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Talking openly about diversity, equity, and inclusion, “especially when it’s most uncomfortable”, is a priority for Kavitha Mariappan at Zscaler.

“As part of the executive leadership team, I feel it is my responsibility to be the megaphone to tell the story and to agitate for change,” she says.

This is precisely what Mariappan has been doing at US cybersecurity company Zscaler since she joined four years ago as EVP of Customer Experience and Transformation. As well as chairing the Diversity & Inclusion Committee, she is the executive sponsor of Women in Zscaler Engage (WIZE), one of six employee resource groups (ERGs) to help employees from diverse backgrounds to develop and advance their careers.

“There was a time when I never talked about diversity because I didn’t want to be the diverse person in the room,” she recalls. “I even tried to play golf [to fit in]. I found that so tedious. It was not my thing. So, I realised I had to be authentic. I am who I am, and my whole self might be uncomfortable for people, but that’s who I’m going to bring to work.”

Self-advocacy

Being authentic is part of her personal brand and is one of the key attributes that Mariappan extols for women wanting to develop a career in technology. Besides being good at the job, the other essential requirements were to take a seat at the table and network.

“Sometimes the seat might not be available, and you may have to find ways of taking it. That may include self-advocacy if no one will advocate for you,” she argues. “Networking is key. You get the best jobs by networking. But many women can’t go for that beer, cocktail or whatever roundtable is happening after work; they have to go home and raise a family.”

Women who achieve leadership positions should then be able to help other talented females advance.

In her current role, Mariappan reports directly to Zscaler’s CEO, Chairman and Co-founder, Jay Chaudhry. She drives transformation and innovation across all facets of the company’s cloud security business, including its customers, strategy, products and operations.

As well as a core team, there’s an extended team comprising former customers at CIO, CISO and CTO levels with their respective companies. Their role is to provide “thought leadership and get in the trenches” to help new customers overcome the challenges they face through massive-scale IT and digital transformation, including transforming their security with Zscaler.

Career development

Despite the cybersecurity industry being a mainly male environment, and therefore few female role models at the senior level, Mariappan is pleased to report that Zscaler’s set-up has enabled her to broaden her knowledge and supported her career development.

“It’s one of those egalitarian, collegiate places where we flatten our structures, roll up our sleeves and are constantly learning,” she explains. “And that comes from the top down. Our CEO is constantly noodling and thinking of new ideas and ways to improve and never be complacent.

“He’s like a kindred spirit, and to be able to work for somebody like that, who challenges me and empowers me to do those things in my function, has enabled me to grow as a person and a leader. I’ve also grown in my technical skills – a couple of years ago, I did a master’s degree in cybersecurity risk and strategy at New York University.

“We’re in this fast-changing, hyper-growth company and, simultaneously, thinking about how you build great teams. These are not massive teams; we’re looking for intellectually curious people, finding rising talent and helping to develop those careers.

“It’s very gratifying finding rising stars who are women in early mid-career and giving them the opportunity to thrive and stretch themselves.”

Mariappan admits to feeling lonely at the top at first. She was the only woman executive at the company for extended periods. But, seeing her leadership, female employees were emboldened to ask for career advice, what personal and professional development tools were available and how they could make their voices heard. They also wanted to discuss balancing work with having a family and learn about maternity and paternity benefits.

“I made myself available because there wasn’t yet a designated place to have those conversations,” she says. “When we started to bring these women together, it enabled me to take their feedback to our people and culture team and even to direct line managers.”

Diversity & Inclusion

This was the genesis of WIZE, which led to the establishment of other ERGs and the Diversity & Inclusion Committee. It has since implemented various initiatives, not least an online mentoring programme. Following a successful pilot with women employees, the people and culture team has expanded it as a company-wide practice.

Mentoring was particularly key during the COVID-19 pandemic when employees – both men and women – sought guidance. Working remotely meant that many new hires had never met their boss or colleagues in person.

“I did 260 plus mentoring sessions that year,” Mariappan reveals. “It really gave me insights into how we were functioning as a company, and I could sit down with the executive leadership team and share that. Then our people and culture team took it and ran with it, so that was time well spent for me.”

Externally, DE&I is also seen as fulfilling the societal aspect of its ESG commitment. Mariappan was instrumental in building a business value group, which began looking into carbon neutrality, pioneering a fully-fledged ESG practice.

Together with the people and culture team, Mariappan interrogates the data for how many diverse employees there are and whether or not they are being given the opportunities for promotion, how many are on the different rungs of the leadership ladder and what professional development programmes need to be provided to retain them.

“Now we’ve got the company listening differently, and it has become much more receptive,” she says proudly. “We still have a lot of work to do, but we’ve definitely grown.”

Up in the cloud

Looking ahead, Mariappan believes cloud security will continue its upward trajectory and continue to reduce dependence on carbon-intensive data centres, especially given employees’ increasing tendency to work remotely.

“To secure all that is going to become very critical,” she argues. “While the good guys are evolving applications and innovating, the bad guys are also innovating, moving threats down to the individual user. It’s an exciting place to work. And to solve some of the most complex problems on planet Earth and in the cyber threat landscape, you will need diverse minds.

“This is a fantastic time to see the culmination of crossover skills, and I hope that young women considering entering a STEM education take advantage of this opportunity. In IT security today, we see many women in leadership roles: there’s something to be said about the skill set women bring to the table. IT and security require not just technical knowledge but project management skills and the ability to be multi-threaded and solve problems in a situation of chaos.

“Most of us women are extremely multi-threaded and highly collaborative and bring empathy into work. Those attributes lend themselves well to IT security and tech in general.

“I think we’re going to see the landscape changing as statistics prove that, when women lead companies, those organisations are more profitable.”

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