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IWD 2020 interview: Kordia's NZ CISO Hilary Walton

08 Mar 2020

New Zealand is a small country with a powerful tech backbone, but chances are you won’t come across too many people in the country who hold the title of CISO – and even fewer who are female CISOs.

Meet Kordia’s CISO Hilary Walton, who stepped up to the role in late 2019. We spoke to her about her career, Kordia, and diversity in technology ahead of International Women’s Day. 

Walton started her career as a psychologist at the Royal New Zealand Air Force, which formed the foundation for her career moves into leadership and culture. The city of London is what marked her foray into security – notably the 2012 Olympic Games where she was manager in Information Security and Security Culture. She also worked with MI5, in which she managed a security project.

The Olympics marked what she calls her first technology role, as she was working with a  technical information security team. She learned on the job and dug her heels deep into gaining more qualifications.

“It was a crazy role that had deadlines and more security in place in the leadup to the Olympics night and opening ceremony. It was also a major culture change because you’re doing things differently to what you did before and trying to keep the legacy of the Games," she says.

She returned to New Zealand to spend time at Airways as an ICT leader in areas such as risk management and oversight and security. In 2019, she landed in her current role at Kordia.

Kordia provides a range of network, cloud and security products – including a unified security management service through its Security Operations Centre (SOC). The company also offers consultancy services and penetration testing via Aura Information Security, the cybersecurity business Kordia acquired in 2015.

“In security, you never get to a point where you say ‘hey, you’re secure’. It just doesn’t happen and it’s always a journey. Kordia is on board with that and there are passionate, intelligent people here - that makes it a real pleasure to work with Kordia.”

Kordia actively encourages women to step into tech careers through initiatives such as the Women in Tech scholarship at the University of Waikato, and a broader cybersecurity scholarship for all genders at Unitec called the Kordia and Unitec Cyber Excellence Scholarship.  

“Our CEO Scott Bartlett is very much about diversity and inclusion – that filters through the organisation. We’re still on a journey, but we are putting those connections in place. We’ve also recruited a female into our security operations this year at Kordia, and the last three hires in security roles at Aura have been women as well.”

“We need to have women in organisations and those types of roles so that other women can see that they belong as well. The diversity programme is working and we’re having the right conversations. It’s an ongoing process and we’re consciously making an effort in these areas.”

International Women’s Day is on Sunday the 8th of March. We asked how Walton’s experience has been as a woman in IT.

“It has been a mix of good and not so good – I’ve had many supportive male colleagues. Others have been less supportive in the way that they will try to catch you out and pick at your credibility or your confidence.”

“I think women – particularly in technology and security – tend to have a confidence gap. Some women feel like outsiders and need to make their way, while men going into the industry tend to feel like they belong. Women sometimes think that men might know more and speak more confidently, but women learn that just because someone is speaking confidently or using a few good words, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they know more. It’s an ongoing learning process, and I’m still learning too.”

Walton points out that women’s decisions to leave and re-enter the workforce, such as in the case of having children, are also important factors in a career path. She has three children, so she understands exactly what support mothers need. She says learning new skills and having children poses a few challenges but having people who believed in her abilities allowed her to navigate these challenges with ease.

For example, sometimes women will shy away from promotions if they’re having a family soon, but potentially that’s a mistake, says Walton. Good managers will understand and work together to help women return to work.

“When I was pregnant, I applied for a Future Directors programme. I did the programme throughout my pregnancy. Baby came and I continued on. They have a ‘baby in the boardroom’ policy so they said I could take a couple of months off and bring baby to the boardroom. My little girl came to a few board meetings.”

“Everything is possible and you can find a way through, so you shouldn’t necessarily take your foot off the pedal or stop thinking around your career. You can get joy from your job and joy from your family.”

It’s not just about what women could do differently – organisations should also make efforts to address their business culture, their environments, and support their leaders.

“We need to be as supportive as we can for people as they go through their careers. Allowing people to work flexibly becomes super important and if we empower people to work like that, then employees give you their heart and soul in terms of delivering their role and the organisation.”

When Walton came back from maternity leave, she worked three days per week for a start. As her baby grew, she could put more time back into the job. She says she was working at her own speed, rather than being forced to come back by a certain day and work five days a week. For organisations that allow for flexibility, it will pay off.

She says organisations should also try to measure their diversity and inclusion efforts because if there’s no good data, there aren’t many ways to track improvement and that they are making a difference.

"We also need to have more of these kinds of conversations," she says.

And she's right. While International Women's Day is a calendar celebration of women's achievements, diversity and inclusion efforts must have a long-term future to reflect our changing world.