Samantha Ryan is a leader in Information Security with a varied background in technology. Sam built her career with CYBG who she joined a decade ago. Samantha was working in business architecture and digital strategy, then transitioned into leadership positions within Information Security in 2016 and has continued to grow in this space. Following CYBG’S (Clydesdale Yorkshire Banking Group) merger with Virgin Money she was appointed Cyber Strategy Consultant within the Chief Information Security and Resilience Office.
Tell me about your career progression and how you got into your current role
I went into Security in 2016. There was a senior manager who I had worked for in the Business Architecture team, who had moved over to Information Security. I had come to the end of the line with business architecture and was looking for a new challenge. The Information Security department needed someone who could help them link Information Security strategy to the priorities of the business and be able to tell that story to the Board. They needed to find someone who could sit in between techie people and business people and translate between the two, which was my skill set. I call it storytelling: being able to paint a picture of something complex and make it simple and understandable. I was fortunate to have identified someone senior who could make opportunities for me because they recognised my value. If I was giving advice, I would say identify someone who is influential and who makes hiring decisions and latch onto them because they can help open doors.
What are some of the challenges that you've overcome on your career journey?
One theme I’ve noticed is that some people believe that there's a traditional path through Security and the wider IT sector. They think that you should come in at an entry level position – as a programmer or a developer, or in Security as an analyst or a sysadmin – then work your way up to become a senior analyst or a team leader. The people who believe that that's the way it should be are not very tolerant of people who've come from a different background. They think that they've jumped into roles without having the appropriate skills and expertise. I came in from a Digital Strategy team with no Security background, no Security certifications and I'd never had a job writing code and never had an operational job in IT. I had people saying, "I don't understand what it is you're here for because you don't have that background." Don't get me wrong, there are jobs in Security where you have to have come that route because those are the skills you need to do the job, but for me, for the type of role that I was looking for, that sort of background wasn't the only way that you can get there. People need to open their minds to the fact that there are people outside the world of Security and IT who have transferable skills. If someone has transferable skills and they have a good framework for learning, you can bring them into a domain that they don't know, and you can train them. It's the soft skills that are much harder than the technical skills to teach.
Did you just get on with the job when you arrived, or did you have to change certain mindsets?
I took a balanced approach. There were certain stakeholders who I needed to make sure I got on board. It's worth expending the effort with those people. There are some people who you'll never win over because they've got a preconceived view that you don't fit in, so you have to choose what it's worth spending your effort on. When you start delivering things and people see it, you start to win the credibility anyway. When I went in there, my first challenge was to write that strategy and get it in front of the Board and I just got on with that. There were some people who didn't get it until they saw it, so it helped me once I was actually putting deliverables in front of them to clarify what it was that I was bringing to the table. In return, you have to check your own biases and your own preconceptions, making sure you've got an open mind when you're dealing with any stakeholders, in the same way. You have to do that same thing that you want other people to do.
What are your thoughts on gender diversity in Technology?
It's not a surprise to anybody that diversity in Technology is a problem. It is a very male orientated industry. Going back to those traditional career paths, those jobs tend to be male orientated, so if you believe in those career paths, your pipeline is all men, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are wider problems in society, structural problems, where gender stereotypes exist, in terms of fewer women going into STEM areas and fewer women studying STEM in school. It goes right the way back to school where STEM jobs are still seen as a man's job and people unconsciously or consciously don't steer women into them. So, your pipeline doesn't have enough women in because of that too. No matter what angle you come at it from, it's very difficult because of that male orientation, but the pipeline coming through is not necessarily being addressed as well as it could be. So many people have to play a part in that, it's not just employers, it's the education system and the wider society as well. There's no silver bullet.
Working in technology, have you encountered any difficultieis being a woman in leadership roles?
Not as a woman, no. I've been very fortunate in that regard. I have heard plenty of stories from other woman leaders in certain industries where things are a bit more old-fashioned. Banking has a reputation for being a boys’ club, but I've not seen that in the bank that I work in. When I started, the CIO was a woman and absolutely inspirational for women who wanted to get to the top in IT. Our culture was always quite inclusive. The only bit I struggled with was having had a non-traditional path into the role. People would prejudge who I was or what my competency level was. To me, diversity is about that as well – your background, your experience. Too many companies have this cookie cutter approach to their talent pipeline and to recruitment, where they don't realise there's a world of opportunity out there.
In the Scottish tech scene, what are some of the areas that could be improved in recruiting and retaining talented women?
There's a lot of community effort in the Scottish tech scene to encourage and support women, such as networks like Scotland Women in Technology. It's quite a small country, so networking is quite easy, especially if you've worked in any of the major companies in Glasgow or Edinburgh or Aberdeen, you tend to know everybody! There's always something going on, either a women's event or some other group, and that helps give women support and access to coaching and mentoring. Really good progress has been made and it's not going to happen overnight, but there's plenty going on. Retention comes down to the culture of your organisation. If you're a woman, does it feel like a good place to work? Does it feel like you're included and that the workplace and the activities and the culture is designed for you? That's down to everyone to be mindful about how they operate in the workplace and even down to extracurricular things like your team building activities and your nights out. You have to make sure that they are inclusive.
What are your thoughts on mentorship, both being a mentor and mentee?
I think it's important to be both. I believe we have a duty to use our experience to help other people, but you can always learn more yourself too. I've had various mentors over the years and I always try and choose someone that I don't work closely with. The mentor I have now doesn't even work in IT because it's important to get an objective viewpoint. There's no point in meeting someone who's just going to agree with everything that you say. I would encourage everyone to try and have a mentor and a mentee relationship. Be very clear about your career objectives because otherwise people will make an assumption and give you advice based on that assumption. I don't want the generic advice that I can go online and read; I want genuine insight.
In your eyes, how does the employee experience make a difference?
Culture is such a big word. It's about people challenging themselves to make sure that they look at the working environment and the employee experience with an open mind and that they're ready to get the input from their teams on what they want that experience to be. That feedback loop is really important because you can be creating an environment that you think is great, but that women or LGBTQ+ people don't think is great.
What do you do to make sure that the culture is followed by your team?
We spend a lot of time on that. As part of the Virgin family, that's a key part of the Virgin brand. The brand is distilled down to various initiatives and themes that employees can latch onto. We have ‘Our Purpose’ which is all about what are we here to do in order to meet our objectives as a business, and we have focused conversations that are about that. Feedback loops are big part of it as well; the leadership team and the CEO ask us regularly for our sentiment and our input, which is really good because people are listened to. If I was giving anyone advice, you have to make the time to have those conversations. If all of your conversations are about what people are working on, your culture is going to fall by the wayside.
Do you believe in the glass ceiling? Do you think that that exists for women in the workplace?
There's plenty of anecdotal and statistical evidence that the glass ceiling is real and there are plenty of women who encounter that. I've just been very fortunate that in the organisation I've spent most of my career in, it's not been a thing that I've witnessed. What I have seen is the other end where that pipeline is so dominated by men that when you get to that higher point where you're looking for women leaders, you don't have a huge amount of choice in terms of diversity. The options that are coming through to have a diverse leadership team are not there. We have to tackle both ends of that spectrum if we're going to solve the problem. If I advertise a role and I want to see a diverse set of candidates, that's unlikely to happen. The majority of CVs that I get will be from men. Even if I really want to hire a woman, or if I've got a quota to hire women, the talent pool that I'm looking at is unlikely to have a lot of women in it. This is why people feel that quotas and targets around diversity and hiring women feel gimmicky because you're trying to wish something into existence.
What are some practical steps that leaders can take to improve that pipeline for women in technology?
You need to get out and talk to the talent pipeline and tell them that you need them. For example, one of the things I've done over the past few years is some guest lecturing at Strathclyde University around what it's like to work in Information Security. People have to see you being a woman in Information Security. You've got to be seen to be a role model that people can take some inspiration from if they had doubts about whether that's something that they could achieve. Men have to get out there too and say, "I want these people to apply for roles when I advertise them." You also have to get out of your IT department internally and talk to women. Your talent is all over your business.
What are the main success of those talks? Do you recruit from the university or hear feedback?
It's an opportunity for us to talk about our graduate scheme, because we are keen to see diverse applicants for that. It's a fourth-year Computer Science class that we talk to, so they're just at that point where they're thinking about what they're going to do when they graduate, and it allows them to ask questions about what the workplace experience is really like. I talk about a typical day in my working life, which gives a sense of reality to people. It's been successful in terms of getting that insight in both directions. I don't think we've tracked it at the level of how many people from that class has applied, but we get good feedback from the course lecturer. She also acknowledges that the education sector has a remit of getting the students through the educational course, but that it's difficult in terms of preparing them for the workplace or for getting your first job. People in industry can help enormously by going out and talking to those people and forming relationships.
What changes could be made on the recruitment side?
Changing job descriptions from essential criteria to desirable criteria would encourage more women to apply, which is a challenge to the recruitment industry. Screening candidates requires rules and it must be hard to resist the checkbox approach, especially when Security people are looking for certifications etc. So many candidates must fall through the cracks because they don't meet all the criteria. Also, encouraging candidates who have preconceived ideas to look at these roles would help. I swore I would never take another job in banking at one point because of biases I had, but I was fortunate that a recruiter understood my skill set and persuaded me that I would regret it if I didn't take one particular job. So, it happens with candidates too.
Do you have any final advice for women working in your industry?
I want to hammer the point about non-traditional career paths and that it's OK to not follow a linear path and that breadth of experience will get you as far if not much further. The other thing I wanted to mention was perceptions of what types of roles there are in IT. There's a perception that you have to be really technical and I think that keeps a lot of women out of IT. But there are so many jobs that are not technical. There are project management jobs, risk management jobs, governance jobs, strategy jobs like the job that I do, where you need much softer skills, like presentation skills and being able to write reports and risk assessments. People forget that there are a whole host of those types of roles in IT and a lot of them could be very attractive to women. A lot of women are missing out because they don't realise that those jobs are there.
A huge thank you to Sam, for opening up about her own journey to where she is now. If you, or someone you know, is an Inspiring Business Woman in Technology, and has a great story to tell, then I’d love to hear from you! Contact me at email@example.com.