McAfee’s Celeste Fralick explains why diversity is fundamental to cybersecurity
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This year’s Transform 2021 is in full swing. As we put together this year’s conference, we were conscious of the need to invite panelists from a broad array of experiences, cultures, and backgrounds. It’s increasingly clear that AI isn’t one-size-fits-all, and these business leaders and execs make that tenet a central part of their work.
We had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Celeste Fralick, chief data scientist and senior principal engineer at McAfee about how the pandemic has changed company perspectives, why effective cybersecurity requires diversity of thought, and more.
See the first three in the series: Intel’s Huma Abidi, Redfin’s Bridget Frey, and Salesforce’s Kathy Baxter. More to follow.
VB: Could you tell me about your background, and your current role at your company?
I have worked in data since 1980, with my first project being statistical process control (SPC) for a Texas Instruments manufacturing plant. Fast forward through Fairchild, Medtronic (retired), Intel (retired), and its spin-out McAfee, and I have always gravitated to (or been assigned directly to) statistics and now data science. My PhD in biomedical engineering focused on neural networks — quite timely for the advent of big data!
My current role as a chief data scientist and senior principal engineer requires me to interface with data scientists, management, vendors, and customers — so I embrace a satisfying combination of detailed technical work and system-wide implications to analytics every day. I like to draw upon my background in process and product development to enhance my approach to AI. I definitely like to connect the dots with people, operations, projects, and data. Always data!
VB: Any woman or BIPOC in the tech industry, or adjacent to it, is already forced to think about DE&I just by virtue of being “a woman or BIPOC in tech” — how has that influenced your career?
I try NOT to think about it and just do the best job I can. I have only had a few instances where I had to draw the line or bring up an oversight, but constructive confrontation and data always resulted in great outcomes. It helps to have a predictable emotional “amplitude” in what bothers you and what doesn’t.
VB: Can you tell us about the diversity initiatives you’ve been involved in, especially in your community.
One of the challenges of being a biomedical engineer (BME) by education is that companies tend to forget that 50% of BME students are female and are often proficient in complementary areas, including physics, computer science, and data science. I serve/served on industrial advisory boards for universities’ BME departments and I am always surprised at the university career centers’ sluggishness to realize this degree’s diversity and analytical approach.
The security industry, as a whole, has been male-dominated but I see this as an evolutionary product of the industry itself — e.g., more attacks yield more knowledge about cybersecurity protection and the companies that provide that security, leading potential hires to be aware of this intriguing field. McAfee diligently works to recruit technical females, even ensures at least one woman employee is on interview panels, and meticulously supports our diversity.
One particular internal organization I am very fond of is Women in Security (WISE) where we are exposed to every challenge a woman faces — even financial acumen! The learnings and comradery from WISE have been excellent and I am very proud to have initiated the section in Argentina. WiSE is well supported by the C-Suite.
VB: How do you see the industry changing in response to the work that women, especially Black and BIPOC women, are doing on the ground? What will the industry look like for the next generation?
Working from home over the past year has brought to light to many companies the intricacies of work-life balance. As women, we have been juggling with that for decades, so it is uplifting to see it recognized mainstream. I believe it has inspired companies to be more flexible, tolerant, and emotionally intelligent with their employees.
I am also finding that I can choose to shop at BIPOC-owned companies or for BIPOC-created products, as even large retail companies are highlighting these afore-hidden gems. We have choices now, compared to just a few years ago — how refreshing! (I grew up amongst Alaskan natives and their products, so I feel like the world at large is becoming more like home.) Both working from home and choosing BIPOC will continue to expand in all industries due to the recent global health and societal inflections.
As for the next generation, I know the cybersecurity industry will continue to increase its women and BIPOC recruitment. I continue to accentuate the unique field of BME, hopefully expanding diversity of thought — adversaries certainly think out-of-the-box, and the more diversity our industry has, the better we will respond to protect our customers.
Finally, as data and Data Science degrees have increased exponentially worldwide, the opportunity for hiring women is excellent — let’s just continue our efforts in K-12 to teach data and statistics from early-on, and influence the next generation that AI can bring great efficiencies, discoveries, and opportunities to everyone.
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