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What I’d say to me back then – Zoho’s Deepa Kuppuswamy on cybersecurity’s gender image problem

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett May 2, 2023
Summary:
The career experiences of a female tech leader in India - and some advice for tackling an image problem in cybersecurity.

Zoho
Deepa Kuppuswamy

When Deepa Kuppuswamy graduated out of college in 2000, she didn’t expect to stay at the same company for over 20 years. Studying engineering at college at a time when the software industry was starting to evolve in India, Kuppuswamy became interested in computer science during her last few semesters. 

As the number of tech product and services companies hiring graduates was on the rise, she decided to try and get some work experience in a software field rather than her major of electronics and communication.

After a successful college campus interview, Kuppuswamy joined Zoho Corp as a fresher – and is still there 22 years later, now Information Security Architect leading the security teams at both Zoho and ManageEngine. She explains:

I didn't have much knowledge about what a service company does, I just landed in Zoho by chance.

Once at the company, Kuppuswamy joined the development stream as a software developer for the various ManageEngine products, where she stayed for her first 12 years. 

In 2013, an opportunity arose to grow the cybersecurity team within ManageEngine. Kuppuswamy was keen to switch to this new field, despite not having any prior experience or qualifications in cybersecurity – and this is a key factor in what has kept her at the same company for so long. 

Kuppuswamy’s original goals joining Zoho were to learn about software engineering, get herself financially stable and try to get a Masters. However, she soon found herself enjoying the freedom to explore lots of different technologies: 

It was a very nimble, agile company. Even though I was in the development stream, being a very small team, you had to wear multiple hats, talk to customers, write technical documentation. I wasn’t boxed into one category, I was given the opportunity to explore.

When Kuppuswamy wanted to make the career change to cybersecurity, management was very supportive and gave her the opportunity to start fresh in a new domain:

That is what basically led me to stay with Zoho: the flexibility and how we are given responsibility and more challenges at each part of our career.

It’s also about the cultural relationship which we have built within the company. Yes, we have had our share of failures, our share of agreements and disagreements, but the culture supports people voicing opinions and having the freedom to explore other areas.”

Later in her career, Kuppuswamy was given support in an area that often presents a barrier to working women: maternity leave. On her return from maternity leave, Zoho gave Kuppuswamy the power to decide how she handled the return, how she wanted to structure her work, which team to lead, and whether she wanted the same responsibilities. 

Security move

When Kuppuswamy joined the security team in 2013, it was very small, but has since expanded to a team of 150 people. Women are well-represented on this team, at around 30-40% of entry-level roles. This hasn’t always been the case in Kuppuswamy’s experience, however.

Back in 2000, the male to female ratio at engineering colleges was pretty low: in a class of 60 or 70 students, only around 10 or 15 would be women. When Kuppuswamy joined Zoho, this ratio dropped further and she would see only a handful of women. She recalls: 

I joined a team of around 30 and I was the only girl. It was odd at that time, where there was not much representation even at the entry level.

The number of women opting for STEM education has improved markedly, and in India at the college level, there are many female graduates coming in at entry-level, although Kuppuswamy adds: 

Where we lack, possibly, is at the middle level and the senior leadership position. 

This is something Kuppuswamy is trying to help tackle, both by providing mentorship about the opportunities that are available for women to advance their careers; and also setting an example for other women by demonstrating leadership qualities and showing them what it takes to succeed in the workplace. She says: 

Entry-level women need that inspiration, they need to see role models who have already done it so that it becomes clear to them that such a path is available.

Kuppuswamy highlights two initiatives that Zoho has in place to attract more women to the sector. Zoho Schools of Learning is aimed at high school students who don't pursue a college degree. They enrol on the program for up to two years, choosing either the development or business stream: 

While it’s not specific to women, a lot of young girls from rural areas have benefited from this who possibly wouldn’t have gotten into the technology field if not for this opportunity. We have seen them grow as strong technical professionals with high self-esteem, and they have also uplifted their home and family livelihood as well.

The second one is a returners program, which Zoho calls Marupadi, meaning ‘once again’ in Tamil. This is a two to three month bootcamp for women looking to restart their career after a significant period of time. It includes training, reskilling and mentoring sessions to help build back confidence after a long break. Kuppuswamy explains: 

When women have a long break, they tend to have low self-esteem about whether they'll be able to contribute and are up to date on technology. We skill them on the necessary technical areas, and offer some peer networking where they interact with women leaders in the company.

Image problem

Overall, Kuppuswamy feels it’s easier now for women to get into the tech industry than when she joined. She attributes this to social media giving greater visibility to women in the industry, which encourages others; and the availability of online education, which makes it easier for women to acquire the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in tech: 

In the early days, there could have been some social concerns around taking a break and doing a Masters in a different city. Your family might not allow it. With online courses, it has become easier to overcome the barriers to acquiring more education.

However, cybersecurity still has an image problem to solve, she says: 

People think that anybody working in cyber security is some guy hacker doing some malicious work. That is the image that has been portrayed as a cybersecurity professional, while the reality is not that. The cybersecurity field involves various roles from security architects and engineers to people in risk and compliance. 

Getting over the gender notion that cybersecurity is about some hoodie-wearing guy, to looking at it as an industry where there are different roles that can be taken up by women is where we need some more improvement.

Thinking back to her early career, Kuppuswamy noted three things she wishes she’d done differently.

The first is network more so she could have built a strong peer network, not just within her domain, but across the various business teams in the organization and across the industry. 

Second - believe in yourself. Be more vocal about your goals and be confident in your skills and abilities, she advises: 

You have to be the champion of your own growth, go and ask for opportunities. If you have challenges, talk about them and ask for help because we shouldn’t think asking for help is an indication of weakness.

Finally, get out of your comfort zone more often. Embrace change without any fear and take some bigger risks than you are comfortable with, she says: 

Any new challenges that come your way, be ready to take it up even if you’re not completely ready for it. You'll be able to figure out the hard part as you progress.

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