Empowering young women to overcome the ‘STEM cliff’

18 Oct 2018

Dinah Davis. Image: Arctic Wolf Networks

By day, Dinah Davis develops security solutions with Arctic Wolf. By night, she promotes gender diversity in STEM with Code Like a Girl.

Dinah Davis is vice-president of research and development at Arctic Wolf Networks. She is also the founder and CEO at Code Like a Girl, whose goal is to change society’s perceptions of how women are viewed in the technology industry, and empower girls to choose technology careers and become leaders.

Davis has more than 16 years of experience with industry leaders such as Communications Security Establishment Canada, BlackBerry, Trustwave and D2L. She holds a master’s of mathematics in cryptography from the University of Waterloo and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Lethbridge.

‘Security is everyone’s problem and everyone is vulnerable to attack’

Describe your role and what you do.

As Arctic Wolf’s vice-president of research and development, I’m responsible for the direction, operation and scaling of the development team. My job is to direct the development team’s attention, remove blockers from their way, and get clarification from the product team and the rest of the organisation on what they want us to build to enhance our security operations centre (SOC)-as-a-service solution.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

In addition to building the platform for our global CyberSOC service at Arctic Wolf Networks, I also founded a volunteer-based organisation called Code Like a Girl and I am a mother of one amazing girl. With this many moving pieces, I find that keeping detailed notes is key and I couldn’t do this without Google Inbox and Google Reminders.

I’ve also surrounded myself with a strong team and delegated work to managers, whom I can rely on to accomplish more than I could do alone, on time and without sacrificing quality.

I also find it helpful to leave certain windows of time for various aspects of my life – for example, 6pm to 8pm is my family time and then, once my daughter is in bed, I spend my evening on Code Like a Girl.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

In the world of security, attackers are always trying to get a step ahead of both our clients and us, so, in order to stop them, we have to be constantly evolving and growing at the same speed and sophistication. At Arctic Wolf, we accomplish this by establishing strong, secure networks for our clients, monitoring for abnormal activity and providing guidance when there is a potential threat. I keep our detection capabilities up to speed by managing and optimising our teams’ workflow efficiency.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Security is everyone’s problem and everyone is vulnerable to attack. Unfortunately, large portions of businesses have nothing in terms of security. To add to the problem, there is a wide talent gap, resulting in not enough talent to support the security challenges facing our world. This makes hiring internal security staff not only difficult, but also pricey for organisations.

We’re solving that problem for big and small clients alike by providing a cost-effective security solution and external support team that monitors, networks and integrates with their teams, so they can focus their resources and staff on revenue-generating business operations.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

Growing up, I always loved mathematics and early on I discovered that computer science was a fun and different way of leveraging mathematics. It uses the same logic, just a different syntax. As I progressed in my studies, I realised that cryptography and cybersecurity were not only the perfect mix of computer science and mathematics, but also fast-growing fields that would provide an abundance of opportunities.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

My biggest mistake happened early in my career when I wanted to leave a company so badly that I jumped into another role that was far worse. This meant entering a culture in which I was treated very poorly and encountered sexism and misogyny on a daily basis. The experience made me realise the need for an open conversation around the issues in STEM to ensure no one else had to end up in a situation like me, and thus led to the creation of Code Like a Girl.

Now, I really do the due diligence to understand where I’m going and what the company’s values are. I assess every company, not just by what the job offers and what the technology is, but also by asking myself, ‘Would I be happy to work here?’ Part of that happiness requires a culture that is supportive of women in technology and supportive of me running an organisation such as Code Like a Girl – a mix I’m happy to have found at Arctic Wolf.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Development teams are intrinsically motivated to work on innovative technology and solve hard problems. I motivate my team by feeding this desire to build the latest and greatest tools, and making sure they are always challenged. It’s important to me as a team lead to facilitate my team’s workflow by removing any obstacles, such as unnecessary processes, and providing necessary toolsets.

Most importantly, your team must have a strong and open environment where they feel comfortable bouncing around ideas and building each other up. For every bad thing that is said to them, high-performance teams need to hear seven good things. Team lunches and events can also cultivate an environment that motivates the employees to come to the office and bond through work with their friends.

Other ways you can run a high-performance team include keeping morale high, empowering developers to make their own decisions, hiring smart people to do their jobs and not micromanaging them.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

I created a whole organisation to deal with the problem of gender diversity in my sector. It is key that we empower women from a young age to overcome the ‘STEM cliff’ – a decrease in STEM engagement that we statistically observe in women from middle-school ages through the mid-20s. Men, women, parents and teachers can do three concrete things to empower girls in STEM and be more inclusive:

  1. Expose girls to technology and coding before they are 10 years old. This will give them exposure to the area to see if they like it.
  2. Introduce them to local and international woman who have had successful careers in tech.
  3. Enrol them in a club outside of school where they can find other girls who also think tech is cool. It may not be cool at school, but with this group they can get excited about tech and encourage each other to build cool things.
Who is your role model and why?

All the women and men that write for my publication, Code Like a Girl. I’m blown away every day by the articles that they write about their achievements, struggles and ideas to make it better, all of which inspire the next generation of women in technology. Not only are they helping others grow their careers, but they have also provided me with a group that I pull from as a mentor on a consistent basis.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I’ve read some really good books lately, but the one that stands out the most is The Phoenix Project. It is a novel by Gene Kim about IT DevOps and helping your business win by providing tips on successfully running an organisation in this industry.

Another one that I would recommend for any women in business is A Uterus is a Feature not a Bug: The Working Woman’s Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy by Sarah Lacy.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

My essential tools are questions. I ask my team a lot of questions to find out what is actually happening on their current projects and also in their personal life, to ensure there is a level of comfort and closeness that is necessary in any strong work environment. While it may not be a physical tool or the traditional response, it is the number-one thing I couldn’t do my job without.

More traditional tools that I rely on daily are instant messaging  – email is dead – and the Trello board we use at Code Like a Girl to manage stories for editing.

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