Iretioluwa Akerele is a cybersecurity professional who has expertise as a cybersecurity consultant and industry practitioner. She is also a career coach and mentor who has given direction to over 500 cybersecurity beginners and enthusiasts and co-founded a cybersecurity community that supports African students in Europe. In this interview with Daily Trust on Sunday, she discusses the future for women who seek a career path in technology and security intelligence.
Security intelligence is largely seen as a male dominated sector, what stirred your interest in cybersecurity?
I studied Information Security and Computer Forensics at Masters level. I was interested in the course because of the ‘Forensics’ element which is similar to what my friend was studying in Nigeria at that time. I knew nothing about cybersecurity until I started the course. It exposed me to a lot of things and I can say that’s the course that changed my life. I got a job as a Senior Analyst two months after I graduated. That was the beginning of my journey into cybersecurity.
Were there any resources that assisted you as a woman which could potentially entice more women to pursue the same career path?
For me, my study was sponsored by my parents. It gave me an advantage to focus on the course and graduate with a good grade. However, there are free training opportunities available that women can take advantage of. For example, my foundation offers free cybersecurity training to selected women. With trainings like this, more women are likely to be interested in starting a career in cybersecurity. There are learning platforms that offer free and discounted trainings that women can leverage on.
Give us an insight into your daily activities and what excites you about it?
I do a lot on a daily basis. I have a full-time job as an Information Security Manager. I manage my company, an organization that provides world-class cyber security consulting and training services to individuals and organizations. I also do a lot of volunteering activities. I give people career advice on Twitter. I support cybersecurity students in Nigeria, the UK and Ireland. On some days, after work or weekends, we schedule meetings to support these students by checking in to see the progress they’ve made so far.
Do you believe that a lack of early education in cybersecurity and technology is discouraging young girls from pursuing careers in technology? If so, how can we address this?
I don’t think so. There is no age limit for starting a career in tech. I was 26 years old when I started my career in Cybersecurity. Some young girls are starting now at the age of 15. If it happens that women are 30 and they are still interested in tech, they are not late. However, it will also be easier if individuals denounce the idea that only the male gender can survive in the security world. Security intelligence isn’t only for the men. If a girl child walks up to the parent to say she wants a career in tech or security intelligence, she shouldn’t be discouraged.
Do you foresee a time in the future where the profession would enjoy the gender diversity that some other sectors currently enjoy?
Yes, that time is coming. A lot of women are now moving towards tech and are getting trained in cybersecurity. In the support group for students that I co-founded, we have several women in the community. At my organisation, we are currently giving over 1000 women an opportunity to learn cybersecurity without paying a dime. These women and many more are the people that will fill up roles, to encourage diversity in the field. We will see an improvement in gender diversity in a few years’ time.
If you had unlimited access to resources, how would you go about getting more women involved in cybersecurity?
This is an interesting question. I say this because sometimes in my quiet time, I think about the support I give people, with limited resources. If I have it in abundance, I will definitely be doing greater things, and women would benefit from it. Cybersafe Foundation, led by Confidence Staveley, is doing amazing work for women to start their career in tech, including cybersecurity.
In a world where everything revolves around the internet, how do cyber security threats affect businesses?
The impact of cyber threat is numerous. Some businesses don’t even recover from cyber-attack, it’s that bad. However, we always advise for business owners not to give out sensitive information about their businesses to online users. They should also make sure to set up an appropriate firewall system that will prevent their web pages from being hacked because customers often store their credit card details to these websites. When buying products from online websites, be sure to check that they’re the original sites as people may often create fake homepages in order to gain access to people’s credit card details.
Another question about perceptions of the IT and digital spheres, why do we think of hackers as men, and how can we change that?
If you google hacker and click on images, majority of the pictures you will see are male-like pictures. That alone gives a perception that hackers are men. Also, when we hear about the bad guys, especially from the black-hat perspective (cyber-attackers), it happens that in most cases, they are men. Although we have women who are ethical hackers, there are women who also possess the skills to be black hat hackers. However, we still need more women in the field to evenly balance out the equation. In a few years’ time, we will start seeing the results of some of the efforts we are making concerning gender inclusion.
Women often fall victims of cybersecurity threats, e.g. engaging with traffickers, bank frauds, etc. How best do you think women can protect themselves on the internet?
I must say it’s sad that even with the awareness being raised on issues, women are still on the receiving end of some cyber threats. The advice still remains the same, know who you communicate with online. Do not share vital information about yourself or family members. For women who end up being trafficked, do not meet up with strangers in unfamiliar places. Even if you feel the need to, do a background check on these persons, where did they study? Who and where is their family located? Search for these family members on social media. If you’re lucky to have a friend who’s into cybersecurity, they can do a deeper dive for you. That’s the beauty of the internet, people may appear fake but every information you need regarding them can be found.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
“Teaching people how to phish”. Phishing is a phrase that refers to a malicious individual or group that attempts to defraud users. They accomplish this by sending e-mails or developing web pages that are intended to gather an individual’s online banking, credit card, or other login information. Anytime someone I have mentored, trained or someone who has gone through our internship tells me about their success, I am always excited. I literally jump for joy. This is what keeps me going.