Lessons from an NSA mathematician turned cybersecurity startup founderFeatured

If you’ve ever felt like you need a job to get a job, you’re not alone. Many people, especially early career professionals, confront this chicken-or-the-egg problem. Once allowed to work hard, you know you can prove yourself, but oftentimes it can seem like getting your foot in the door in a new industry or earning the initial trust of clients is the hardest part.

As a former NSA mathematician, now founder of a cybersecurity startup, I’ve faced criticism for not having the right type of experience.

As a mathematician, I was expected to have operations experience if I wanted to move outside of research, or management experience to be a first-time leader of a team.

As a founder, getting our first dollar seemed insurmountable when companies seemed to look for a history of customers before agreeing to be a customer.

I’ve learned how to reframe my skillset as a strength that can help my company and my customers.

This recurring dilemma is frustrating and demoralizing and not entirely your fault. There’s a lot of work ahead to help change the expectations of companies and make it so that this problem doesn’t exist in the first place. However, when you can’t change an industry overnight it can be helpful to consider how you can defy this vicious cycle with the resources that you do have today.

Expertise. Unlike experience, expertise does not have to be dependent on having a previous title or academic degree. Expertise can be however you define it. It can come from a new perspective. It can describe learnings from a point in time or over many years. It can be relative or general.

As a mathematician wanting to break out of research and into an operations-focused role, I leaned on how I could offer a quantitative approach to a team’s otherwise qualitative problems. As a founder wanting to land our first customer, I could emphasize that while we didn’t have experience working with numerous companies, I was an expert in solving their problem. The current size of our customer database allowed us to specialize more fully in the needs of this customer.

To get started, the first thing to realize is you are already an expert in something.

Start by identifying where you’re trying to go or feeling blocked and who it is that you need to convince to get to the next step.

Consider what unique patterns and experiences have existed in your life that the people you’re trying to reach may not have in their immediate circle. This can be a combination of personal and professional times in your life. If struggling to come up with an area of expertise, think about how you can make what you bring to the table more specific. For example, maybe you’re a coder but you don’t consider yourself an expert in coding. However, you could be an expert in a specific coding language within a particular industry.

Feel confident about this expertise -- it’s unique and you’re the only one in the world who can speak to it!

Communicate it to your audience whether it is in interviews or at work, and where possible, relate your expertise to how it can help them.

As you break through walls, keep in mind that having an area of expertise does not need to be solely a retrospective exercise. It can be a proactive one too. Building a network or seeking out opportunities that deepen your expertise, are ways you can transform what was a vicious cycle into a virtuous one.