Story of a Hacker: Pursuing What I Love Made Me Grow a Second Layer of Skin

I started my career in programming 13 years ago. For the past three years, I have been a full-time hacker. However, I prefer calling myself a cybersecurity expert, as the word “hacker” is associated with the stereotype of a male criminal wearing a hoodie.

I am part of an industry heavily dominated by men. My take is that right now there are 20% of women among ethical hackers and 10% of women among those who engage in criminal hacking. The difference between ethical hackers and the so-called black hats is that the former never use their findings for their own advantage and never break into something they have not been invited to.

When I started as a programmer, nobody took me seriously neither at the university nor at work.

The weirdest comment I have ever received came from my university professor. There were just a handful of women in the class. He addressed us by saying that we had come there to find ourselves partners. I was deeply insulted, and that’s when I was forced to start growing thicker skin.

When I started working, male co-workers would delegate tasks to me that they didn’t want to do themselves, such as documentation. I wanted to advance, so it took me twice the effort.  In 13 years, I have made my name. Now nobody belittles me if they know who I am. However, when I get introduced to somebody for the first time, I still often receive skeptical reactions.

Growing out the stereotypes

From a very young age, girls are told they shouldn’t play “boys’ games”. Those who do not follow the prescribed rules make life harder for themselves.

My first encounter with the tech world was at school. I have always been a tomboy in this respect. My older brother’s friends used to ask me to fix their computers.

I was lucky enough I am an introverted person. Otherwise, the need for social acceptance might have hindered my pursuit of doing the things I love.

I was passionate about the investigative work hackers do to find vulnerabilities in systems. It’s not the typical thing a teenage girl would be interested in. Moreover, white hacker society is more lonesome compared to the guys on the dark web, who tend to form gangs and socialize when they work towards breaking into the systems.

When it comes to ethical hackers, they  also share their knowledge, but with coders — that is the main difference. I believe men and women can be equally great at hacking, but women are more eager to share their knowledge.

Hacker: just an everyday person with a simple life

It’s much easier to navigate a cybersecurity career in 2020, as more and more companies are trying to be more inclusive. Moreover, I am appreciated for my expertise and no longer have to prove anything.

I teach programmers to code without leaving security holes. Before I deliver my talk, I get skeptical looks from the audience. But when I start speaking, they listen and even pay more attention to what I have to say. I think the element of surprise makes them remember the things I teach better.

At work, I hack into systems, trying to find their vulnerabilities. In the evening, I go back home to my husband, two kids, and my hobby, which is a bit different from anybody else’s: I participate in bug bounty programs, where companies order to hack into their systems to find their weak spots.

Dealing with low cybersecurity awareness among end users

People may think they are of no interest to hackers. But they are, and research proves it. Your neighbour may be a hacker trying to break into your Wi-Fi network. Your ex-partner may try to get control of your social media accounts. And, of course, a random black-hat hacker will grab any chance to sell your account on the dark web. I have witnessed too many stories like these.

Hackers are good at finding their ways, but you can make it harder for them by following a simple routine of cyber hygiene:

  • Use unique and complex passwords for different accounts. Once hacked, your credentials can be checked against other services, such as email or online banking. To help you navigate through the sea of passwords, use a password manager like NordPass, which generates secure passwords and stores them in a protected vault.
  • Use two-factor authentication. Just entering a password won’t be enough — hackers would also have to get access to your phone or email.
  • Avoid poorly protected public Wi-Fi. If you have to log in to your online account on a network you can’t fully trust, use a VPN like NordVPN to make your connection private. A VPN encrypts all communications passing between your device and the internet so no outsider can intercept it.

The final note

There is one piece of advice I would share with anyone who is reading this on Ms. Career Girl:

Do not allow anyone to determine who you are and tell what you can or cannot do.

This guest post was authored by Mandy O.

Mandy is a cybersecurity expert, ethical hacker, mother of two, at age 32.  She has a BSc in Software Engineering.  Her career spans 10 years in software development and 3 years in cybersecurity with a focus on financial services.

Ms. Career Girl

Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.

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