Women in Tech: “Security is about identifying and nurturing curiosity”
Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Three years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Lena Smart, Chief Security Officer, MongoDB.
A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?
Three years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Lena Smart, Chief Security Officer, MongoDB.
Today’s Woman in Tech: Lena Smart, Chief Security Officer, MongoDB
Lena joined MongoDB with more than 20 years of cyber security experience. Before joining MongoDB, she was the Global Chief Information Security Officer for the international fintech company, Tradeweb, where she was responsible for all aspects of cybersecurity. She also served as CIO and Chief Security Officer for the New York Power Authority, the largest state power organization in the country, where she was responsible for physical and cyber security. She also has previously served as a Sector Chief with FBI InfraGard. Lena is a founding partner of Cybersecurity at MIT Sloan, formerly the Interdisciplinary Consortium for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity, which allows security leaders in academia and the private sector to collaborate on tackling the most challenging security issues.
When did you become interested in technology?
Well, where do I start?
I guess you could argue that my career started when I was 16 right after I left high school. I was working as an Office Junior at a Law Firm. From then on I had various different jobs including in Her Majesty’s Civil Service in the UK.
It wasn’t until I was about 21 that I really fell in love with technology. It was at this time that I bought my very own Amstrad 1640. It was a huge expense and it took me two whole years to save for it! I went on to teach myself how to use computers and had various bosses who saw my aptitude for self-learning and encouraged me to learn about technology, the internet, networks, etc.
Years later I found my love of technology driving my career and I enrolled in my first full-time security role at New York Power Authority – the largest state power organization in the country. Here, I was CIO and CISO, responsible for many aspects of technology including cyber security, and overseeing a team of more than 250.
Following my time at the Power Authority, I joined an international fintech company, Tradeweb, as its Global Chief Information Security Officer. As you can probably tell, most of my roles over the past 25 years have had a modicum of security involvement. After Tradeweb, I then went on to start my dream role at MongoDB in March 2019.
Did you receive support from your family and friends? Do you have a role model?
Oh yes! All of the time but no one person stands out in particular. I’ve been blessed with bosses who have supported my learning and gave me training and time to explore the security world.
I’ve been blessed with bosses who have supported my learning and gave me training and time to explore the security world.
A day in Lena’s life
Today, I oversee MongoDB’s ongoing security efforts that include industry-leading standards for products and services and educational efforts around security best practices. I am responsible for growing MongoDB’s global security team and evolving the company’s security approach to match ever-changing threat vectors in both the on-premise and cloud database environments. No two days are the same – especially now!
I am also responsible for Governance, Risk, and Compliance and find that role very interesting as it allows me to put my auditor training to good use!
I would say, however, that the most important part of my role is mentoring my team. I thoroughly enjoy watching everyone in my team grow and tackling the challenges head-on. I consider our 2,000+ employees to be my customers and it’s my job to foster and develop a security-conscious culture. While everyone at MongoDB may not work directly on the security team, it’s important we incorporate good security hygiene into every aspect of our daily work to ensure a seamless business environment.
What are you most proud of in your career?
Becoming CISO at MongoDB! Honestly! This is an amazing place to work, and I’ve been given the chance to build a world-class security team at one of the most exciting companies on the planet. Who wouldn’t love that opportunity?!
Why aren’t there more women in tech?
As writer Clive Thompson notes in his book Coders, 1984 was a highpoint in terms of women pursuing a computer science bachelor’s degree—37% of all student coders were female. This was twice as much as the participation rate for women a decade before, however, it did not stay like this and instead experienced a tremendous dropoff of women due to how personal computers and coding were portrayed and marketed by the media.
Prior to 1984, every student who showed up for a programming course on a college campus was likely interacting with a computer for the first time. As the growth in personal computers erupted this changed in the 1980s. Personal computers became heavily marketed towards boys. Whether explicitly told or not, girls were repeatedly reminded that computers were something not for them.
In our world today, technical literacy is vital. Our lives are dominated by software no matter what industry we work in and chances are we likely don’t understand how that software works. Given how cloud computing is shaping technology and the future of work, every person needs to be technologically literate even if they work in adjacent fields. I believe this is driving many leaders to reconsider how they introduce young audiences to STEM activities to nurture that curiosity earlier, rather than ignoring it.
Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?
Companies can do a better job of nurturing talent and partnering with outside organizations for recruitment purposes. It’s also important to invest in your employees’ career growth by providing training opportunities specific to each employee. Showing your employees that you’re committed to helping them grow in their careers ultimately will help you recruit a diverse workforce that accurately resembles your user base.
Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?
It is fundamentally important that all companies are diverse – right across the board. Diversity in the workplace manifests itself in building a great reputation for the company, leading to increased profitability and opportunities for all. No matter who you are – you’ll bring your own unique traits to every company you work for.
Cybersecurity lends itself naturally to diversity. The more diverse your team gives you a better experience of understanding potential attacking motives and scenarios.
The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?
I can’t speak for the industry, but at MongoDB, we believe that actions speak louder than words. In cybersecurity it’s important to remember, this is a very young industry — one that didn’t even exist until a couple of decades ago and there is a broader talent pool, you just need to look in the right places.
Cybersecurity lends itself naturally to diversity. The more diverse your team gives you a better experience of understanding potential attacking motives and scenarios. For my team at MongoDB, we’ve hired folks externally to join the security team and we’ve also had current employees transition in.
Security especially is about identifying and nurturing curiosity within people. I never experienced it before getting an opportunity to try my hand at infosec, but found out I loved it and had a natural aptitude for it. I enjoy helping people realize that. Then we’re able to help train them up so they can apply that curiosity to enabling our team.
What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career?
First of all, you should start as early as possible and get a feeling for tech and security. See if it is something for you.
And then simply gather experience. Inside jobs, work experience, internships – you name it. The more the merrier. Learn, learn, and learn some more. By doing so, your interests will become focused and you can pursue your dreams in a much more targeted way.
Oh and one final thing: don’t ever listen to those people who say you can’t do something. Go out and get it!
More Women in Tech:
- Women in Tech: “What’s important is that my work is positively influencing the world”
- Women in Tech: “80% of all jobs are never posted publicly”
- Women in Tech: “Women have been able to bring a new perspective to the tech industry”
- Women in Tech: “Take responsibility and ownership for your own growth”
- Women in Tech: “Celebrate your wins, big and little”