WiAC '12: Uncharted Paths / Leslie Lambert

Hey! I’m at the USENIX Women in Advanced Computing 2012 Summit and will be blogging the talks today. You can view more of my posts about this conference under the wiac12 category on this blog.

Uncharted Paths

Speaker: Leslie Lambert, Vice President & Chief Information Security Officer, Juniper Networks

In her opening talk, Leslie walked us through her “uncharted” career path and demonstrated a common pattern in her professional development – she discovered some discipline or technology of interest, either went back to school or somehow got training in it, and switched career paths or roles to try out the new discipline. Her main messages were that you should never stop learning and you don’t need to choose between two ORs – you can AND your interests.
Since Leslie was very young she was treated as a “smart kid.” One thing parents told her all along: “You can be anything you want to be!” They were very non-specific, so she tried to figure out what she actually wanted to do.
For her in her early years, 7th grade (middle school) was a big fork in the road. This was when she and her classamtes started tracking into different classes in school, and she ended up hanging out more with the guys. She could really relate to Carolyn and Nicole’s introduction at the beginning of the day – “OMG, this is a group of women, I’m afraid of you!” She became very accustomed to hanging out with guys for so long that she knew their language far better than womens’.
In college, Leslie started off in mechanical engineering. She was one of only 2 girls in the whole program; they hung out together all the time and did everything together. They were the only ones who got in trouble for talking in class. Two and a half years into school, she quit and went to work: it was hardest decision she’d made, but she wanted to see if she could be successful in engineering world. She joined the Fluor corporation, which is involved in
engineering construction, petrochemical plants, and processing plants. Her first role there was in control systems design – managing pressure, temperature, level and flow at plants – and she loved it. From her experience designing systems on computer systems for some time she switched roles into being a systems analyst.
She worked at Fluor for 9 years and went to school at night, eventually deciding she didn’t want to be an engineer. She finally graduated with bachelor’s degree is in psychology – her path through majors in school was mechanical engineering, to physical therapy, to math, to computer science, and then psychology. She developed an interest in psychology when she took a research methods in psychology class and thought she’d like to become a professional researcher in experimental psychology, so she left her job, went back to school full time, and pursued a masters degree in the subject. She gained expertise in quantitative psychology, the measurement/evaluation of research and statistics. She worked in social science research center at university.
1.5 years into her masters degree, she realized she didn’t want to do experiemental psychology research. She ended up going back to Fluor. On her first day back, there was an issue she had to deal with, so she sat down at vt220
and realized that the system password was the same as it had been when she’d left the company to go back to school.
She supported CAD system, VAX 11/780, PDPs. She loved the VAX and the VMS OS, felt that she’d finally found something that got her hooked. It was ‘like an addiction,’ she went to every class + conference on the topic.
Leslie talked a little bit about her many female role models:

  • Dr. Grace Murray Hopper – Inventor of COBOL, worked in ENIAC, and was credited with coming up with the word bug. A proponent of the idea that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Leslie doesn’t like the common old photo of Dr. Hopper that tends to be used, and showed a picture of her as beautiful young scientist.
  • Anita Borg – Famous for working for Digital, and then founding the Anita Borg Institute in Palo Alto which exists today. In 2006 Leslie became an ambassador for the Anita Borg Institute.
  • Hedy Lamarr – A famous mid-centurty actress, she was also the inventor of spread spectrum technology.

After a while, Leslie thought she was ready for the next step in her career: she wanted to manage and be the leader. She went back to school and got an MBA while keeping her job for three years. Suddenly she understood more about what was going on at work – she had been so focused on technology, and now she began to understand what was really going on. Sometimes we’re so into tech and what we’re doing, we don’t see the bigger picture.
When her point-of-view broadened, things began to change. She picked up some speed in career and moved on to Sun Microsystems, where she worked for 18 years. There she moved across many different roles and worked to integrate her new management experience with the tecnologyh experience she already had. Sometimes people see management vs. tech sa a fork in the road: Leslie emphasized that she had to have it all and would integrate both into her career. She spent time learning what business actually does – what are we doing and why? Up and to the right! And work relationships. She had to learn so much about how the company she worked for worked, it was like going back to school.
Leslie then walked us through some words of advice from her experiences:

1. Never stop learning.

You should never, never stop learning. Know what you are good at and what you are not good at. Don’t try to cover up or skate around what you’re not good at: as a leader, hire people around you who do the stuff you’re not good at, and take care of them!

2. Sometimes you get a few bricks with the roses.

In work and school, we tend to look for a lot of accolades (“roses” being thrown on the ice at a figure skater after a performance.) Sometimes you have bricks thrown at you, however. You can choose to let them derail you or not.

3. If you derail, how will you aid in your own rescue?

What’s your standard pattern? How do you get out of it? Do talk to others for help? Blame others? Get scientific and study up on what happened and how to fix it?
Whether or not you succeed ultimately doesn’t have to do with your failure, but whether or not not you were able to aid in your own rescue and get yourself out of trouble.

Credibility = execution, accountability, clarity, fairness, trust

Throughout your career, you want to build up persona of credibility. Think about your ‘calling card.’ What are you promising to others that you are going to do when you go on a job interview / walk into new role / start a new project? Know what your calling card is.
Leslie’s is: “You can take it to the bank.’ She tends to be more of a truthsayer than a political person. So she’s decided that people can depend on her to speak the truth and be authentic and genuine. She’s not rabid about her point-of-view, but she provides it and engages in discussion. When Leslie says something you can know it’s true.

Blame is such a bore

Stay away from blaming others. Own what you did.

There is no one path.

Leslie walked us through her path in this talk. She was in and out of school and roles. She learned from each one of those experiences. Some people are far more direct, but she was “all over the place.” Even if youre all over the place, though, you can still be okay.
Here are some of the most important things Leslie had learned:

Life is a series of ‘AND’ statements

Don’t choose between work and family or management and technology. If you feel like you’re stuck in the ‘OR’ world, remember it’s ‘AND.’

Work the ‘R’ before the ‘I’.

This ws one of the most painful lessons she ever learned. Mid-career, she moved into a senior director role at Sun. She took the assignment in Massachusetts to be a CIO of an organization within Sun. She started pushing, ‘this is the way we’re going to go,’ and she bombed big time with her group. The head of HR called her in and advised herto work the R (relationship) before the I (issue). It’s all about relationships. If you’re not good at buliding them, make it your #1 task before you walk out of here: get some training, read a book, etc.

Stay on the high road

It’s tough to get dragged into petty convos and gossip. Stay out of it and above the fray. This will garner you a lot of respect in the workplace and is key to your credibility.

“As a woman, you’ve really got to know your stuff, better than the men on the team…”

Dr. Madeline Albright advised this as a keynote talk Leslie went to in Las Vegas. You can’t get by on half-knowing your subject or not preparing. (She also said, “there is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.) Sometimes as tech women we don’t even know each other – make sure you build relationships with women as well.


1. How did you make the jump to focus on security?

Sun Microsystems… Sun Microsystems Inc. a small holding company. 13 separate companies were a part of Sun – Sun and the planets. She was the CIO of different Sun planets… she spent a lot of time in IT – kept moving to larger planets. Sun was her first experience in IT; she had previouslybeen in scientific computing. She was on a training path to CIO, then the company combined into one Sun. They build a functional IT org with devel, architecture, operations, processes and she began a ‘tour of duty’ through those. After 20-30 years of IT systems, ERP, CRM, etc. she couldn’t take it anymore. She was always fascinated with security so focused her career on that. She got certifications in security, privacy, risk management, and information systems auditing. She’s never been bored in security. It seems the latest breach, break-in, or hack is always in the news.
•Sometimes security is seen as ‘secret agent,’ but it’s more about education, awareness, good news. She doesn’t just talk about the underbelly of security – it’s no secret guys society. (She made a comment that she didn’t wear black today.)

2. Where you ever scared reinventing yourself?

Yes, she was freaking out. But she was hell-bent on going out there and doing things – she had faith and confidence to say ‘this is going to work.’ There is no try, do or do not – it takes a lot of courage.

3. Can you talk about the role of mentoring in your career?

She’s been connected to lots of people, a combination of men and women: more men than women because of the industry.
Sun Microsystems invested in her and sent her through two series of executive coaching. Don’t discount that type of training: if you cant get company to pay for it, you can do it yourself.
Every mentor she ever had at Sun left the company. That’s a lesson. why? When they left and she couldn’t go to them anymore, she had to go build another mentor relationship with someone else. Some of her mentors will tell you the truth: how you’re being perceived, help you hold up the mirror to how you’re being viewed in meetings / contributing to technology / what your ideas are about. She also talked about a mentor who challenged her to do good works. He was a Sr. VP at Sun, ran their real estate and facilities. He came in, nicely pressed, walked out, nicely pressed. She sees herself more like Pigpen from Peanuts… she feels wrinkled after 15 minutes. “How am I going to work with him?” It became a profound mentorship that brought Leslie more into public service. Now she’s on the board for 2 non-profits.

4. You seem like a strong woman, is that ever a barrier for you? Eg HR told you hey tone it down… if a man is really strong he’s a good leader, if a woman is she’s sent to charm school?

Yes, Leslie experienced that:

  • What really works is to be as authentic as possible. Be who you really are.
  • Whoever talks the loudest wins in tech. I recommend you get loud too. Some of us have this little voice… that isn’t going to work. Work on becoming very strong and very loud. It’s about the presence and the voice.
  • Sometimes you don’t have to be loud. Sometimes you can be really powerful if you talk in hushed tones. People lean in… but you have to build that role / credibility.

Carolyn mentioned that confidence is in there too. Some of us still struggle with confidence – “am I really as good as the other people in this room?”
In her early 20’s one of Leslie’s mentors said… “Leslie, you just need to act as if!”

  • As if you’re the smartest person in room
  • As if you’re in charge

The important word in that phrase is “act.” Leslie is extremely shy. What is she doing right now in the talk? Acting.
She had to learn to be an actress. While she’s at work, in that role, she has to be that role – not when at home.
Figure out how to act in the moment, be that role for the moment. It can be hard for introverts. It’s very tiring. Extroverts are energized by it. Leslie said she needs to go home to ‘the cave’ to decompress, and architect ‘cave time’ during the day to re-energize when necessary. Being all this ‘bigness’… at the beginning will feel very foreign, but it’s an essential part of building relationships – you can’t build relationships if you’re in the cave.

5.How do you build a network?

Be aware of and connected to other people in your same industry. Feel comfortable to pick up the phone and call them.
A lot of times it will be a woman, but more times in this industry it will be a guy. Become a part of formal networks and informal networks.

6. How can you be authentic if you’re acting?

You’re not really acting – you’re just being who you really are, more of it, and putting aside your shyness and apologetic tendencies. Don’t fake it or try to be somebody you’re not.
Say there’s a discussion going on, you know your stuff, you feel really passionate about it. When the discussion starts, what do you typically do? Sit back and wait. Leslie’s challenge: be first, Open your mouth first. Lead the discussion. Speak first and facilitate and lead the conversation.

7. What are you reading in security?

Leslie is reading about organization-building and getting the right type of folks and technology in place in a place that hasn’t been secure before.
After left Sun, 5 months off then went to Juniper networks. “You’ll be first security person here.” Working in Silicon Valley for high-tech firm that makes networking and security products. Over half the company are engineers – very science-driven company. They have been managing their own IT etc the whole time. So our group, VPs and IT, have been hired to shake it up.
We lengthened the password on cell phones, big backlash. From 4-6 numbers.

8. Boston vs Silicon Valley – which is easier for women’s upward movement?

It seems to be easier in Silicon Valley. Leslie moved to Massachusetts at Sun, then moved back to California when she switched roles… our divison was acquired by another Sun company. Executives lost their jobs and had to find other ones within the company, so she became CIO for microcontrollers.
She moved to CA, family didn’t. She travelled back to Boston every weekend and interviewed for several jobs in the area: she never got any of them. You could count the number of female VPs at Sun on one hand in the late 90’s. She was able to move up within the organization, they had trust in her and put her in a leadership role. The division she came to work for out in MA was headed by a woman – Dorothy Terrell, fantastic person to follow.
I wanted to attain that level of position in MA, but could not get it. “You’re way too young. You’re female, you can’t have this experience.” A lot of more cultural differences here, that she had not ‘paid her dues.’ She went on 4-5 major interviews, was number 2 on a couple of them, and never got the job. The rest of family then decided they had to go to CA. It might be tough stuff here in Massachusetts; maybe it’s more culturally bound than in CA?

9. What are your next steps?

Keep hanging in there because I know I can make a difference.

1 Comment

  1. […] separate talks from the USENIX Women in Advanced Computing 2012 Summit. Included are talks from Leslie Lambert, Vice President & Chief Information Security Officer, Juniper Networks; Emily Gladstone Cole, […]

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