Katelyn Coberley and Bia Hamed work at Eastern Michigan University's Sill Hall.Steve Koss

Michigan’s cybersecurity leaders are pursuing a “culture change” for diversity in their field

Katelyn Coberley works at Eastern Michigan University's Sill Hall.
Steve Koss Katelyn Coberley works at Eastern Michigan University’s Sill Hall.

The booming mobility sector has a huge and growing need for cybersecurity talent – but the people who currently work in that field still overwhelmingly tend to be white men. However, several local initiatives are paving the way to eliminate barriers and attract more women and people of color to rewarding cybersecurity careers.

“I know about stepping into a room and being the only woman, or maybe one of two women there. We need a culture change,” says cybersecurity veteran Tamara Shoemaker. She’s been in the business for almost 16 years and is the director of the Center for Cyber Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Shoemaker has witnessed a number of changes to the cybersecurity landscape over the years. She recalls sitting in some early meetings on autonomous vehicles years ago and feeling that cybersecurity concerns were being tossed aside in the competition to get products to the market.

“Then the first hacks happened, everyone slowed down, and now we need a ton of people and we needed them yesterday,” Shoemaker says.

Katelyn Coberley, Bia Hamed, and Paulette Avolio work at Eastern Michigan University's Sill Hall.
Steve Koss Katelyn Coberley, Bia Hamed, and Paulette Avolio work at Eastern Michigan University’s Sill Hall.

Today her mission is not only to increase the number of people in the profession, but also to cultivate diversity.

“Every industry in the world needs properly trained and educated cybersecurity professionals, but we need that workforce to be diverse if we ever hope to stay one step ahead of the bad actors,” she says. “The people on the other end stealing from us are using diverse populations to come at us, so we need to do the same.”

Shoemaker has been making progress on that goal as co-founder of the Midwest Colloquium for Information Systems Security Education (CISSE) Chapter of the national CyberPatriot program. Created by the Air Force Association, CyberPatriot focuses on inspiring K-12 students to pursue cybersecurity careers or other STEM jobs. Games presented in the classroom and fun summer cyber camps are among CyberPatriot’s strategies for introducing youth to new career possibilities. Interestingly, Shoemaker says that while she doesn’t target girls specifically, 48% of the youth who enrolled in her chapter’s summer camp this year were girls – an all-time high.

“We know that we tend to lose the diverse population in middle school when it becomes uncool to be nerdy and investigate things,” Shoemaker says. “So we show these young kids a diverse group of coaches and mentors, and this allows them to see the opportunities.”

Presenting cool, successful female mentors has also been crucial to the success of Digital Divas, a program of Eastern Michigan University’s (EMU) College of Engineering and Technology. The 10-year-old program’s goal is to encourage more young women to pursue STEM careers, and it’s served nearly 7,000 participants. Young women in middle and high school attend a one-day conference with educational breakout sessions, where they also get to network and meet women in the field.

One of those women is Paulette Avolio, a product manager at FordLabs, who first volunteered with Digital Divas in 2010.

“The more we present opportunities for women and under-represented minorities to connect the classroom to real-world occupations, the better,” she says. “You can literally see the faces of the participants light up when they make the connection between security, IT, research, design, and engineering occupations and their classes in school.”

Paulette Avolio.
Paulette Avolio.

“Making jobs in cybersecurity accessible requires making it attractive. And just actually seeing and meeting successful women in the field removes a barrier,” says Digital Divas director Bia Hamed. “Our girls see that women in the cybersecurity field are celebrated and are like rock stars.”

Hamed sees a bright future for getting more diverse cybersecurity talent engaged in Michigan’s mobility sector.

“We have two autonomous testing sites and are leading in so many ways,” she says. “As the next chapter unfolds we will just need more talent, and women are poised to be leaders there.”

Bia Hamed.
Bia Hamed.

Hamed and Avolio agree that more diverse workers also help to strengthen the companies they work for overall.

“My personal experience is that the highest-performing teams and most widely regarded products are a direct result of pursuing and integrating diverse experiences, gender, race, and religious perspectives to solving problems,” Avolio says.

Kevin Hayes, chief information security officer of the nonprofit Merit Network, agrees. With 20 years of cybersecurity experience under his belt, he emphasizes the need for more women and people of color in the field.

“When I used to teach a cybersecurity class at Wayne State University, I really stressed to the students that … diversity of thought, of opinion, [and] of experience is critically important, more so than other attributes,” he says.

To get the next generation of cybersecurity talent on deck, Merit has partnerships with government bodies, universities, K-12 schools, and other organizations throughout the state to make cybersecurity education widely accessible. They’ve developed Cyber Range hubs across Michigan – locations offering more than 40 industry-recognized certifications that serve to get people qualified for cybersecurity jobs.

“At many of these hubs you can take individual classes, get certifications, or even take part in a curriculum program connected to the universities,” Hayes says. “It’s been a good way to get people educated in cybersecurity and it’s a good support for newcomers as they enter the workforce.”

Katelyn Coberley, 25, is grateful for all these initiatives to develop a more diverse next generation of cybersecurity talent. Her experience with Digital Divas in high school set the stage for her career as a cybersecurity expert. She currently enjoys a rewarding career as a threat intelligence specialist at a local energy and utility company.

Katelyn Coberley.
Katelyn Coberley.

Coberley says she’d like those who are currently underrepresented in the industry to know that it’s not hard to break in. While she is an EMU graduate, she notes that there are different pathways to jobs.

“You don’t have to have a four-year degree or coding expertise to start in cybersecurity. Check out free online webinars from organizations like SANS or on BrightTALK, and maybe view some free courses on CybraryIT or Coursera,” Coberley says.

She adds that it’s important for women and people of color to know that they belong in the cybersecurity field. She says she succeeded by being confident and having the courage to speak up, despite being discouraged or overwhelmed at times.

“If you find a passion in helping people or creating a more secure future in cybersecurity, then stick with it. It can be a very rewarding field, financially and personally,” Coberley says.