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To Protect Our Future, Diversify the STEM Pipeline Through Mentorship To counter growing cybersecurity threats, the current tech talent pipeline needs to expand -- urgently.

By Ann Johnson Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

asiseeit | Getty Images

If left as is, the world's shortage of qualified cybersecurity workers will grow to 3.5 million in 2021. That's a problem because we live in a heterogeneous, complicated world where digital issues affect our physical realities. A bank server breach could create missed payments for account holders, and as we integrate smart medical devices and IoT home security into our lives, our well-being is increasingly dependent on cybersecurity.

Related: We Need More Diversity in Tech Companies. Finance Roles Are a Good Place to Start.

To counter the growing threats, the current cybersecurity talent pipeline needs to expand -- urgently. Mentorship that creates access to STEM opportunities for people living beyond tech hot spots can help reverse the atrophy. Along the way, including people of diverse backgrounds into the cyber ranks brings new points of view to further addressing societal issues.

As someone who has spent 20 years in cybersecurity leadership roles, I'm often asked for mentorship guidance. My approach is similar for mentees and mentors. Start as early as you can, don't let your degree dictate your career path, network extensively tapping physical and digital resources, create the right relationship structure and have "courageous conversations."

Start early.

The persistent gender gap in STEM starts early, and so should you. A colleague's pre-teen daughter signed up for an after-school robotics class and on arrival saw only two girls in the room. We've lost generations of potential cyber warriors from girls opting out of STEM before they can (legally) opt in to a PG-13 movie. Mentors can join groups that bring cybersecurity awareness to young people. I belong to the Security Advisor Alliance, which among other outreach programs, holds hackathons twice a month in cities across the U.S. with the goal to grow cybersecurity interest in the next generation and meet them where they live.

Related: How Coaching Can Help Women Get Ahead in the Tech Industry

Don't let your degree stand in the way.

With a dual major in political science and communications, I have mentored many non-technical women who've showed a passion and aptitude for this industry. I actively seek diverse candidates to supplement the anemic pipeline of college-polished STEM graduates. I look for individuals who show me that they've self-trained, such as through programs from SANS Institute and ISC2, to close the skills gaps. Even if you didn't start early and didn't get a STEM degree, taking these industry-recognized courses and working toward certification help show you are ready to transition.

Network. Network. Network.

Attend conferences to meet people in the roles you are interested in pursuing. RSA, Black Hat and Def Con are among the largest of cybersecurity conferences that offer attendees the opportunity to learn the latest research and dig into techniques. Consequently, these are great access points for joining the community.

Budget or travel restrictions shouldn't hinder your opportunities. Use social media to engage in online forums, find local events and reach experts. Several of my mentees use LinkedIn to start the conversation. If you go this route, make sure your introduction communicates you are connecting for the prospective mentor's cumulative experience, not just their job status.

Related: Why Working Women Need to Mentor Other Women

Create the right structure.

This translates across STEM and non-technical mentorships. Define the purpose of the relationship. How long will the engagement be? What's the desired outcome? For example, a goal of networking into a job at the mentor's company or on her team tends to be transactional -- a passing along of resumes, possibly a coffee interview or an email introduction to a hiring manager. On the other hand, a career change goal requires regular check-ins over a long-term period.

The other piece of structuring a successful mentorship is building your advocates bench. Ideally, everyone has three types of mentors to lean on: someone who helps you with your career inside your company or the one you want to enter; a coach who brings outside perspective to troubleshooting day-to-day problems; and an advisor in a more senior role who looks out for the next step in your career. The coach should be someone outside your immediate team to arm you with objective, external advice. The advisor can be internal or if you're seeking to leave your company, someone elsewhere.

Have courageous conversations.

Both parties will need to be unafraid to ask for and give constructive, actionable feedback throughout the engagement. It's easy to celebrate a mentee's visible wins. However, the bulk of the unseen trench work required to get to those moments consists of honest conversations involving course correcting and holding each other accountable to agreed on actions.

There is no singular solution to solving any complex issue, let alone defending systems from well-resourced hackers or reversing a decades-long cyber skills deficit. Mentorship, however, is one strategy to help include girls before they opt out of tech, and to recruit people from non-STEM backgrounds. In addition to addressing the talent crunch, diversifying the cyber talent pipeline brings more perspectives to fighting cybercrime and replenishes the workforce as baby boomers retire.

Ann Johnson

Corporate Vice President, Cybersecurity Solutions Group at Microsoft

Ann Johnson oversees the go-to-market strategies of cybersecurity solutions for Microsoft.

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