Ginger Wierzbanowski shares her 5 “secret” strategies for how a woman can build a successful cybersecurity career.
Ginger Wierzbanowski recently retired from her cybersecurity career—where she was among the 1% of women who made it into senior management—to open a cidery. Now the only “spies” she’s focused on are her North Spy apples.
At our recent TARATALK, she shared five strategies for how women can make it in the cybersecurity world, whether they’re technical or a non-techie like Ginger who has a MA in Russian studies.
“I get a lot of women who aren’t technical but want to be in leadership roles of technical people,” says the former vice president of intelligence solutions at Northrop Grumman. “They think that they can’t do it. And when they see me, they tell me, ‘I’m so glad you’re there because I want to do what you’re doing.'”
“A lot of women think it’s too technical and they don’t imagine themselves [in the cybersecurity world] because they don’t know what it is, but there are a million different things you can do in cyber and you’ll find something that fits you. I’m confident.”
Ginger’s Five Cybersecurity Career Strategies
1. You don’t need to be technical to have a cybersecurity career.
“You don’t need to have a strong technical background, but you have to be able to absorb and understand technical jargon and technical solutions at a basic level,” Ginger shared with Gotara CEO and founder D. Sangeeta. “Ask questions and be fearless. You will be dealing with advanced technical concepts that you won’t know anything about, so you have to be curious to learn… Plus, you have to understand the experience you have to create for the user.”
2. What you need to know about techie people if you’re a non-techie leading the team.
“Most technical people are excited about what they are creating and what they are achieving so if, you’re able to help them develop and get them the resources they need, you’re recognized as a strong leader. The hardest part with technical people is that they want to create that widget, but then you have to remind them, ‘Hey, we got to make money!'”
3. On that note… know how your company makes money.
“What I would do differently now—or what I would advise anyone going into my role—is to walk through the financials and understand how a company makes money and satisfies its customers.”
4. Own the mission and focus on the cybersecurity outcome
“It’s like if you’re building a house. It’s not about how well someone puts in a window or a foundation, it’s about what you do as a team to build the house. It’s like the adage about a man building a cathedral and he’s making bricks and he doesn’t say he’s a bricklayer. He’s says he’s building a cathedral.”
5. Embrace a woman’s instinct to “huddle.”
“I think women are very intuitive and the thing that we do—and I know I’m generalizing—we pull people together. We are the glue in the org. We will notice the guy or gal in the corner who isn’t part of it and think, ‘How can I get that person in.’ When we’re defending our nation, we need all hands on deck. We need different ways of looking at solutions.”
Former Intelligence officer
& Cider producer
Ginger’s Cybercareer STEM + Story
Ginger Wierzbanowski’s personal life—and her cybersecurity career—have been enriched because of her understanding of what it means to be “the other.” As a girl, she grew up in a Tlingit Indian village on Prince of Wales Island, in Alaska. (Her father had retired from the U.S. Air Force and moved up north to be a bush pilot.) She went on to become one of the rarified examples of women who rose to the upper ranks in the cybersecurity world—a world where women still only make up 20% of the workforce.
So how did Ginger launch her cybersecurity career?
Ginger’s path into her cybersecurity career was set when she was a girl. Her father, who travelled the world in the U.S. Air Force, would bring home trinkets from overseas and would teach her snippets of foreign languages.
“I remember when I was 5, I told him I wanted to learn all the languages I could and travel around the world,” she said. “Hearing his stories made me want to be able to communicate and understand other people.”
Understanding “the other” also stems from her own experiences growing up in a Tlingit Indian village where Ginger said she and her family were in a “sea of other.”
But it was a welcoming sea as she and her family were absorbed into the community. “It was a matriarchal society and these extraordinarily strong women were role models for me, as was my mom who didn’t take anything from anybody!” laughs Ginger.
Ginger’s social studies teacher was the other person in her life who opened the door to the world. “She took her students—many of whom had never even seen a stoplight—on adventures around the world… She inspired us to learn.”
How Ginger got hooked on having a cybersecurity career
As Ginger told her father she would, she studied French and Russia and travelled the world once she joined the U.S. Air Force. While her father’s career influenced her decision, Ginger became “hooked” on the idea of a career in the military after she met her roommate at college, who was an ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) cadet.
“She took me to some of their parties and functions and I was attracted to the fact that they were mission-focused; that they were focused on something that wasn’t about themselves. It was about service.”
After 20+ years as an intelligence officer, Ginger moved into the defense industry (SAIC & Boeing) and then returned to the Pentagon to work for the Vice-Chairman as a defense civilian. This led to her next move to Northrop Grumman, where she worked on creating solutions for clients. Transitioning into a world where one balanced customer needs with ROI was a shift.
“What I would do differently now—or what I would advise anyone going into that role—is to walk through the financials and understand how a company makes money and satisfies its customers.”
And if, like Ginger, you don’t have a technical background, don’t let that stop you from thinking you can have a cybersecurity career. “A lot of women think it’s too technical and don’t imagine themselves there because they don’t know what it is, but there are a million different things you can do in cyber and you’ll find something that fits you. I’m confident.”