Cybersecurity Leader Laura Deaner

Science Like A Girl: Cybersecurity Leader Laura Deaner

Laura Deaner loves computers. As the Chief Information Security Officer responsible for stopping hackers from attacking S&P Global, that’s hardly surprising. But getting to spend her days elbows deep in technology didn’t happen right away. She didn’t even get to peek inside a computer until college. Her knack for spotting weaknesses was an important start. But Laura had to figure out how to go from recognizing, “Hey, I bet I could break that,” to creating and communicating company-wide strategies for keeping people and their information safe. 

A Chief Information Security officer is a person who is responsible for keeping an organization’s information and data safe.

Even though Laura had an early interest in technology, her family didn’t have a computer at home. Laura’s mom, recalling her own childhood in Morocco, was more interested in the resources Laura had access to than the ones she didn’t. 

Sent to the local library, Laura read piles of books about computers and was thankful for the time she got on the few computers it had. 

At home, Laura peppered her father with questions and helped with the soldering iron when he repaired the family TV. No matter how much she sweet-talked the library staff, they weren’t going to let her take apart a computer.

Laura’s grandmother in Morocco, her name was Aicha also known as ”Grandmother Meylela”. Image Credit : Laura Deaner
Laura and her family

At college, Laura encountered all kinds of new environments. She can still remember walking in and seeing a lab full of computers. But that wasn’t the only entrance that left a lasting impression. On the first day of her first computer science course, she opened the door to a stadium-style auditorium packed with hundreds of her peers. More specifically, packed with hundreds of boys. Out of those hundreds, there were only a small handful of girls. “I was so intimidated,” Laura remembers.She had experienced being an “only” before, as the only sister among three brothers and the only Moroccan in her entire class. It wasn’t a feeling she enjoyed. Laura went to the back of the auditorium, willing herself to be invisible. She wanted nothing to do with the front row.

But the judgment wasn’t just in Laura’s head. One classmate asked if her laptop belonged to her boyfriend. Another told her that he didn’t think girls belonged in computer science. When Laura shared this with her brother, he was furious at the discrimination. His passion reminded Laura of the family she had behind her, and the bravery she came from. With a mother who was a Merchant Marine and a father in the U.S. Navy, she knew she was made of tougher stuff. She stuck it out.

 

Laura’s family; father – Michael, mother – Fatima, oldest brother Moushsine, brother Hicham, and Laura at age 4. Image Credit : Dr. Laura Deaner

I’m not going to lie and say I was in the front row, but I was at least in the middle and I was asking questions.

By the end of the semester, Laura felt more comfortable. “I’m not going to lie and say I was in the front row,” Laura said, “but I was at least in the middle and I was asking questions.”

Truly finding her place didn’t end up happening in the classroom. Laura landed a job doing system administrator and help desk work in the school of engineering. She was paying her way through college, even switching to part time and extending into a sixth year to make it work. But that job exposed her to skills that became the foundation of her career.

Laura finally got to take apart computers and see how they worked. Yes, she burned up a couple of motherboards in the process. Thankfully her boss told her not to worry about it – but also not to do it again. Laura helped professors who were integrating computers into their own work. Sometimes she would explain the internet to a mechanical engineering professor. Another day she would explain the limits of software to electrical engineering faculty.

She learned to not only problem-solve all kinds of issues, but also how to communicate with people from every academic background. Most importantly, she learned about what not to do. In one case a professor made an over-the-top-request for a book-length, step-by-step guide on how to do computer tasks. And Laura laughed at him. “I got in a lot of trouble,” she admitted. Much more trouble than when she destroyed the motherboards.

Her biggest lessons weren’t how to explain the things she understood, but how to admit what she didn’t know. On a couple of memorable occasions, she tried to fudge her way through explanations she didn’t fully understand. One encounter with a developer made Laura cry – not because of what he said, but because she felt she should have known better. She squared her shoulders and went back. Better informed this time, Laura found herself with a new friend and mentor. “I got called out. It felt horrible,” she said. She swore she would never put herself in that situation again. 

Laura went from college to a job on the night shift, and she found she had a knack for spotting holes. She would fortify firewalls and reshape infrastructure to be harder to break. Thankfully her supervisors were far more grateful for her insights than her college professor had been when she pointed out that the folder permissions made it possible to change grades.

She dove in, taking advantage of both hands-on learning and generous training budgets. Once again, she made the most of the resources she had. Through courses on ethical hacking and business-focused cybersecurity, Laura realized she wasn’t satisfied just to do the work. She wanted to be the one to set the strategy and lead. She didn’t want to be invisible; she wanted a seat in the front row.

Keeping Safe Online

  • Don’t click links from people you don’t know – or even ones from people you do know but weren’t expecting.
  • When setting up a video chat, use waiting room and password features to make sure only the right people can get in the room. Pretend you are having a meeting in person and are checking people in at the door.
  • Don’t use open Wi-Fi unless you absolutely must. Really. With everyone suddenly working remotely, it is open season for hackers.
  • Don’t share pictures online that show your dorm, your room, or your home address. You don’t want to share information that predators can use to pretend they know you or take advantage of you.

As she took on leadership roles, she found herself wanting to advocate for others. She had found her voice and was going to use it to highlight diversity issues close to her heart. She had made it through, and she wanted other girls to know that they could to. “If I don’t talk about it, people like myself when I was this age won’t find it attractive,” Laura said. “And they won’t be able to get through these situations I was in when I wanted to quit.” 

Laura knows providing an example is about more than wearing awesome nerdy dresses (though she has those too). It’s about using her platform and being willing to face questions about topics like discrimination head on. “They need to have the conversations, and not just with other women in the room.” With all her advocacy with career days and Girls Who Code, one of Laura’s favorite success stories comes from much closer to home.  The oldest of her four sons (yes, she is again surrounded by boys) was helping a classmate with Scratch code, and proudly told Laura, “Mommy, I helped a girl.”

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Read more on Laura Deaner here.

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Author

  • Amanda Baker, Ph.D.

    Amanda is a scholarly publishing professional and science writer. Whether writing articles for interested kids or helping researchers publish their latest books, she has a passion for communicating the latest discoveries to curious readers from college campuses to K-12 classrooms. Her academic and professional careers have pursued a commitment to lifelong learning across the academic spectrum – including a Ph.D. from Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science and undergraduate majors in geology, psychology, and German at Bucknell University. She loves writing for SMORE, because every issue is a chance to tell someone else's story – from physicists to podcasters, public health experts to programmers – and introduce the readers of Smore to who they are and what they do.