When she’s not perfecting her lock-picking skills, Angel Grant is busy building a diverse team who have the right attributes for the dynamic world of technology. In this edition of our podcast series, Angel explains that since your future job probably doesn’t exist yet, the keys to success are your transferrable skills.
How did you get started in the technology or payments industry? What led you to that career choice?
Angel Grant: It’s been an interesting career path. Actually, I wouldn’t even call it a path. I’ve been in the payments and security space for well over 20 years. I started off in the financial services space, while I was in college, to help pay for school. Upon graduating, I went to work for a start-up online payment center where I had the privilege of being the product manager for one of the industry’s first payment applications; online banking applications or online payment applications. At that time, I was going to large financial institutions to tell them about this great thing called online banking and online payments. They pretty much told us that we’re crazy and asked about our DOS and Windows products and that online banking? Nobody is going to bank online.
Well, clearly, online payments took off and it’s come a long way in 20 years, but since then, we saw cybercrime also increase. It not only increased in online payments, but also just an increase in cybercrime. While I was at that company, I started working with a variety of different security vendors to integrate into my online payments application and RSA was one of them. So, I was actually a customer of RSA’s prior to going to work for RSA.
I pivoted from working more on the payments side to the cybersecurity vendor world. When I went through my interview with my hiring manager, I was trying to explain that I’m not a super technical person. When I think “cybersecurity” at that time, I think of a guy in a dark corner with a black hoodie on, but the reality was he was not looking for that. He said that there were a lot of people who had really solid technical understanding of all the technologies and the crypto and all that fun stuff. What the security industry was lacking were people who understood the real business problems that needed to get solved from a security perspective. That’s what I’ve always used as my north star as to the value I add in the conversation. It’s actually understanding the payments ecosystem and the technology we need to develop to protect that, versus the reverse, which is “we have this cool technology. Now let’s figure out the problem it solves.”
In your experience, does being a woman in your profession come with confidence challenges that you have to overcome, for instance, doubting your own ability and if so, how do you overcome it?
Angel Grant: I’m still often the only woman in the room for meetings or industry associations or even when I’m presenting on industry panels. I present quite a bit at different conferences and I am typically still the only female in there. So, the attitude that I go in with is that I have a right to be at this table. I have a right to have this seat here. I have a right to be on this panel because I know this industry. I know how I can help this industry and, again, it’s getting that confidence in yourself to know that you probably know more than half the people sitting in that room and feeling confident in yourself.
But another interesting dynamic that has occurred, and I’ve actually noticed this during the pandemic, is that the pandemic, in a strange way, has caused this in-your-face awareness of the lack of women in the space. Literally, the in-your-face awareness is coming from all these web video meetings we’re in where you have all these squares, and you’re in this meeting with all these squares, and only one of them is a female. It’s that “ah-ha” moment. And so that has been, I think, a very enlightening moment, not for myself but I think for the people I’m engaged with in these meetings. There’s a lot of talk about not having enough women in technology, but when you’re in these meetings and you’re only seeing one woman in there, in your face the whole time, it just is really prominent. It speaks up really loudly.
Many women in the tech industry have felt that their gender has affected the way that they are perceived or treated. Have you ever been in a situation like that and, if so, how did you handle it?
Angel Grant: In general, I’ve been very fortunate that I haven’t had a lot of those moments. I’ve actually had amazing male mentors throughout my career that I wouldn’t be where I would be right now without them. I’m very grateful for that. However, I have had a couple moments and one of the ones that kind of stands out to me was I was presenting at an industry cybersecurity conference. I had a little bit of time to kill prior to going into my presentation, so I went into the exhibit hall. They have a lock-picking pavilion there, so I went to see how many locks I could pick prior to presenting. Just to kill time. And, this guy sat down beside me and he looked at my badge and he looked at me and he said, “you don’t really work in the cybersecurity space, right? Do they even send females to these events?” And I was taken aback. I just didn’t know how to respond. So, instead of saying something reactive, I simply changed the conversation. I said “hey, what presentation are you going to go see next after the break?” And he said the session he was going to go see, which happened to be mine. And so, that actually worked out great where I was like “oh excellent, I look forward to seeing you! That’s actually my presentation.” And he said “Angel? Oh Angel! I thought that was a male, a Hispanic male’s name,” which I thought was interesting. So, ironically, he was planning on going to my session. But the best part of the story is, after the session, he came up to me and we had a great conversation. He ended up being one of my customers, ultimately, because what I covered was information he was trying to get as he was going through the purchasing decision.
Were you given any advice during your career that has stuck with you and, as a result, do you have a personal mantra or famous quote that you live by?
Angel Grant: I think the best advice I ever got was I was told to hold up my hand and, you know, you have five fingers. So, think of five things that you are really, really good at. Then you hold up your other hand and think about five things that make you happy and that you enjoy. And when you put them together, when you intersect what you are happy with and what you’re good with, that’s really where you are going to find your true passion and excel in your career. I view that as almost my mantra or my “hands together” moment of, am I still working on those five things that make me happy and those five things I’m really good at and keeping those together? And, if I’m at the point in my career where those five things on each side don’t come together or there are other things I’m focused on that don’t match that, then I know I need to pivot. I need to change. I need to learn new things. I need to find something else that I’m passionate about. So that has helped, also, put me at my north star of where I should be going within my career.
What advice would you impart to other women about how to succeed in the payments industry, or in any technology-based field in general, and is there anything you wish you had known going into it?
Angel Grant: I think the most important advice I would give to anyone looking to enter the technology space is to remember that it’s really just all about transferrable skills. The jobs that are going to be out there five to ten years from now, don’t exist. When I started off in my career, the jobs I ended up having, didn’t exist. The technology didn’t exist. Thanks for telling me that they weren’t going to bank online. People weren’t going to bank online, right? So, it’s important to remember, as you are building your toolbox of skillsets, to look for those transferrable skills.
I actually got some really good advice from Art Coviello who is a former RSA CEO. I’ve been using this, too, as I’ve been interviewing candidates to make sure that I’m building diversity in our organization and think decently about our hiring practices, so that you have diverse mindsets on things. There are a lot of attributes, personal attributes, that go beyond the fact that there’s a smart person who can read a book and memorize something. So, he calls it the E-I-E-I-O metric, alright?
So, the first “E” is energy. When I’m interviewing candidates, I’m looking for somebody with that strong energy and who will function well in that high-paced environment. Things change so quickly you just need somebody who can keep up with that pace. So, the energy is important.
I look for the intelligence. As I mentioned, you get these resumés of these brilliant colleges and all these accreditations. You’re looking for that person who can take the books and apply it to the real world, right? I’m looking for that intelligence of being able to handle a complex problem and solve those complex problems, but also, even more importantly, be that forever student. It’s one thing to have a fancy degree ten years ago, but technology has changed, so you have to be that forever student.
The next “E” in the E-I-E-I-O is emotional intelligence. Being in the payment security world can be very emotionally draining at times when you’re constantly seeing breaches happening; people’s lives being destroyed because their identity is taken over. You need to be able to balance the pressure of working in the security industry and then you also need to be able to work well with cross-functional international teams in many cases. In my case, we work with some of our customers on their darkest days where they’ve just been hit with a breach. So, you need to be able to emotionally navigate through that.
And that takes us to the next one, the “I”, the innovation. So, I actually see diversity and innovation on the same side of the coin. You’re not going to have innovation if you have everyone in the room thinking the same way, coming from the same backgrounds. You just don’t get innovation that way. You get stagnate that way. You don’t solve complex problems that way. So, I’m looking for people who can come in with a little bit different of a mindset than the other people I have on the team so that they can help be creative and accomplish new and different things and solve new and different problems as they continue to arise.
And the final, the “O”, the optimistic. Again, it’s a trying industry but you have to go in there with an optimistic attitude and not a defeatist attitude that cybercriminals have gotten you and there’s no way to solve that problem. You need to have that level of optimism. So, again, what I’m looking at, what I’d recommend if somebody wants to go into the payment security world, is think about those attributes and think about those transferrable skills you can develop and be that forever student because that’s the way this industry is going to grow and thrive and innovate as we continue on.
Is there anything else that you wanted to say that I didn’t ask or that you wanted to make a point?
Angel Grant: RSA has been involved with the PCI Council for well over a decade, and I’ve actually been engaged with the PCI Board of Advisors for two terms now. One of the things that I find incredibly valuable about participating with the Council is the cross-industry collaboration within the payments ecosystem. One of the things that stood out to me, that was so important, is right when the pandemic hit, we had a Board of Advisors meeting and this is when everything was shutting down.
That cross-functional, cross-industry collaboration was more important than ever because we had real world conversations about supply chain issues. Merchants were not able to get point-of-sale terminals, so the PCI Council was able to quickly pivot from having something be required this April to next April. We had real world conversations about the complexities of doing an audit when you have a secure environment, or a secure room, that you can’t have an auditor necessarily doing a Zoom call because no cameras are allowed in there or no pictures are allowed to be taken in there. We had real world conversations and were able to quickly adapt and share and be agile in this time.
That proved to me how valuable having all the payment ecosystem players together to share and continuously learn from each other and adapt and innovate together. I think, moving forward, looking at the PCI Council and the Community Meetings that are being held, it is so important that people stay engaged with that, particularly with all the changes that are going on.