Role Model: Elcin Biren

Each month we ask one individual in our network a few questions about their way into tech, their motivation and their lessons learned. This month we sat together with Elcin Biren, Associate Director in the Chief Information Security Office at UBS and Chairwoman of the Swiss Cyber Forum. Learn what what career advice she would give her younger self, what her role models are and why she thinks more diversity in Cybersecurity is crucial for society.

Let’s start from the beginning. Tell us a bit about your background and where you’re from!

My life starts in Bursa – Turkey.  I left my hometown almost 20 years ago when I was 17. I studied Industrial Engineering and Information Technologies and worked in Istanbul for about 10 years and then moved to Cork – Ireland  which is the EMEA HQ of Dell EMC. Together with my Swiss / South African / Turkish husband I  moved to beautiful Switzerland 8 years ago. We have 2 sons, 6 and 2 years old. 

I am an Industrial Engineer however I specialize in Cyber Security. Especially after having taken Ethical Hacking training in 2006, I fell in love with Cyber security and with the idea of protecting the world. I have had the privilege to work in the Cyber Security field serving both technically and strategically. In a nutshell I have experiences in IT Audit, Cyber Operations, Data Leakage Prevention, Ethical Hacking, Defense Attack Capability Framework, Security Awareness. 

Since more than 5 years I am working at UBS in Zurich undertaking different Cyber Security Roles.

When I was 25 years old I became a board member at ISACA – Istanbul chapter. Since then I have volunteered in Global Cyber Communities where I focus on the diversity topic and inspire young girls to enrol into our industry. Currently I am the Chairwoman of Women Working Groups at Swiss Cyber Forum and SheLeadsTech Ambassador at ISACA, Women in IT External Stream Lead at UBS.

What brought you into the cyber security space? And why do you encourage others to work there?

After getting my degree in Industrial Engineering I applied to my first job at a large holding company. And when I had handed over my CV to my boss at that time, he was actually more interested in the computer science courses that I had taken together with my experience in software development.

Credits to him, my new workplace offered me an incredible opportunity to grow professionally in the Cyber Security field which later on inspired me to encourage other women and those with diverse professional or educational backgrounds to pursue careers in this field. This is a futureproof, well paid and a dynamic industry with a creative international community of professionals. 

As a career it offers plenty of variety; from being a pen tester, security auditor, analyst, compliance officer, system tester, developer, risk consultant, policymaker, incident responders, communication manager and etc. etc.

And Cybersecurity matters. It has impacts that extend beyond the digital world and into the physical one.

What valuable advice did you get from your parents?

My parents raised me and my sisters to be independent, and always encouraged us to try out the things that we are passionate about and to follow our dreams. That led all three of us to choose a STEM major and eventually we became doctors and engineers. The most important advice of all was to embrace our failures. Because yet till today the society we live in expects women to be always perfect. And this causes an unnecessary fear of making mistakes which is contradictory to the histories of all successful businesses. You know what the business success and leadership books constantly say “the best way to grow is when you fail big!”  🙂

How did you become interested in tech?

I was about 11 years old when I played my first computer game which was a flight simulator. It took me couple of days to take the plane off! I became curious and started pushing the buttons which I suspect planted the first seeds for me to become an ethical hacker 🙂 Then I grew older and took my first SQL Plus and coding lessons at university which inspired me to create new things and give me the ability to think out of the box. So much so that I had to write my dissertation on ERP systems because I knew there could be so much done in improving existing processes.

What aspects of your work are you proudest of?

That has to be protecting the World from hackers.

What drives you at work?

Continuous learning, seeing the impact of or team’s work on the society, clients, our company, and delivering our message to all stakeholders by translating a very technical lingo into a plain simple language so that ”everyone” can understand.

What has been your toughest challenge you faced while working in tech? And what did you learn from it?

I was typically the only woman in at conferences, trainings and so forth and always felt this ”invisible” pressure. Cyber Security is my passion but I am having a ”platonic” relationship with it since I am the one fully committed to it but somehow I am not got getting back enough. It feels like I am not excepted! This is exactly when I noticed I was an outsider, I just don’t fit the perfect picture of a cyber security expert or an ethical hacker stereotype.

But you know what they say ”Perseverance is failing 19 times and succeeding the 20th.” I started going out of my shell and talked to other women and to by my surprise I was not alone! In fact there were hundreds and thousands of women feeling exactly the same way and finding it very difficult to survive where they are a minority.

So I took a brave path and decided to dedicate myself to counter these issues, and started sharing experiences publicly to influence other women, to make them see the glass half full, if not completely full. These kind of negative experiences can lead you to turn them into positive ones. if you believe it. it is all about perception..

You recently gave a talk about why diversity is so important in Cyber Security. Why is it important? Why do you think we (society) all should care about this?  

We need people with different backgrounds because the people we are combatting; threat actors, hackers, ‘bad guys’ also have a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. The wider variety of people and experience we have defending our networks, systems, what we value in general, the greater chance we have to be successful in defending them.

Petrarch, Italian poet and humanist of the early Renaissance, once said ”Sameness is the mother of disgust, variety the cure.” If we all think the same we do nothing prevent ourselves from fostering creative and innovative ideas.

Gender diversity in general is an issue in tech, and women are particularly underrepresented – for an example on an average only 24% of generic jobs in Cyber Security and roughly 11% of more deep down technical roles.

And I actually have an unorthodox theory here – I strongly believe Cyber Security is coded in the DNA of Women. 

Let me give you an example from my personal life; becoming a mom was a totally awakening moment for me which made me realize how motherhood and women skillsets could make a difference in Cyber Security. 

To give you one example, you see by birth women are coded to protect their loved ones, and it is just a shame the big chunk of our society still hasn’t realised that Cyber Security in its core is all about protecting what you care, what you stand for, what you love from harm, danger. Hence I am a believer if we (our society) would have had discovered this at early age, we could have seen an influx of women in the Cyber Security field. And typically, women are more risk averse, compliant with rules, and embrace organizational controls and technology – even more than men. 

Our parents make conclusions on what boys and girls should be doing in their future lives, in other words ”social conditioning” starts really early. The early bird catches the worm so we need to influence women at a younger age, not when they have reached their adolescence or adulthood. Our industry needs more than ever diversity in whatever shape and form it comes; gender, neuro, race, religion, professional background, academic know how, etc. etc. We need a lot and we need them now!

For the ones that are not aware of it there is actually workout shortage in cyber security worldwide now. 

Cybersecurity Ventures’ prediction is that there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs globally by 2021, in some cases it takes six months or more to fill cybersecurity jobs. So the opportunities are out there; ”future-proof” careers and lifestyles are there for every girl and woman who wants them.

What advice would you give other women in tech?

Be aware of your strengths and link them to your passions and ask yourself. ”How I can make the world a better place? How can fix a problem for our society?”
Stick to your passion and  focus on your goals. Acknowledge the fact that the pain you have to endure is a ”temporary” one where we all go through while climbing up the career ladder, it is not to be confused with a ”suffering” pain. Connect with more women around you and when you get the chance, speak up. I realized  that when I share my vulnerabilities with other people, I gained strength and didn’t feel alone anymore. Seek out for mentors and mentees and network, network, network! 
Generally speaking women are naturally more emotional than men and this is great. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) has outpaced IQ over the recent years in many areas so no wonder why it has become an ever more strong asset in our workplaces. Empathy requires emotional human beings. Value your weaknesses. Don’t let the myths or biases obstruct you!
Finding our roles models in our lives is so important for the inspiration of young girls and lucky enough we don’t have a shortage of successful women that have devoted their lives to the IT industry. Some of these women have developed the first programming languages, the best methods to detect intrusions which was incredibly critical during world wars since they kept communication centres running. They even put man in the moon by calculating the aeronautical trajectories which we saw recently in the movie ”Hidden Figures”. What more? well Encryption methods for signalling to torpedoes that now serves as the basis of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology. These are all patented by women. 

What would you advise your younger self?

‘To be fully present in the moment’.

Are there any books, podcasts or other resources that you enjoy or recommend?

My favorites of all times are:

  • Personal growth and leadership: Sun Tzu (Art of War), Dale Carnagie, Brené Brown
  • Futurists: Ray Kurzweil, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Peter Diamandis
  • Conscious Parenting: Dr. Shefali Tsabary
  • Cyber Security: Brian Krebs, Steven M. Bellovin

Who is your role model and why?

I would like to mention three if possible? 🙂

Firstly, New Zealand’ Prime minister; Jacinta Ardern: She is a great role model because she faces all the same gender-based discrimination issues that all women must put up with..  but instead of giving in she took them on the chin  and kept true to her goals, and eventually exceeded them! She gave birth to her baby daughter while serving as the PM of New Zealand. After putting her baby to sleep she announcing to her nation about her parliament’s decision on the Covid19 pandemic via a live stream on Facebook. I loved the honesty, the courage, the empathy, the transparency she brought which without any doubt builds trust and openness in the society.

Second, I love surfing and Bethany Hamilton is one of the top surfers in the world. She is literally ”unstoppable”. She is always driven, consistently follows her passion even after losing her arm, giving birth to two kids. Nothing managed to take her out of the water. So whenever I feel like my energy is draining, I just take a look at my desktop wallpaper which is of course Bethany taking her next wave. So inspiring, so energizing.

Last but certainly not least my dearest Jane Frankland. She is a truly inspiring leader and a guide in our field. The way how she addresses the diversity issue, backing it up with researches, covering this ”vast” issue from multiple angles, and consistently working on solutions, is simply put ”very encouraging”. I felt an instant connection when I read her book on Security. Our pain is inevitable and she acknowledges that but she shows you another way of looking into it – and that’s what it all matters. She encouraged me to stick to my goal which is to inspire more girls and women. And lastly ”consistency” – if there is one thing that I take from her that has to be consistency.

Thank you Elcin, for taking the time!

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