Women in Digital: Tracy Cunningham

Tracy Cunningham, channel manager Scotland at Check Point talks about her career path as a woman in cybersecurity

Posted 14 June 2021 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

Yes, I absolutely loved school, in fact, I was a bit of a science geek at high school. Biology was my absolute favourite subject, and it was no surprise I used to ace the exams. I could often be found in my mother’s kitchen carrying out some science experiment, thankfully I didn’t have any disasters or none that I can remember! However, I was horrible at maths which did hinder my progress and was quite frustrating at times. I remember my mother sitting with me at the kitchen table for hours sometimes explaining things until I had that lightbulb moment.

I also had a love for Art, Geography and Cooking. I remember helping my friends out in home economics by making them wonderful dishes to take home and pass them off as their own and at weekends I would often love to bake. I still do now, and I am trying to teach my son the joys of cooking although I think he prefers tasting more. I have very fond memories of school and made a lot of friends some of which are still in my life today. 

What qualifications do you have?

From school, I have Higher English, Geography and Biology and I did gain a place at university to study Toxicology. However, the corporate world attracted me, and I initially worked for an insurance company gaining my financial planning qualifications. I am currently in my first year doing a degree in homoeopathy for personal interest. I also have 18 years’ experience in the IT/security market. 

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

I would say it’s been a combination of both. From leaving school with a clear view that I wanted to further my love for science and study toxicology, to what developed into a career in financial services and then information technology into cybersecurity. Looking back I can see how many things were linked; however, when I was at the start of my tech career and unaware of STEM I used to think ‘how did I end up here?’ but now it’s clear to see. I have operated across several different markets covering a lot of different technologies and I love to challenge myself, but it’s not always been easy, and I have had to work exceptionally hard to get where I am today.

At Check Point, it’s great to see so many women in leadership roles, such as Dr Dorit Dor as vice president of products and Maya Horowitz as director of threat intelligence and research, so the company is a great supporter of women in IT and women in cybersecurity. However, in my early career, I found that being a woman hindered my progress and I often struggled to get some people in higher positions to take me seriously. I never backed down and although at times it was hard to take, I was always grateful for the opportunities that I had been given the chance to excel in and this kept me focused and determined to keep progressing. I remember that sometimes being the only female in meetings meant I had to work harder. What I do know is I worked hard to gain respect and eventually that happened. I am a great believer in treating everyone with the level of respect that you demand for yourself. Do this and you won’t go wrong. I never expected to be looking at an 18 year career in technology; when growing up I did not even have access to a computer, however, it’s been an incredible journey where I am constantly learning and one of the best bits is I get to meet a diverse range of people. I am a people person, and it excites me that I can help others make a positive impact. My current role at Check Point really enables me to do this daily. My path has not been a smooth one but looking back it’s certainly been one I am proud of, and I am sure will have a few more twists and turns to come. 

What’s the best career advice you can give to others?

Follow your gut and don’t be afraid to try something new. And always treat others with respect.

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

I think personally my mother has had a huge influence on me as she taught me never to give up no matter what the challenge is and that you can always take a lesson from everything. I can remember from a young age her saying ‘ok so it didn’t quite work out the way you wanted, but what did you learn?’. I soon realised that was the key! Her having an extremely positive mindset helped me look at situations from a different perspective and try to see the good even in difficult times. However, I don’t think I have just one mentor I have learned something from many different people during my life and I like to think I am open to advice from anyone, and I often observe others and admire the way they carry out tasks. My son often teaches me new things and he is only six, I believe you can learn from everyone, and age is not a barrier. 

From where do you draw inspiration?

I like to be outdoors, for me the simple pleasures in life give me the greatest inspiration. Nature has a profound way of calming the mind and with that comes clarity and then, for me, inspiration. I make sure I spend time outdoors each day to allow my mind to process the day. However, in work being surrounded by people and new technology inspires me as I love to help others and solve problems, understanding other people’s viewpoints and debating these often lead me to a new way of thinking. Positive relationships are incredibly important to me.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced to date?

2020 lockdown was hugely challenging for me, I am a people person and thrive in that environment so being locked away on my own not being able to see anyone had a huge impact on me.  Only having only a six-year-old and a dog for company nearly drove me insane. If you told me a year ago I would need to home-school and work from home for 10 months at the same time I would have laughed and thought ‘good joke, that’s impossible!’. However, I am incredibly grateful for it as it’s taught me to be more creative with my spare time and it’s been nice to not have to travel so much and spend less time rushing everywhere. I also think it’s made my working relationships a lot more personable as I have been graced with some insight into people’s personal lives, which is nice.

Having to balance the stress of a child and a dog on a video call with your work colleagues has somehow made me into a better person. It was a situation forced upon me and an uphill battle and I did not know if I would overcome it. However, becoming completely powerless to the situation sparked a strength in me that I had never seen before and made me appreciate the small stuff. My son now understands what mummy does at work all day and being able to give him insight into that was really something special. 

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?

You have to practice what you preach and never be afraid to admit you’re wrong. You need to be real and have an open mind so you can relate to others. 

What would you say are the biggest cybersecurity challenges we face today?

Securing the next normal. In 2021, Covid-19 will still be impacting our lives, businesses and societies, and those impacts will change as the year progresses. So we need to be ready for a series of ‘next normals’ as we respond to those changes. Remote learning will be targeted. Schools and universities have pivoted to large-scale use of e-learning platforms, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the sector experienced a 30 percent increase in weekly cyber-attacks. As 5G networks roll out, the numbers of connected IoT devices will massively expand – drastically increasing networks’ vulnerability to large scale, multi-vector cyberattacks. IoT devices and their connections to networks and clouds, are still a weak link in security: it’s hard to get complete visibility of devices, and they have complex security requirements.

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

I used to be a highland dancer when I was younger, competing in competitions and I won many awards.