Women in Digital: Nicky Whiting

Nicky Whiting, director of consultancy at Defense.com, reveals her career path, her advice for other women in cybersecurity and tackling the perception it is a ‘male’ industry

Posted 7 November 2022 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

No, I hated it to be honest. I’ve never been one to be told what to do! I knew however that it was a necessary evil to get me where I wanted to go i.e. a good career in something I was interested in. Once I left school and moved into Higher Education, they were some of the best years of my life. Having the freedom to spend all day just learning stuff you’re interested in and a library the size of a planet to explore is my idea of heaven!

What qualifications do you have?

I have been lucky enough to have completed a range of different qualifications throughout my life, including a B.Eng (hons) in Mechanical Engineering and a MSc in Information Security. I also have a load of security and compliance-related qualifications as well, such as Certified ISO 27001 Lead Auditor and Lead Implementer, Certified GDPR Practitioner, CISMP to name a few.

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or a combination of both?

My career path has been relatively smooth. I started off in Mechanical Engineering and, given the nature of what I was doing (stress analysis of offshore platforms) I was asked to be the Computer Systems Administrator (sysadmin) for the Unix servers we used. That made me realise very early on that I enjoyed doing the sysadmin work more than the engineering. So, in my next engineering role, I moved into looking after the CAD/CAM systems and over a period of time slowly transitioned from working in an engineering job looking after the IT to an IT job in an engineering company. Eventually, I moved out of engineering completely and just did IT. I worked my way up from support into IT management relatively quickly. It was while I was working as an IT manager in the early 2000s, when cybersecurity was not the major industry it is now, that I could see that cyber security was becoming a critical aspect of my role – so I decided to do an MSC in Information security. I then spent a number of years in freelance consultancy covering both IT and cybersecurity as well as some digital marketing that I picked up along the way. Eventually, I gave up freelancing and went back to work as a consultant in a company and have worked my way up to a director position at Defense.com.

What specific challenges do you see women facing in the industry?

I think the biggest challenge facing women in the cybersecurity industry is barriers to entry, or perceived barriers to entry. I think there are a lot of women out there that perhaps don’t even think about moving into this industry, it just hasn’t occurred to them. Of those that do, I think there is a perception that it’s a very “male” sort of industry – which you could argue it is given it is very male-dominated, but there’s also perhaps that perception from recurrent terminology that’s used in our industry e.g. “war” or “attack”. I don’t actually feel I have faced any particular challenges, if anything, I think people are more likely to sit up and listen when they see a woman in this industry because it’s a bit unusual. I do think that a lot of women feel they have to be “better than the men” to get into or be respected in this industry and that is reflected in the fact that as a percentage, the number of women in the industry with qualifications is higher than men in the industry. 

What is the best career advice you can give to others?

Spend the time researching what you want to do, find something you are really passionate about because if you aren’t you won’t want to put in the hard graft you need to succeed. Don’t take no for an answer. No matter what, don’t give up on your goal. 

If you had to pick one mentor that had the biggest influence on you, who would it be?

The manager I had in my second engineering job when I was 24. He’s still my mentor now and a good friend. He just gave me confidence in my own abilities, he believed in me, gave me some very good advice about my career, taught me to stand up for myself and pushed me to deliver over and above. He also showed me how to be a good manager, which has come in very handy in my role as director of consultancy at Defense.com. 

From where do you draw inspiration?

These days I am inspired by watching my team succeed. There’s nothing better than seeing people you’ve brought into the business continue to grow, succeed and deliver exceptional work. It’s inspiring to be a part of and witness progress and growth. It inspires me to keep on doing what I am doing.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?

Over my 30-year career there have been many, whether it was building an IT team from scratch for a global business or balancing doing my MSc with a full-time IT manager role. What I learnt from dealing with these challenges is that I am stronger than I thought and that there’s always a way through, you just need to focus, bring the best people around you and crack on! 

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?

Patience, transparency, honesty, ability to listen, compassion, empathy, someone who is prepared to roll up their sleeves if needs be, someone who doesn’t expect their team to do things they wouldn’t. Someone who is prepared to take the flack when it goes wrong. 

From a work viewpoint what has the last 24 months been like?

From my perspective it has been a crazy and busy time, growing the teams that I am responsible for in a market that has seen increasing demand for its services. All of this while at the same time dealing with a pandemic and fallout from a war in Ukraine. It’s also been great fun! Working for Defense.com has been a real shot in the arm for me. To find an organisation with such a great culture and people is rare (and I know because I have worked for quite a few companies) and I really value that. It drives me to succeed and makes coming to work a positive experience. 

What would you say are the biggest tech-based challenges we face today?

There are so many, largely because the tech industry isn’t slowing down. Also, there are so many areas of tech, such as AI, ML, where we don’t necessarily understand the full impacts of these technologies before they are used. For example, what biases does AI contain? On top of that, legislation always lags way behind changes in technology making it very difficult to protect people from some of the negative aspects their introduction brings. 

What can be done to encourage more women into the industry?

More role models and more positive imagery of women working in this industry. This definitely begins with more communication at the school level to young people about what their career options are in this sector, and more women mentoring other women. 

Give us a fact about you that most other people wouldn’t know.

I am a massive bookworm and spend most of my downtime with my head in a book!