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Debbie Sallis, Executive Director of The Cyber Guild, recently sat down with John Sherman to discuss his thoughts on cybersecurity as a meaningful career and hear insights gained from his journey to becoming CIO DoD… 

John: I am in cybersecurity because I took opportunities beyond the day job to learn and get involved. 

In fact, the gateway to this role was before I became a CIO in the Intelligence community. At the CIA, while I was assigned to the Open-Source Enterprise (OSE), I had a chance to be the representative to the Intelligence Community Information Technology Environment (IC-ITE) Mission Users’ Group. It was a board for Intelligence community technologists talking about technology, cloud, etc. Many people viewed it as extra duty and didn’t want to take the time to be on it. It turned out to be a great opportunity for me and led to me leading pilot projects about cloud cyber data etc. 

 I got noticed, and it was that that led to getting the call to join the CIO role in 2017. That role was a lot of on-the-job learning. It was internal operations, a lot of analysis working with cloud data collection, etc.  

John: It is about always learning, leaning forward on technology, and being defensively minded. 

The cybersecurity environment is always changing. It’s very different now to what it was 5-7 years ago. We need all hands on deck and that means cybersecurity work is a place of incredible opportunity and growth. 

We live in a digital economy and cybersecurity is indispensable to our way of life and to how we need to protect it. It is not a dark career but one of the challenges as we work to stay one step ahead. Someone with a cyber mindset is motivated to read about ransomware, zero trust, emerging threats, and what’s new in how we need to deal with them.  

John: By far it is a value for lifelong learning. A willingness to learn, experience, as well as education. Cybersecurity tech evolves so quickly, we need to be sponges to take it in. 

I was at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency years before cyber. I needed to learn and appreciate how important it was to not only get up to speed but also to stay up to date.  A value for lifelong learning means you recognize that you cannot rest on your education or on what you knew coming in the door. 

John: Don’t be intimidated. Remember we all had to start somewhere. It is scary at all levels; I am still faced with daunting challenges. 

Do not be put off by the technical field. You can make progress in bite-sized chunks. Community Colleges offer lots of opportunities now to help you apply yourself, your experiences and transferable skills.  Mid-career there is Code for America. 

John: My family; parents and children. 

This links back to not being intimidated.  At Texas A&M I accidentally signed up for senior level history class. 😊 My Professor, Professor Dawson, said that no freshman had ever passed the class. I stayed, got the highest grade and we became friends! 

Growing up I was taught to trust myself and to go for the challenge. That has always stood me in good stead.  

John: The role is multifaceted. Have a career plan that recognizes that. Be intentional about 3 areas:  

  1. Respect the nature of the role. Understand the intellect around you and connect with hearts as much as heads. You will be Captain of the ship, not tactically executing. Yes, you need to understand tech but the higher you go the less it is about being technical or being the best technical brain in the room.  It is about building a team of people smarter than you and clearing the way for the team to be successful. Your role will be to lead and inspire others.  
  1. Build corporate skills. Learn and hone skills in areas such as budget management, interacting with key stakeholders, leading multi-functional teams, and being involved in public affairs. C-Suite type skills are grounded in earlier career experience. 
  1. Have thick skin. The higher up the chain, the tricker it becomes and the more exposed you are both internally and externally to the organization. Keep driving the mission forward and realize you are the leader.  

John: I love to read and read very different works. Back again to my lifelong learning point. I am motivated to learn about different perspectives and use reading as one way to do that. Often the books I choose are stories about people and adversities they have been through. I find inspiration from men and women from all walks of life who share how they have navigated problems.  

Two books I am reading now are “Built from the Fire” by Victor Luckerson, about the Tulsa race massacre and how people endured, rebuilt, and continue to endure, and “Hymns of the Republic” that is about the last years of the civil war. 

John: It was great to be with incredible former colleagues and to meet many new people, on and off stage.  

Over breakfast, I was able to talk with people from industry and from government. They shared great suggestions and perspectives. It’s great to have such interest. 

Cyber can sometimes sound very techie and at times dark. Events like UWIC are important to share the breadth of the cybersecurity agenda and the roles that can be played. We need to tap into every bit of talent we have. No one who wants to get involved should be left behind. 

We are a strong nation built on diverse talent and thinking. We can and we will make a positive difference!