This interview is the third part of our series "The 11%: A Look at the Women Closing the Cyber Security Gender Gap." This series takes an in-depth look at the variety of roles women play in the field of cyber security and the ways they're changing the industry. Check out the whole series here.
LaTonya Hall focuses on the essentials: technical acumen, communication, and empathy.
From a young age, she excelled in the sciences, but realized she could be more impactful if she also mastered logic and debate. After more than 10 years in cyber security, her passion for problem solving has become the foundation of her solutions firm.
As founder and CEO of Stondoh, and often the only Black woman in the room, she often faces presumptions of technical ability that are without merit. Still, she remains focused on synthesizing complex data points such that digestible, practical, client-centered, holistic solutions may be realized.
Beyond entrepreneurship, LaTonya is an advocate for young girls and women in technology. She spends time teaching classes and volunteering to ensure early stage skills development.
LaTonya sat down with Buffy Ellis, the VP of Focal Point Academy, to chat about her career journey thus far. Their conversation travels from how LaTonya developed her initial interest in science and technology, to the challenges of being a female entrepreneur, to helping others succeed. Check out the full interview below.
Buffy Ellis (BE): How would you describe the majority of the work you do?
LaTonya Hall (LH): What one might consider general consulting in the cyber realm: network/system assessments, data processing pipeline implementation, security program development, software development, etc.
BE: How did you find your way into the consulting career you have now?
LH: After working with the DoD and HHS and in the commercial world, I realized that I had a pretty unique skill set: a keen understanding of operating systems, networking, programming, security, and IT and how they should work to amplify business. Working in the commercial space especially helped me develop an understanding of the gaps in the market.
BE: It sounds like it’s a career that has a lot of different facets. Do you enjoy one more than another?
LH: What I love the most about being a consultant is not being siloed in a corner doing one thing forever. I like the transactional nature of it. And I like being given a problem to solve within a set period of time. You’re given varying levels of information – sometimes you have all the data you need and sometimes you have a very small portion of it. And from project to project that always changes.
BE: So it’s the variety that you enjoy most. Can you tell us what led you to starting a career in cyber security?
LH: Sure. So my academic background is computer science. While studying as an undergrad, I did a lot of work in telecom, specifically with Avaya, but when I graduated, the offer they gave me wasn’t really conducive to the American dream that I had in my head. So I decided to pursue my master's.
A friend of mine was already working on his master’s through the National Science Foundation’s CyberCorps Scholarship for Service. So I applied and was awarded. The program at NC A&T was traditional computer science, but cyber underpinning courses were also required.
BE: If you don’t mind, I’d like to work a little farther backwards. In middle school and high school, were you thinking of that as a career already? How did you get into computer science?
LH: I was not. I wanted to study political science, but my older brother studied mechanical engineering and he told me I had to be an engineer. He said, “You can’t do political science. It’s not going to work. You’re not going to make any money. You have to study some form of engineering.” Computer engineering was the most interesting to me so that’s what I decided on.
BE: Were you strong in math and science and did you enjoy those subjects?
LH: I was strong in math and science, but I also enjoyed being on the debate team. I liked the logical side of things even more. And even now, the logic, the in-and-out of problem solving, I enjoy that more than I do the mathematics.
BE: Interesting. That seems like a great fit then for what you’re doing now. So where do you see yourself going from here?
LH: I’m about to get on my soapbox really quickly, so bear with me. I feel like the industry has been reeling from the same problems that we were reeling from when I started graduate school in 2004. The industry as a whole is still trying to either solve or better manage those problems. And I think that’s happening because we want to apply whatever the sexiest technique or technology is when it isn’t the appropriate tool to solve the problem. I don't mean to trivialize, but we want to apply block chain and machine learning when we haven’t even properly segmented the network yet.
Let's refocus on the fundamentals of IT, of cyber security, of data security. Let’s refocus there, and that’s going to help us better manage problems. So, I'm developing a product based on this notion.
BE: Working to solve that problem is an interesting kind of project. Beyond that, what do you see for yourself in the future?
LH: Definitely growing my company and continuing to use technology to solve problems at the most fundamental level. And also creating a space where women and people like me, Black women, have the opportunity to grow and flourish.
BE: Often our learning experiences are our best experiences. Do you have anything that sticks out in your mind as your biggest “aha” moment, where you learned a maybe painful but really good lesson?
LH: There was an incident where I made a mistake, which was caused by sheer arrogance. I knew the guidance around the project changed from time to time, but I figured it was consistent enough and I knew what I was doing. It was all good. I thought I didn’t need to conduct the policy-required checks. Though I was able to immediately repair it, that was a huge lesson. As a technologist, you still have to respect processes.
This lesson is something that has been reinforced while launching my company. The importance of processes. Especially now – everyone has a start-up and is trying to get to market as soon as possible. We’re operating in chaos and forgetting about people/processes/technology.
BE: What do you think then is the biggest success in your career?
LH: I haven’t had my biggest success yet. The fact that I’m independently consulting through my company now is a huge success, and it’s taken a really long time and a lot of lessons to get here. But I don’t feel like I’ve had my biggest success just yet.
BE: So what do you imagine that to be then?
LH: Forcing a sort of paradigm shift where central security principles are truly addressed and formally and consistently ingrained into new technology. Being a change agent, creating space for dialogue, and of course, creating products and services that encompass this will be huge wins for me.
"We want to apply block chain and machine learning when we haven’t even properly segmented the network yet."
BE: I’ve talked about this next question with a few of my female friends, but what do you think the challenges are for women in STEM?
LH: Far too often, you are not perceived as knowledgeable, and it’s a huge issue. You’re either perceived as not technical at all, or if you are, you’re not perceived as knowledgeable. Whenever you walk into a new space, no matter what your reputation or experience is, there’s usually at least one person who is forcing you to prove yourself all over again. Doing so is sometimes necessary to get the work done, but it’s hella frustrating and annoying.
BE: Have you been able to find any strong female role models in cyber security to inspire you?
LH: Yes, but I could use more. I could definitely use more. We could use more.
Models are important. I only have one or two mentors that have both the business skillset and the technical skillset – but it’s mostly either/or. Having more models of women, Black women, who have both skillsets would be helpful to the entire industry...and to the universe. Within cyber, being a female entrepreneur still seems pretty new to folks.
"I haven’t had my biggest success yet. The fact that I’m independently consulting through my company now is a huge success, and it’s taken me a really long time and a lot of lessons to get here. But I don’t feel like I’ve had my biggest success just yet."
BE: You and I have talked a number of times about getting youth involved in coding and computer science and fostering a desire to learn in young women in particular. What types of activities have you engaged in to help mentor young women in STEM-type programs?
LH: My most recent endeavor was teaching an app development course at an all-girls school in D.C. We went from ideation through to pseudo-code and then to minimal prototype. The goal was to come up with apps that actually solve problems that students deal with on a daily basis. For example, they hated the way that lunch was handled, so we came up with an app that let students and parents agree on a menu for the week. We framed STEM problems in that way: How can we use technology to solve this problem?
BE: If you were to give advice to a young woman considering cyber security as a career, what would you say to her?
LH: I would say, “Read everything and figure out how to practice as often as you can.” Learn as you do and do as you learn. Especially as you configure your own environment – what’s the worst that could happen? You ruin your router and have to do a factory reset. And you’re without Internet for a little bit. Everyone will survive. It’ll be ok.
Also, communication is a force multiplier. Learning how to communicate highly technical information to a less than highly technical audience is crucial.
BE: It sounds like you’re alluding to a sort of playground or environment where you are able to try things. Other than that, how do you stay current?
LH: I’m the resident tech support for my friends and family. That’s not always fun, but that helps put me in the mind frame of someone who doesn’t have the expertise that I have.
I think there was a time where I tried to be a master of all things. That’s not feasible or sustainable. I was working crazy hours and it’s not sustainable. I had to take a step back and say, “Ok, this is what I enjoy and this is where I feel like I can have the most impact, so this is where I’m going to spend the bulk of my energy.” My priority is staying sharp within my dominion.
BE: You mentioned earlier how you get to work with people and your empathy for people. I think a common misconception is cyber security equals person in hoodie sitting in a basement. How does your work involve interfacing with other people?
LH: A large part of cyber security and being a consultant is developing trust. That requires you to listen and to try your best to understand the person or company and their problem. You can’t solve a problem you don’t understand; security isn’t really a problem to be solved. You also have to remember that you may be perceived as the person in the hoodie or as the enemy of the IT department. Empathy. Empathy is my super power.
"Communication is a force multiplier. Learning how to communicate highly technical information to a less technical audience is huge."
BE: Wow! We’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there anything else you want to share as advice for young women considering or entering the field of cyber security?
LH: Don’t get caught up in the culture of chaos that is everywhere in tech at the moment. It’s an arms race, and everyone is rushing to market. Identify and respect your true passions, listen to your body, and sharpen your skills.
You can learn more about LaTonya and the work she is doing in the world of cyber security here:
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