Diversity: A Key to Battling Cyber Terrorists

Dr. Phyllis Schneck, the Deputy Under Secretary for Cybersecurity and Communications for the National Protection and Programs Directorate, last week visited Pensacola to see how leaders are positioning Northwest Florida to be critical player in the world of cybersecurity with the help of Center for Information Dominance at Corry Station, Pensacola State College, and the University of West Florida.

“You put all that together, and it’s just an amazing opportunity right here in Pensacola to not just build something, but define how you go forward,” she told Inweekly.

Dr. Schneck is the chief cybersecurity official for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). She came to DHS from McAfee, Inc., where she was Chief Technology Officer for Global Public Sector.

She spoke with Inweekly about the need for diversity in cybersecurity.

Schneck never worried about being a woman in the male-dominated computer field.

“For me, it’s a little bit different. I learned computer science from my father. He was one of the computing pioneers at NASA. He worked the operating systems for some of the work in the Apollo missions. I got signed out of school in elementary school to see shuttle launches. They wrote me notes to excuse me so I could watch the launches,” said Schneck.

She grew up in suburban Maryland while her father worked at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Her home had photos of the expeditions on the walls and computers.

“There were computers around me,” she said. “I had the early computer that was $100 that talked to the television.”

She teethed on punch cards. Her father taught her to write code when she was eight. She had a computer in her bedroom that her father taught how to communicate with computer in her sister’s room, a crude version of “instant messaging.”

“I’ve never been afraid of a computer because I grew up with it,” said Schneck. “I had a terminal in my room so that he could log into NASA at night, and he left it in my room, just because I liked watching it type by itself. It hooked up to a modem that was probably slower than anything I could even recognize, so I was there in the early days with him, growing up.”

She added, “For me, it’s just being in computers, it’s not being a woman in computers. I think there are some stereotypes, if you will, of what your average geek looks like, and I see that. Hollywood propagates it, but honestly, I think that culture’s going to change.”

One of the reasons the Deputy Under Secretary was in Pensacola was to see the great job that the Center for Information Dominance at Corry Station, Pensacola State College and the University of West Florida have done in engaging and encouraging gender diversity in Cybersecurity job tracks and education.

“You’re seeing every girl has a phone, over a certain age, so they’re all embracing technology. They’re all using it, and more and more you’re seeing women just really understanding how it works, and we need that. We need that, because we need different perspectives,” said Schneck.

She added, “People from all walks of life, all different places in both genders, we need all those different perspectives to put together a better technology direction forward, and to finally build new technology that has Cybersecurity in it.”

The diversity is critical when facing technologically savvy terrorists.

“We have to get creative,” said Schneck. “We face an adversary that has no lawyers, and nothing to protect. In many cases, they have knowledgeable people and plenty of money. The only way you counter that is with big brains, big ambition, and every different perspective you can gather.”