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InfoQ Homepage News Moving from Self-Doubt and Imposter Syndrome toward Seeing the Benefits of Diversity in Technology

Moving from Self-Doubt and Imposter Syndrome toward Seeing the Benefits of Diversity in Technology

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As someone with a non technical background, Charu Bansal, chief of staff, Information Security at Elastic, has navigated the imposter syndrome in her career, often wondering what value she could bring to security. In her talk at The Diana Initiative 2021, she showed how having a diverse perspective helped her to solve challenging security problems as she pivoted from a non-technical career into information security.

According to Bansal, self-doubt during technical discussions can be the result of a combination of factors: a person’s technical background, the ever-evolving pace of technology which makes it hard to keep up with new advancements, and subconscious bias against certain underrepresented groups.

For women working in technology, gender bias is a big factor, as Bansal explained:

Technology has been a very male-dominated industry, even though intelligence has nothing to do with gender. For decades the narrative has been that men are better at technology and it is easy for many to subconsciously internalise that narrative.

Even though you may be confident about your knowledge of a particular subject, these internal and external biases may cause you to self-doubt, Bansal said. If you don’t come from a technology background and are suddenly confronted with a group of people who speak in acronyms and code, it can be daunting to express yourself freely, she mentioned.

Threat modelling is a structured collaborative exercise to identify potential security threats to an environment, and to build plans to mitigate those threats proactively. This exercise benefits from a broader perspective and people with diverse experiences can add immense value to this process, as Bansal explained:

Given my experience of living in many countries, my knowledge of various payment methods across continents and potential threat vectors was invaluable while building a threat model for a global payment platform. Identifying and analysing those "outside the box" threat patterns are in that sense key for success.

In her talk, Bansal used building a threat model as a metaphor to highlight the value of unique life experiences that may be unrelated to technology but can be valuable in information security:

Whenever I moved across countries, I would make a list of all the things that could possibly go wrong and then would try to find ways to mitigate those risks. I was already threat modelling before I knew what it was and that skill was helpful when identifying security risks and designing mitigation plans.

Security is an understanding of human behaviour, and not all security problems have technical solutions, nor does security only have technical problems, Bansal said. People with diverse backgrounds can be an asset to security teams because they bring a unique understanding of human behaviour.

InfoQ interviewed Charu Bansal about how having a background in human behaviour turned out to be beneficial in information security, the benefits of mentoring, what she learned from dealing with the imposter syndrome, and dealing with insecurity or doubts about technical abilities.

InfoQ: How did your background in cultures and human behaviour help you in your current job in information security?

Charu Bansal: Problem solving in security requires a combination of various skills. During all my years of living in different countries, I discovered I knew laws and regulations very well globally which was very helpful in incident response planning. Additionally, the resilience that I had built living outside my comfort zone helped me stay calm and communicate clearly during an incident.

An understanding of cultures, their reactions and motivations has been very helpful in crafting phishing exercises that entice people to click on malicious links. I also realised I had great analytical skills and I was able to pick up on unusual behaviour patterns; for example, while investigating security incidents, I could quickly identify access patterns to certain systems and pick up on out-of-the-ordinary behaviour of employees.

InfoQ: What benefits has mentoring brought you?

Bansal: The world of technology can be quite challenging, especially for women. Having a mentor can make a huge difference in your journey as an information security professional.

Having a mentor has been one of the most important factors in my success as a security professional. It is helpful to have women as role models for guidance and support when you experience self-doubt or setbacks. Through the example of these role models, I was able to find my voice and confidence in battling the gender bias that exists.

It was through the encouragement from a close friend that I pivoted into security. She continues to be a mentor, role model, advisor and a friend. I often reach out to her for guidance and support when I struggle with various problems or have questions about handling certain situations.

InfoQ: What have you learned from dealing with imposter syndrome?

Bansal: I’ve learned that while the imposter syndrome can feel real, it is quite common and can be navigated. I have met many highly accomplished professionals in security who struggle with the imposter syndrome. Self-doubt can be amplified by pre-existing biases (conscious or unconscious) against certain groups.

Supporting and mentoring others is a great way to tackle your own imposter syndrome. Organizations can also do their part in creating inclusive and supportive environments for underrepresented groups where people can freely express themselves and feel comfortable asking for help. Creating neurodiverse teams is one way, others include building inclusive organizational policies and a company culture where people feel safe and have their opinions respected, regardless of background.

InfoQ: What is your advice to someone who feels insecure or is having doubts about their technical abilities?

Bansal: It is important to remember that knowledge can be acquired, and technical skills can be built and enhanced. Not knowing a certain technology does not mean you are not capable. Don’t let others define your boundaries; challenge yourself to learn something new everyday. Find a mentor who you can trust and reach out to for support. Always show up, be prepared, engage with others around you, and don’t give up!

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