From computer club to cyber security

21st April 2020

Laura Askew

Laura Askew
Information Security Officer

I joined Nominet in January to take on a new role of Information Security Officer, working with our Chief Information Security Officer, Cath Goulding. Basically, we’re the people who keep the business secure, which can include everything from testing systems and networks to reviewing and assessing new products or potential acquisitions. We report to the executive team, letting them know the status of our work and flagging anything of possible concern. We also work with everyone in the company, trying to inspire them to be as a secure as they can be, which involves explaining risks and sharing the best way to keep themselves, and the company, safe.

It certainly wasn’t my dream to have a job like this when I was a child. In fact, my earliest ambition was to be a flower! I soon realised that was impossible, so I adopted my older brother’s ambition to be in the police – a job he now does. I was comfortably mediocre at most subjects at school and didn’t really have any burning interests or ideas about my future. I only became interested in computing when I joined an after-school computer club – and I only joined that because my friends were keen, I actually wasn’t that interested. However, I soon found I was pretty good at it and we even won a few national awards as a team, which persuaded me to apply for work experience with an IT department at one of the local colleges. I loved that, and suddenly found I knew where I was headed: IT.

As I went to an all-girls school, it had never occurred to me that there was anything odd about girls studying computer science. By the time I was in higher education I was comfortable with my choices, so it didn’t bother me that there was a massive and rather obvious gender imbalance in my subject. On the GNVQ course, there were just three girls to about 20 boys. At university, of the 250 students who started on the degree course, just three were women. There was a high drop-out rate for our course, but all three of us girls lasted the course and graduated.

I loved studying computer science at university and found I could really understand it and enjoy it. We learnt so many interesting things, like programming and AI – although AI back in the late 90s was a bit different to today. The course also included a year out in industry and my placement was with a large pharmaceutical company. It was such a great opportunity to see how computer science was used in the real world and – even better – the company offered me a job when I graduated.

I’ve been working in cyber security ever since and have always found it fascinating. No two days are ever the same – it’s always changing and challenging, forcing you to keep learning; you can’t just rest on your laurels. I think that’s the reason I’m still working in the thick of it today. Back in the early 2000s, ‘cyber security’ was building firewalls and checking content. It’s certainly not that straightforward now. The tools, the nature of the threats and the amount of rigour you need to apply have evolved at pace. There’s also been a shift in the way a business understands and recognises cyber security. Today, it is increasingly seen as a business function, but for a long time we were just those annoying people in the IT department trying to stop people doing things – always for a good reason though.

To take on a role like mine, you need to be inquisitive and precise, curious to understand how things work but also driven to find the solutions to complex problems. There’s such satisfaction in discovering why something isn’t working as you expect it to, then fixing it. I’m incredibly pedantic and worry a lot about the ‘what ifs’, which of course is rather perfect for this job. You need to think about what might happen so you can prepare for it, just in case. Communication skills are crucial too because we often need to explain complex technical details to people who might not have any experience of things like that.

At Nominet, I work four days a week because I have a young son. He’s only 18 months and I needed some flexibility to ensure my job at Nominet worked for us as a family too.. I was surprised and delighted that all this was understood by Nominet so readily. There’s a great attitude to employees’ families here and being able to adjust your hours for childcare is not seen as a privilege you have to ‘earn’ as it can be in some places.

Being a woman in the very male tech industry hasn’t stopped my career progression. I think I’ve been lucky to have been valued and promoted by my managers because I was able, regardless of my gender. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had my fair share of unpleasantness from the occasional colleague in previous companies. Thankfully, things have moved on a lot since then, plus I never let the odd incident restrict or limit my own work in any way. You just ignore the small-mindedness and do your best regardless.

My advice to any young woman thinking about a career in tech? If you like problem solving and puzzles, and getting under the skin of things, you’ll love cyber security. But keep your options wide open and try every aspect of tech that you can, as you never know what you might discover you like or are good at. Following my friends to a computing club is the only reason I am where I am today. Try new things – it could change everything.

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