Data Scientist and Cybersecurity Expert Mary Landesman Shares Advice for Finding Your Path in Tech

Women in Tech

Mary Landesman’s deep love for data analytics was an unexpected romance. The senior data scientist at Norse Corporation, a firm that collects and analyzes live cyberattack and darknet intelligence, was a fine arts major in college. It wasn’t until she became a radioman for the U.S. Coast Guard that Landesman realized she had a very special skill that would set her on the path to becoming a data scientist.

“My job was to copy Morse code,” she explains. “The ability to identify the code coming from the one ship you want to hear and ignoring all the others is essential. Data is a visual representation of that experience. I’ve looked at a lot of data in my career, and just like those Morse code signals from years ago, the pertinent bits seem to shine a little brighter to me.”

Landesman also learned computer programming while in the Coast Guard. While she wasn’t passionate about coding, she says the training fueled her interest in computing. Upon leaving the Coast Guard, she targeted the budding antivirus (AV) industry for employment, taking a job in tech support at Command Software Systems, where she stayed until 2000.

In the 15 years since, Landesman has built expertise in many areas of cybersecurity — including email and web security — working at companies such as Microsoft and Cisco. All along the way, her desire to help computer users understand the cyber threat landscape has been a driving force for both deepening and broadening her knowledge and skills.  

“My focus is to help potential victims contextualize the risk, understand how to avoid infection and remediate infection if it does occur,” says Landesman.

Reading data’s ‘story’ and solving puzzles

Today, at Norse, Landesman is responsible for “combining security research and data analytics to best answer the who, what, when and where” of cyber threats. She says, “On a daily basis, I study logs, analyze data trends, keep current with threats and industry news, write reports, speak with customers about their log analysis, and provide insight for the sales team.”

What she likes especially about her role as a data scientist, though, is reading data to get its “story.” She explains: “It’s a lot like working on a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are all jumbled up together, and there are other unrelated pieces making noise. I like studying those pieces, putting them together and solving the puzzle.”

Advice for women aspiring to work in technology

Landesman says that the data science field, and the cybersecurity industry, are ripe with job opportunities for women. She explains that and more in her answers to the questions below:

What type of skills, technical and nontechnical, are needed to become a data scientist in the cybersecurity field?

I believe passion and enthusiasm are the two core traits required. Caring deeply about what you do (passion) and a strong desire to do it (enthusiasm) are key.

Having both an analytic and creative mindset helps tremendously, as well. It helps to avoid thinking too linearly, to be able to envision what a bigger picture might look like and how to hone in on the smaller details. I don't think it’s a coincidence that many people — both men and women – working in the security industry have some type of creative or musical background.

Also, you need security industry experience to work as a data scientist in this area. It’s the same for any industry, really. For example, if you want to work as a data scientist who investigates insurance fraud, you should have relevant insurance industry knowledge and experience.

What certifications does someone working at your level need to earn?

[Security expert] Winn Schwartau recently tackled this topic on Techspective. He’s writing a series of articles on the skills, certifications and education needed in the security industry. I think he nails it, so anyone looking to hire or be hired in the industry should read that series.

What hurdles have you encountered as a woman working in the tech industry?

I’ve been fortunate that I’ve encountered these types of challenges infrequently in my career. In fact, in my first job in the industry, there were a lot of strong women in technical roles — the CEO, the head of the virus lab, and our product manager were women. And a lot of my colleagues at Norse are women.

I would say, if you encounter a situation where women are discouraged from speaking up, or strong women are disparaged, find a new situation. Don’t wait it out. It’s not worth the stress.

Why do you think there are so few women working in technology, generally?

In Hollywood and the media, I think the tech field, and those who work in it, are often presented as being a little weird or not mainstream. That may discourage some people from working in tech. In actuality, the industry is very diverse and there is no single “type” of person — all walks of life, tastes and personalities are fully represented.

I also think it would help if girls were encouraged and rewarded for interests in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]. But equally, those without STEM backgrounds need to know opportunities in tech exist for them, and be encouraged to pursue them.

How important is professional networking in your industry? And what types of organizations do you belong to?

Attending industry conferences is key. Whether it’s a local user group or an international conference like Black Hat or DEF CON, these places are where you will meet people who can be instrumental in helping to kick-start or develop your career.

If there’s a local conference in your area — BSides, for example — sign up as a volunteer, or ask about discounted tickets for students. To prospective employers, taking part in these extracurricular activities will demonstrate you have passion and enthusiasm for the field. It will help set you apart from other applicants.

What other guidance would you give to women considering a career path in technology?

I’m going to borrow from Nike here: Just do it. It wasn’t easy getting my first job in the industry. I set my sights on a particular company, learned everything I could about them, created a resume and cover letter focused on that one job, and sent it off. I followed up multiple times before I was interviewed and hired. But by being determined, I eventually got my break. In my case that meant starting out in tech support, which was a great way to get my foot in the door.

I think behind the whole “Lean In” mantra is a message for women to stop being afraid to take chances and trying to nurture everyone else at our own expense. Be brave, step forward and answer more questions than you ask. I learned that in the Coast Guard. And when I stopped looking for permission or validation, that’s when I broke ground.

You can follow Mary Landesman on Twitter at @marylande.

Your new assignment

If you’ve been reading our series about women in technology, you know we’re providing readers with optional “assignments” that are intended to motivate them to think about how they, as individuals, can help to grow women’s influence in the tech sector.

This month’s assignment: Follow Mary Landesman’s advice and attend or volunteer at a technology industry conference in your area — or beyond. You could end up meeting people who will have a positive influence on your career in tech.

To see previous assignments, check out the list in our previous post for this series.

Starting salaries for both data and cybersecurity jobs are projected to rise in 2016. Find out more about those and other IT positions in our 2016 Salary Guide.