Women in Tech: “The clear advantage of women in tech is workplace diversity”
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 Tanja Hofmann, Pre-Sales Engineer at McAfee.
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?
Today’s Woman in Tech: Tanja Hofmann, Pre-Sales Engineer at McAfee
Tanja Hofmann holds a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Hamburg with a focus on system and infrastructure security. She is a pre-sales engineer at McAfee and works with well-known German customers. She started her career in firewall and encryption, spent some time with network analysis techniques, but always loved security. Tanja has been working with McAfee Endpoint Security since day one of the product release. In her client work, she helps to update and optimize the security infrastructure. This includes not only upgrades to next-generation security technologies, but also strategic planning with the customer in order to live the security lifecycle.
When did you become interested in technology?
I had a computer relatively early (the C64 age), we had computer classes in school and I was always more a math/physics/technology type, found dolls to be stupid, and Kettcars to be great. So I think that it comes very much from self-interest. In my senior high school year I then went to a technical school, and there I got in touch with electrical engineering and computer science. That’s also where my wish to study civil engineering came up, but in the end it turned out to be computer science.
I understood relatively quickly that IT will be a topic of the future.
I was lucky that there was a focus on computer security at the University of Hamburg early on – a topic that interested me from an early age. So already back then we discussed the dangers of the internet, how much IT is in airplanes, and how much IT is being used in hospitals. I relatively quickly realized that this was going to be a topic for the future, and then I stayed in this area. At that time there was the so-called Virus Test Center (VTC) at the university. Here, under Professor Brunnstein, the university started to carry out AV tests at an early stage. Through this way, it was possible to get into contact with the manufacturers of the products relatively quickly. Even back then, it was difficult to find specialists — certainly not as extreme as today — but even then, companies were looking for new blood at the university and the VTC provided good contacts. I then started a student job at “Dr. Solomon’s Software”, one of the first manufacturers of AV software. At that time there were signature updates on floppy disks and they were sent out once a week. A lot of things have changed in this regard.
Did you receive support from your family and friends? Do you have a role model?
For the most part, my professor certainly supported me at that time. There were only about ten women in my course of studies and I was the only one in the field of computer security. Due to the popularity of my professor (computer security was not yet a very common topic in the mid-90s), there were visits from the press every time there was an incident, such as a malware outbreak or a plane crash. Since students were also wanted for comments or interviews, I was usually present. Later it was my American boss who always encouraged me to move towards technical pre-sales. But there weren’t any specific female role models.
A day in Tanja’s life
I’m a pre-sales engineer at McAfee. The product portfolio is very large, so you can work on many different topics and cover many parts of the IT security requirements. The job has many different designations in the industry, but is usually abbreviated as SE – meaning Sales Engineer or Systems Engineer or Security Engineer. The primary task of an SE is to advise customers on technical issues and evaluate products together with the customer. As an SE, you have no directly regulated working hours and are often on the road, as direct and personal customer support is an important point. My former boss once said that as an SE you have to be 40 percent technician, 40 percent salesperson and 20 percent entertainer. I think that describes it quite well!
I focus on those topics that currently concern the industry.
I haven’t developed anything myself yet. It was clear to me relatively early on that programming is not my thing. I focus on those issues that are currently concerning the industry and on developing the (hopefully!) good relationship with our customers.
Why aren’t there more women in the tech industry?
I believe that our old education system is still haunting us and the reason for that is because we don’t see a lot of women in technical professions. Technical subjects used to be more of a boys thing and many girls felt intimidated by this and developed a kind of self fulfilling prophecy, in the sense of “these are technical or mathematical subjects, I’m certainly not good at that, that’s more for boys”. Fortunately, that has changed. There are more and more initiatives in the education system that motivate girls to specialize in technical and scientific subjects, and that from a young age. So it is important that girls do not grow up thinking that these subjects are only for boys. As this was unfortunately often the case in the past, we now see relatively few women in IT.
How would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?
The advantage of having more women in the tech industry is clearly a team diversity in the workplace. Different ideas and approaches are essential, especially concerning problem solving and teamwork. Teams benefit from diversity, especially in the areas of threat hunting and innovation. It is a pity that women in tech are always portrayed as something special. There are so many other fields where women and men have exactly the same jobs and nobody questions who is doing better. The answer, however, is: yes, many areas would benefit from diversity in teams and more women represent a clear advantage in the field of innovation.
Currently, however, awareness of the diversity topic must be further promoted.
I hope that the diversity debate will soon be history! Otherwise, we will always wonder whether women get certain jobs only because companies have to meet a quota. Currently, however, awareness of the topic must be further promoted so that we reach a point in some time, where quotas are no longer necessary. As already mentioned, there are many initiatives that are driving the diversity debate forward. At McAfee, for example, there is the “Return to Work” program, which makes it easier for employees to return to work after a parental leave.
The program ensures that employees can be professionally and successfully reintegrated into the daily work routine and their career path. McAfee has also launched the WISE initiative – Women in Security. WISE empowers women in the IT security industry through personalized support at every career level. As part of the initiative, regular networking events are held to facilitate the exchange of ideas between women in the industry. In the long term, this type of initiative will soon make the diversity debate obsolete.
Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?
Actually, nobody has put any obstacles in my way and today it is even easier than it was back then. After my bachelor’s degree, I went to university in the USA for a semester. Here you don’t learn much technical stuff in that short time, but you learn the language. Since English is an absolute must in the IT industry, it also gave me a lot of self-confidence.
I sometimes feel that a woman must first prove herself.
It is always amusing when I go to the customer together with a sales colleague – two women in IT who want to sell something technical. Especially at management appointments, where the “older” generation is often still represented, I sometimes get the feeling that a woman has to prove herself first. This is usually not a problem with SOC appointments, because the employees there are younger. But it is getting better. There used to be a lot more prejudices. Here I would have several examples, but all of them are already far in the past. The picture has changed a lot in the last 5 to 7 years.
What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career?
The tech industry is definitely an area with a future and job security. The industry will always develop, so you don’t have a boring job. And with the current skills shortage, finding a job shouldn’t be a problem. But you also have to realize that this is not a classic 9 to 5 job where you have done your job at 5 pm on the dot. I think the start is always a bit of a matter of luck, you can only “learn” SE to a limited extent, although this also develops positively.
More Women in Tech:
- Women in Tech: “Join meetups and other women tech groups”
- Women in Tech: “Degrees can matter but they aren’t required”
- Women in Tech: “The IT sector requires a lot of energy and will”
- Women in Tech: “I got to be a self-taught, self-managed, problem solver”
- Women in Tech: “Don’t let irrational advice keep you from tech!”