Women in tech of the month: Philomena Lavery

Woman in Tech of the Month is our series exploring the achievements of women who are breaking gender stereotypes to build technology-based careers. This month, we’re celebrating Philomena Lavery, Chief Information Security Officer at National Highways. In our interview, she reflects on her career in tech, shares tips on how to build diverse teams and gives advice for women as they progress through their careers. 

Tell me about your journey into technology...

I have always loved maths and had a natural curiosity for learning. I hadn’t considered a career in STEM until my maths teacher suggested that I pursue engineering. 

After I left school, I studied material engineering. I went on to complete an MBA and began to work across technology in areas such as corporate finance and development, technology buying and strategy.

When you’re younger, it can be difficult to know what opportunities are available. I was fortunate that a mentor helped me combine my interests with what the world has to offer.

What is it about security that interests you?

I have always been fascinated with knowing how things work. I’m interested in seeing how things are designed and then made, especially from a security perspective. It’s the ultimate system of systems, because the world is entirely interconnected under one ecosystem, it’s an engineer’s dream!

As you have progressed through your career, what has been important to your success?

Early on in my career, I didn’t know anyone who worked in technology. But as I became more established in my role, I met several mentors who were invested in my development and offered their guidance and support. The most significant piece of advice I have received is to be confident in your own abilities – be confident that you can, and will, navigate your way through challenges. Find a mentor or supportive community to guide you along the way.

Because of my own experience, I’ve always mentored others to create a sense of community as they navigate their careers.  If people are informed of the career opportunities available, they are more likely to succeed in exploring them.

Women in particular tend to underestimate their abilities.  Technology is often about understanding how systems work together meaning you can transfer skills from other areas of life into your work. One fitting example is using skills you learn from belonging to a family, which functions as a wider system. Avoid underestimating the power of applying skills learnt in a family environment to a career in technology.

Why is diversity in tech important?

Authentic diversity is necessary. When building diverse teams, I focus on including neurodiversity to bring a unique perspective to the challenges we face. The first organisation I worked in operated across 53 counties, so I was lucky enough to travel around the globe. You learn so many skills by being exposed to different environments and observing other cultures. A global perspective helps somebody stand out, particularly in cybersecurity and threat intelligence where international relations and politics are critical to the subject area.

What are some of your standout achievements?

My greatest achievement is seeing my team succeed and individuals shine. Early into my career, I created a team and spent time developing and mentoring them. Then 10 years later, one of them was hired into their first CEO role and called to tell me about their success. It was brilliant to see their growth and willingness to take on new challenges. I think there’s a multiplication factor, if you spend time mentoring someone well, they will pass on what they have learned to help support another person’s development.

I love the job I do because there are always new challenges and ways to bring tech to the public in a safe and secure way. But, at the end of the day, it’s seeing the growth in a team which gives me the greatest satisfaction.

What can senior leaders do to encourage diversity in teams?

Look at your team as a tapestry or jigsaw. To create a complete picture, you don’t want the pieces to look the same. When building a diverse team, always look for people who are different to you or how you perceive yourself to be. It’s important to find out what your team excel at to give them confidence in what they are doing.

What is your advice to women who are looking to start in tech?

Start by volunteering and get involved in learning opportunities, evening school, vocational courses, online platforms, anything to get a start.

Then, it’s all about networking. Ask questions and be bold. There are many different careers in technology, so be prepared to give things a go. And be open to feedback, the more input you can get from a variety of people the more robust your career path will be.

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