without knowing the language, but with a “desire and longing to connect, to be part of something, and to succeed.” She gained a degree in psychology and then did a masters. And succeed she did.
As Simpson moved up the ranks in various corporate companies she realised that she was doing increasingly more but being taken away from tech: “it’s strategy, it’s people, it’s stakeholder management, it’s influencing, it’s having a vision – but you move away from tech.” And tech, she notes, is something that interests her a lot. She came to Netskope to “be where the magic is happening,” so that she could “influence many organisations, not just one.”
On Authenticity, the Key to Success
The key to her successful career? Authenticity, especially as you make your career as an “odd one out”.
“As someone who wanted to change the culture, and also with the psychology background, [I’ve learnt] that if you’re respectful of the other people you talk to and interact with, you mirror them. That’s active listening in psychology. I genuinely wanted people to listen to what I had to say and not look at what I look like. Be prepared that people will judge.”
She also notes her work with start-ups as integral to her career, from mentoring to investing. “Education is a bit of a passion. I love learning and teaching.” Not only this, Simpson credits being mentored by others as a big part of her success: “If you reach out to people, chances are they will not say no.”
One piece of advice she offers is that she would “be more intentional about picking [her] bosses. Are they someone who would be helping you grow? Because we need to go into the unknown sooner or later.”
“I have a love/hate relationship with the topic of women in tech,” Simpson notes. Given that Simpson’s credentials are far more impressive than her gender, I wondered if the very topic of being a woman in cybersecurity was growing tiresome. Naturally, you don’t want your gender to define a job that you’re clearly more than capable of and equipped to do. “I’m shifting the discussion,” she replied. “We need to smarten up as women.”
Ilona has recently joined the board of the Forte Group. The Forte Group is an advocacy and education non-profit organisation, started out of RSA security conference as a networking group for women in cybersecurity. Over time, the community has grown and become, according to their website, a ‘source for sharing, inspiration, learning and celebration.’
Simpson says: “there’s not a mention of a woman, the mission is to step-up cybersecurity. Let’s get more of us in front of an audience. Let’s amplify our voices. It’s amplifying speaking opportunities, job opportunities.”
Community, for Simpson, is key. She’s also created a WhatsApp group for female CIOs: “we are here for each other.”
On Victimhood and Cybersecurity Myth Busting
“Can we stop telling ourselves those stories that perpetuate victimhood, that perpetuate inequality? Let’s get in front of people. If I don’t talk, people don’t hear.”
She says that we need to move away our focus from STEM when it comes to getting more women into cybersecurity. “I have a masters in psychology and I was CIO of the world’s most desirable companies. We must stop the narrative that we have to study certain things. We need to be curious. You have to have the wheel inside of you, that insatiable thirst for knowledge. Be curious of how things work. How can they work better? Be driven to have an impact. People do what they do.”
For many organisations, tick-box board rooms and quotas have become the norm – for better or worse. About quotas, Simpson notes: “The dream is that we are genderless. The thing with quotas is, is it giving women the opportunities to rise and shine where they wouldn’t have otherwise? Yes. Are there cases where utterly incompetent women get to the top and it actually perpetuates the the wrong belief that we are less capable? Yes. As a woman, make the most out of it for yourself. As an organisation, be careful who you pick. Never fall for the quota. Make sure make sure you go for the best person for the job.”
Is there still a boy’s club attitude? “Oh yeah, but there’s also a girl’s club.”
Finally, I asked Ilona, If you were to start again, what would you say to yourself? “Pick your own boardroom. Pick the people and seek out the mentors. For organisations, take mentorship further, make it sponsorship.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”