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Olga Maximová, Czechitas: "cybercriminals can be very inventive, so we need more creative people with varying views on the solution"

It’s no secret that cybercriminals are upping their game every year. Their attack vectors are growing to be so advanced that anyone can become a victim at some point, including home users, companies, and employees.

While professional cybersecurity tools are great technological solutions to catch malware, people should also invest their time in building the necessary skills to spot a potential attack. This way, it would be possible to minimize the impact of the human error that’s largely contributing to the success of cybercrimes.

We’ve talked with the Head of non-profit Development at Czechitas, Olga Maximová, about the importance of including women and other underrepresented groups of people in the tech world to strengthen the overall cybersecurity posture across the industries.

What was the idea behind Czechitas? What has your journey been like?

Czechitas originated from a simple idea of the founders: to bring more women closer to tech and more tech closer to women. Dita Přikrylová (now Formánková), together with her colleagues from the Faculty of Informatics, Masaryk University, and friends from the start-up scene in Brno, organized a one-day workshop on building web applications for women. It turned out to be successful, and the most compelling reason was that they created a safe environment where the girls were not afraid to ask questions, and many of them continued their studies until their first job in tech.

The game-changer came with the Social Impact Award in 2015 and the first partners, such as Google, who supported the development of our first Digital Academy, Data: an intensive reskilling training program for women on maternity leave. We were the first initiative that Google supported in the CEE region. That is how we created the snowball effect – more women started attending our training courses, from one-day teasers to intensive programs.

Since then, we have influenced over 30,000 women who graduated from our courses to use their new tech skills to advance their careers. Besides students, our community includes lecturers, professionals, partner companies, volunteers, the core team, and the social media audience.

Can you introduce us to what you do? What are the main obstacles you help overcome?

Czechitas is a social impact organization whose mission is to inspire, train and guide new talents towards stronger diversity and competitiveness in tech. We provide opportunities for reskilling and upskilling underrepresented groups in tech. We've identified that group in the Czech Republic as women aged 18-99, especially those caring for pre-school children.

Mothers on maternity and parental leaves are at risk of not finding a job because maternity leave in the Czech Republic lasts three years. On average, this sums up to six years of a career break per woman as women typically have two or three children. It becomes challenging to return to work after such a long time, together with many prejudices and obstacles some employers still have.

We are breaking those myths and helping to create opportunities for these women to learn a skill of the future and give them a chance to find an exciting and decent job in tech that can be very flexible in the way and hours they work. Many companies hiring for tech positions now realize the potential and offer shorter hours and flexible working conditions so that they do not lose the talent that women bring.

Since learning about tech might sound tedious to some, how do you manage to keep your training effective yet entertaining?

We are enormously proud of our community of volunteers – lecturers, coaches, mentors, and others who spend their evenings and weekends teaching our courses. At this moment, there are around 1000 people, which is incredible. Most of these men and women are tech professionals from our partner companies who bring years of expertise to pass it along. They are very diligent when creating curriculums and setting the standards for the class. We also have a rule that no question is stupid, and we teach our graduates to be brave rather than perfect. It is okay to make mistakes, and we encourage them to try even if picking up a new tech skill may initially seem like an impossible task.

In your opinion, have the recent global events altered the cybersecurity industry in any way?

Pandemics and the war in Ukraine made many businesses realize that there is too much at stake for neglecting the cybersecurity risks. The COVID-19 work-from-home policies caused a significant increase in cyberattacks because employees did not have the same level of protection at home as they would typically have in their working environment. This trend did not end with the War in Ukraine as well, since businesses face even more cyber threats than before.

The belief that only large and well-known companies are prone to cyberattacks is only one of many misconceptions still prevalent today. What cybersecurity myths do you come across most often?

SMEs and the public sector (public administration, hospitals, schools) often lack robust security solutions and thus become easy targets for cybercriminals. Another typical myth is that having a strong password is a sufficient solution. Many do not think about data monitoring and two-factor authentication, which should be a standard now. Also, many still believe that IT security is a matter of the IT department, but it is essential to realize that the responsibility is down to an individual.

You often stress that there is a diversity problem in the cybersecurity industry. Why is this issue so serious?

There is a diversity problem in the whole STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) industry, let alone cybersecurity. The industry needs to understand that it is not only about equality but also about bringing various learning backgrounds, skillsets, problem-solving skills, and soft skills - and the ability to value them and give each the credit. Cybersecurity is a multi-facet problem that needs multi-facet solutions resulting from a productive and creative conflict of different viewpoints at one table.

Teams that enjoy only one means of problem-solving or attitudes will benefit from minimal and one-sided results. And this applies to the whole spectrum of tech-related jobs. Women and those who identify as women bring about different perspectives on creating a safer work environment. Cybercriminals can be very inventive, so we need more creative people with varying views on the solution, minimizing the confirmation bias.

In your opinion, what should companies do to ensure equality and diversity in the workplace?

I would say, do not outsource DEI (Diversity, Equality, Inclusion) to your HR team. It is an all-company approach and a swift mindset. Train your leadership and your employees, and focus on the benefits that diverse groups bring to create an environment that hears out all the voices.

What tips would you give women looking to enter the cybersecurity industry?

All industries need to strengthen their cybersecurity protection at the moment. So if you are in another career now and new to cybersecurity but considering turning it into a new career path, start by combining cybersecurity with your other passions and interests. You will feel more grounded in your current expertise while strengthening your cybersecurity expertise. We need more multidisciplinary professionals in cybersecurity, which is a way to get them. Besides, some aspects of cybersecurity seem to be more popular among women than others, such as the human aspects of cybersecurity, including usable security or audits of cybersecurity policies in organizations.

What does the future hold for Czechitas?

In 2021 alone, our education programs have supported over 37,000 students. Over 12,000 of them, mainly adult women seeking upskilling or career transition towards tech, have undergone targeted educational programs within 418 STEM courses, including coding, testing, data science, web development, and others. These students invested a total of 200,000 hours of their time into attending Czechitas courses.

By the end of 2022, we will empower the 100,000th woman with a tech skill and industry network and therefore contribute to closing the gender tech skills gap in the Czech Republic. We want to make sure our voice and experience with reskilling underrepresented talents into tech is heard and valued at the broader public and European level.

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