An Inspirational Mentor Story of Kylie Watson — Australia
Kylie leads a team of cyber security specialists for IBM Consulting nationally across the financial services, critical infrastructure, industrial and retail, mining, public sector and communications sectors. Projects include strengthening organisational cyber postures for the SOCI Amendment, advisory on FIRB compliance, cyber target operating model and Board advisory.
Her teams also lead OEM SI projects including firewalls uplift, moving to the Cloud, identity and access management, vulnerability management, endpoint protection and data protection. She is uniquely placed to understand cyber security threats and human behaviour through her experience and degrees as both a cyber security professional and a sociologist. On top of this Kylie spent her early years in military and civilian engineering working on critical infrastructure for build (buildings, bridges and roads) and move (freight, explosives ordnance and water) which gives her valuable insights into the world of OT and IT.
Kylie is passionate about engaging better female representation in her technology teams, as well as cultural and neurodiversity. Her interest in making the world a better place, is reflected in her role as the Australian Chair of the National Institute of Strategic Resilience which seeks to engage the perspectives of all Australians putting national resilience and security policy into the dialogue. She has won many industry awards but is proudest when one of her team or mentees wins an award such as Anu Kukar winning the IT Security Champion Award for AWSN in 2021.
A sought after author and speaker, Kylie has shared her point of view with a variety of papers and submissions to government on cyber matters including the Digital Identity Legislation, SOCI Amendment Incentives, and Open Data and Release Legislative Reforms paper. She has also authored papers on predictive analytics and the need to navigate ethical dilemmas of predictive analytics in healthcare. She is a prolific speaker and industry thought leader in technology and presents regularly as a keynote speaker at conferences such as the International Social Enterprise Conference, Cloud Sec, AIS, ASC; and is a regular guest lecturer at the Australian National University, Macquarie University and University of New England.
Kylie grew up in outback SA, NSW and the NT and settled in Canberra (with some time spent working in Asia and basing in Singapore and Thailand). She has 3 children (2 teenage girls) and 1 pre teen boy and has been married to her husband for approx. 25 years (who she met in the military). Kylie actively mentors a range of people formally through a multitude of programs, as well as informally with check ins and coffee to make sure that people are okay and that she can help them on their career and life journeys.
What do you like the most in Cybersecurity field?
The evolving landscape of threats and ability to defend. I joined the military at 17 years of age and was taught very early on how to fully understand the context, seek out the enemy, scan for risks, undertake risk assessments and prepare for combat.
Cyber security is known as the 5th frontier of war and you always need to be on top of the latest attacks.
I feel I can take my military training directly into my civilian life and be useful in advising clients on continually upgrading their cyber security posture.
What motivates you to succeed as a mentor in Cybersecurity field and how would your previous mentee describe you?
I have officially mentored over 10 people and unofficially I always have people reaching out to me as they’ve heard I’m happy to provide advice and guidance. Perhaps over 100….. I like that everyone wants to join my teams but I’m sad that we can’t possibly take everyone. I had some great male and female mentors who gave me time throughout my career journey and actively helped me up the career ladder.
I also experienced some rather horrid managers who actively did not support me. I decided early on that I would be the person that climbed the ladder and created more ladders and threw them down to climb with guidebooks and equipment, not the person who pulled the ladder up behind them!
My most influential mentors were Andrew Springall at AECOM in engineering who fully backed me to crossover to IT, Hannah Baudert at SAP who supported me in everything I wanted to do (including a crazy time commuting to Asia every week) and Nikki Kennelly at IBM that understands the complexities of what I’m navigating and is quite simply a very valuable supportive, strong rock (perhaps a diamond).
My mentees would describe me as passionate, not afraid to advise where I went wrong, supportive of their choices, willing to call people for them, and willing to take calls at all hours.
How did you get into Cybersecurity and what do you enjoy most as a mentor in Cybersecurity?
I crossed over to cyber security after working in data and analytics and realising that the root causes for a lot of our reports were due to security breaches. We did not have a dedicated cyber practice in the industry I was working in and so I started hiring security engineers and architects to help solve client issues. That evolved into a full profitable practice.
I also enjoy spreading the word about cyber security awareness and helping other women into the industry. This photo is of me and one of my team Sarah Tisdell. I encouraged Sarah to join cyber security and she’s now our agile security lead. We’re currently taking the Questacon cyber bear to work events to raise awareness of cyber security in the general public
Why are you interested in being a mentor in Cybersecurity field?
We need more women and more people who think differently to oppose these escalating threats. I want to help get people into the industry and to keep them ‘sticky’. I remember being in a games escape room with a team of my IT architects and we were really struggling with how to get to the next room. I didn’t think I had much value to add as I was trained differently and then I picked up a mug and smelt it.
I realised it smelt like roses, so I picked up another one and it smelt like lavender. It led to a code to get out of the room. I was the only one that thought to smell and it was one of those moments that matter in life where you realise you actually have a lot to offer and that thinking differently is completely okay.
Describe your leadership style. How does this influence your approach for mentoring?
I’m a very trusting leader. I will always pick people up when they fall and make mistakes and go over what they learnt from it. I had someone once that made a $3M unrecoverable mistake and I backed them to the hilt. They wanted to resign and I would not accept the resignation. That person grew so strong and was so brave and eventually became a senior executive.
I feel very proud of them when I see them and they’re now a great friend.
I believe you need to take measured risks and pioneer new things and try different styles to find what is natural for you and where your superpower lies.
I’m about strengths based leadership. Let’s find out what you do well and make it even better — let’s not focus too much on weak areas unless they are absolutely vital to improve in your role.
How you gained the trust and confidence of your mentees so they felt comfortable coming to you with problems, questions, and concerns?
I’ll talk about almost anything and I’ve learned not to judge. I believe most of us have positive intent and I know I can’t make decisions for people or tell them what to do. They have to get to that decision themselves. My role is to coach and guide (and help if asked). I share failures in my career and I really believe that it’s rare to get to being an executive without something going horribly wrong at some stage. It’s how you navigate it that matters. Mentees tend to like this open approach.
Cybersecurity is a vast field; how do you cope with situation when broad goals are set by mentees?
My approach is to explore what they’re passionate about, what are their aha moments, what strengths do they have, and a little exercise where I get them to visually imagine their working lives in the future while I talk them through everything from what they have for breakfast, to how they get to work, to the type of people they work with, the colours of the office, where they get lunch, what role they play in meetings etc. We then can aim to make some of these things come to life. Luckily I’m a sociologist so I can help people quickly identify these things and then we can narrow the field a bit.
What are the challenges for mentors in Cybersecurity mentorship?
We’re not there to tell someone what to do and to make their career for them. Our job is to guide, share our experiences, suggest pathways, help with any contacts and coach. Not to do it for them. Some people come to me with competing job offers and want me to choose for them. That’s not going to happen but I do suggest once you’ve done a pros and cons list on the wall it becomes a lot clearer (perhaps don’t leave it up on a zoom for their existing boss to see like one mentee did once).
Should mentees prepare anything technical or take any basic courses before joining Cybersecurity mentoring program? If yes, please suggest some courses or links.
I have a few mentees in both It and non technical backgrounds that would like to come over to Cyber so I encourage them to do Security badges and certifications and some form of cyber study before they move over to Cyber — but it’s not mandatory.
I also get them to subscribe to cyber newsletters to keep across activities and to watch the news for cyber attacks. It will just make it easier for them and will show they are serious about a career in cyber security. I’d suggest following the JCSC updates, subscribing to ASPI and the defence newsletter as a start.
Fun Question :)
If you were to choose other profession, what would it be and why?
I always wanted to be a helicopter pilot and wished I’d transferred from engineering to aviation in the military. I even signed up to start learning to fly helicopters when I was younger but life got in the way. I’m always looking to go flying on choppers and my favorite cyber project was one involving security compromises on helicopter night vision goggles. I got to talk helicopters all week!