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Women in Security Feature: Alicia Dawson – ‘My journey has been one of challenges, small victories, and life-changing moments’

Women in Security Feature: Alicia Dawson – ‘My journey has been one of challenges, small victories, and life-changing moments’ Dawson, lead cybersecurity engineer at The MITRE Corp., discusses her security career path, role models, diversity, and more

Women in Security Feature: Alicia Dawson – ‘My journey has been one of challenges, small victories, and life-changing moments’

YARMOUTH, Maine—Alicia Dawson calls her inspiration to work within the security industry “an act of destiny.”

Dawson is the lead cybersecurity engineer at The MITRE Corp., a private, non-for-profit corporation that operates federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs), based out of Bedford, Mass., and McLean, Va.

Alicia DawsonShe told Security Systems News how she began her career in the security industry 20 years ago at the company she still works for to this day.

“After graduating from Alcorn State University with my degree in industrial technology with an emphasis in computer networking, I set my eyes on working within any company as a help desk professional,” Dawson said. “I had not realized there were more positions out there to aspire to.

“An opportunity to work with the Office of Naval Research in Virginia as a temporary employee for a two-to-three-month assignment was presented to me. The individual I was working for was a MITRE employee Chris Barber, who was so impressed with my work that he extended my assignment for a few more months. An opening in the personnel security office at MITRE opened, and he recommended me for the job. This was my open door to MITRE, and I walked in determined to do my best. This was the foundation of inspiration to pursue a career within the security industry. The more I learned about the importance of security, I realized I was indeed on the right path.”

As part of Security Systems News’ and the Security Industry Association (SIA) Women in Security Forum’s (WISF’s) continuing series highlighting the contributions of women in security, the following is an exclusive Q&A with Dawson:

SSN: What is your current position and what are your role and responsibilities?

Dawson: I currently hold the position of lead cybersecurity engineer at The MITRE Corp. My work with MITRE has enabled me to work directly with the federal government, public sector, and Department of Defense.

Some of my responsibilities include providing risk management framework guidance and interpretation of guidelines and instructions to sponsors as a trusted agent, conducting security assessments, leading risk management capabilities within MITRE, and leading teams on different projects as task lead.

SSN: What has your journey been like in a primarily male-dominated and historically nondiverse security industry?

Dawson: My journey has been one of challenges, small victories, and life-changing moments. I was empowered and humbled while on my journey to become a trusted agent to the government and a trusted colleague within MITRE. I had to remember; do not say you know something that you clearly don’t know. I stepped into this new world of security with honesty and the hunger to learn more. By voicing my interest in learning more and being given the opportunity to implement what I have learned equipped me in a male-dominated and nondiverse industry.

I stepped up to become the temporary supervisor of the personnel security office. My leadership trusted me to do this during a short period of time. I was afforded the opportunity to interview for the position but was informed that I did not have enough supervisory experience to fill the position. At this time, I had just obtained my master’s in information systems. The manager of the information security office next door saw my potential and had a need to find support for the information system security manager (ISSM) who was hired to assist with the growing program needs for classified processing.

A new position was created for me to become an assistant ISSM. I also trained three personnel security managers while I was the assistant ISSM. Funny world to train others in a position that I was not fully qualified for. However, there was something greater planned for me. After about two years as the assistant ISSM, I became the first female ISSM at MITRE.

SSN: What have you found most challenging working in the security industry and how did you overcome it?

Dawson: As MITRE’s ISSM, I encountered many challenges. One unique situation comes to mind. We had a data spill that affected about 24 MITRE principals and engineers. They were working hard to finalize a very important deliverable for a customer. As the ISSM I had to step in and assist with validating the information with the data owner and taking the appropriate steps for proper cleaning and reporting of the situation. I had to request for their systems so that I could begin the cleanup process.

I was quickly asked by one of the MITRE leaders, “Who gives you the authority to ask for any system?” My response, “I am your information system security manager, and it is my job to ensure the situation is contained and cleaned accordingly. However, I will have my management come up to speak with you.”

Luckily, this day, my director of security, the facility security officer, and my immediate supervisor over the information security office was on site. All three men came up in my defense to explain to the person in charge that I had the authority to request for the systems to start the process of containment. Once this was settled, my team and I came up with a solution to keep the individuals working offline while ensuring we contained the messages and information in question. We were able to clean up this spill within 3-4 days which was unprecedented for the number of people who were affected.

I was given flowers, multiple emails of thanks, and most importantly the satisfaction of performing a job well done. This may have been the start of my nickname “Security Queen.” You want something done or need to know where to go, my name was given, and I was called upon. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Building relationships of trust is important. My work and my ethics were the foundation that supported me through working with my management. They believed in me and I in them. From this point in my career, I knew that I must still move forward in doing my very best in increasing my unique set of skills.

SSN: Have you had any role models who have helped you out along the way that you would like to mention?

Dawson: Looking back, I have had several role models that have helped me along the way. In particular, the late Mrs. Gloria Ellis, and also Mrs. Gail Shelton. These two beautiful women gave me the foundation I needed within the personnel security office. They made sure I learned what I needed to know to do the job and navigate through MITRE as a new employee.

I have had others that have assisted in my growth as the ISSM - Ed Cochrane, my supervisor; Gordon Lynch, the facility security officer at the time; Donny Carrington, physical security shift supervisor; Craig DeRose, lab manager; and Daniel Finley, lab supervisor.

As for my current position, I was introduced to several role models that have assisted in the journey I am on. I was grateful for a new opportunity to work for a direct sponsor under Lee Schuh, who was a MITRE employee, and she later became our government sponsor. It was through Ms. Schuh that I was given the training and became a subject matter expert in risk management.

As for how I was nominated for this interview and feature in Security Systems News, I lay credit with two beautiful souls. My friend and Sister in Christ, Kim Hooper. Kim introduced me to the International Organization of Black Security Executives (IOBSE). I was given the opportunity to speak to students at their 40th anniversary concerning risk management.

It was an opportunity that opened another door with the Security Industry Association (SIA), where I met Katie Greatti. Through Katie, I was able to attend my first ISC East 2022 conference in New York as a mentor to students and moderator for a keynote address between the CISO of the NFL and the vice president of stadium technology at MetLife Stadium concerning “The NFL Perspectives on Cybersecurity and Organizational Resilience.” All great experiences and exposure to other security industry leaders that I am sure will continue to shape and influence my career within cybersecurity.

SSN: What advice would you give other women thinking about getting into the industry or just starting out in the industry?

Dawson: For my women looking to switch up their career paths I would say, “Women are growing in the cyber field, and a lot of doors have been opened. We continue to bring a uniqueness to the table, and there are so many avenues we can tackle - we have just scratched the surface. Keep growing and motivating others.”

For my inspiring young women in technology I say, “Prepare yourself by adopting a mindset of continuous learning. It is also imperative to build your network of support within this field. You will be amazed how having support and the trust of others makes you the unique person needed on those tasks that others would not dare to take on.”

SSN: What are your views on the industry moving forward, both from a diversity perspective and a technology and business perspective during these unpredictable times?

Dawson: I truly believe that we must continue to open doors for change regarding diversity. Of course, we have a lot of work to do throughout the industry to change culture. There are strongholds on certain positions and expectations on individuals seeking these positions. The security industry cannot deny the presence of women, and therefore it is up to us to continue to advocate for change to diversify cyber positions and beyond to ensure we have a seat and voice at the table.

Regarding technology and business, it is a known fact that women have stronger interests within these areas but leave once we are overlooked for advancement opportunities. This is alarming to see the drop of women within technology throughout the years. It is also impressive to see those who are working hard in keeping us within this field. Having a passion to work within an ever-evolving environment for both technology and business it is important to be in the know, understand the past and future states of how technology is shaping our future, and international interests. Technology is also driving how we are doing business. It has been a catalyst in how we operate, implement, and protect our most valuable assets. This cannot be denied.

So, I must ask those that are in this industry to dig deeper than checking boxes regarding examining risks and needs, but understand the business vision, goals, and focus on ensuring that we have the best to offer. Invest in your workforce to ensure we are well equipped for what is to come. A lot of organizations are weary of investing so much, but to remain relevant and protected this is a requirement.

SSN: What do you feel are the top trends, issues or challenges facing the security industry today?

Dawson: We are still reactive instead of being proactive in so many areas within the security industry. We must have a plan to identify key skill sets to assist in both areas. We should build teams that assist with both; have a team to continue reacting to putting out fires within industry, but also have a team for the proactive work in building appropriate organizational policies and procedures that are implementable, measurable, and effective.

SSN: Anything else that you would like to add?

Dawson: Being in the security industry for 20-plus years has changed my mindset and focus in a positive direction. I do believe I am working toward my true purpose within this industry. I finally took a leap of faith and created my new business, Dawson CyberSecurity Consulting, LLC in July of this year. My goal is to create the change I want to see. We all have our agenda, but when will those agendas benefit the whole and not just a few? I want to create a change that is diverse enough to meet if not most all of industries’ needs without turning it completely upside down.


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