With more than 20 years in the technology industry, Natasja Bolton’s experience has largely been a positive one where she has felt supported by her male peers, teachers, and managers along the way. But where the technology world does itself a disservice to women, she says, is by not advertising the scale of the industry and the variety of jobs that are out there. In this edition of our podcast, Natasja explains why the perception of the industry might be one of the barriers for women.
How did you get started in the technology and payments industry? What led you to that career choice?
Natasja Bolton: I started straight out of university actually. I didn't do a Computing Technology degree at university, but when I left and was looking for a job - not wanting to get into doing the sort of volunteering to stay in my university choice of course - I ended up being a contractor. I fell into desktop support and was doing remote access set up. This was back in 1997. So I was in desktop support, all that kind of stuff. And that led to, a couple years later, an opportunity at British Telecom.
They were looking to develop their firewall team. That was quite new stuff at the time. There weren't very many people with experience. It was a big company, big corporate, that sounded like a marvelous idea. And it was, despite the fact that I had no firewall experience really because nobody else really did. It was a good one to go for. So, I grabbed that with both hands. And so, that was me doing a bit of hands-on with Checkpoint firewalls. It was right in there with the IT security technology, but that also led me into consulting. It was a sort of consulting role, within the team, where you'd be talking to people who wanted the changes to the firewall. You had to discuss with them what they wanted and why they couldn't have it; what you could do for them and how you could help them achieve what they needed.
So that introduced me to consultancy, which then led me on to the next opportunity, which was, I think you call it a “start-up” now. But, at the time, it was just a very small IT security consultancy that they'd started up where I deliberately went into choosing - right, this sounds like the way to go, this is a new thing. And one of the things I think they looked at when they offered me the role was the fact that I had quite a lot of soft skills; that kind of people-facing, customer-friendly stuff. I think actually in one of your earlier blogs, Gina [Gobeyn] mentions that soft skills are one of the things; people skills. So I think, even though I wasn’t massively experienced at the time in firewalls, that's what they took me on for: that customer-friendly, customer-facing thing, because there was more staff that they needed to push all the consultants out with customers.
I was with them for 12 years, and that was hands-on IT security initially moving into information security and ISO 27001. I spent quite a bit of time working on UK government information assurance. I was one of the consultants for them, and right towards the end of that, in the last couple of years or so, I finally got into payment security. Again, not specifically a deliberate choice by me necessarily, but it was an ask within the company that we needed to start looking at this PCI stuff that started to appear at the time.
I did my QSA exam in 2010 and have been a QSA ever since. I joined Sysnet in 2012, where my focus here is primarily payment security, but I'm using a lot of all the stuff I brought to it for the information security, obviously the understanding of network security and firewalls and whatnot. The move to Sysnet again was a deliberate choice by me. It wasn't that I fell into it. It was that I wanted to get out of the kind of consulting I was doing and into a smaller company, rather than the big corporate that the consultancy had turned into, where I was making the most of my consultancy experience, but it was very much client-facing as opposed to going out there in the field, doing the billable consultancy. So it was a good move from my point of view because I've been here quite a while now.
Do you notice a lack of women in technology? And if so, why do you think that is the case?
Natasja Bolton: Actually, in the technology companies I’ve worked for, and in the payments industry specifically - certainly currently - I don't think so, no. I mean, most of the people I work with in clients, particularly, it's a pretty even split. A lot of the people responsible for compliance, that I engage with in talking about PCI compliance, they're all women actually pretty much. I think there is probably a lack in areas where it's a technology specialism, where it's actually the hands-on deep dive stuff, I think that might be where there's fewer women. I'm not entirely sure why, but I'm potentially thinking that it's related to the fact that technology, IT, computing does itself a disservice. It does a really bad job of making younger people, when they're looking at career paths and coming up through education, it does a really bad job of making younger people aware of the scale and types of jobs that are out there in technology. Just because you’re at a technology company, it doesn't mean you're doing a hands-on, techie job. You can be in marketing and talking about it. You can be in journalism and writing about it. You can, you know, there's just loads of things and it can be very creative. And I don't think they do a really great job of advertising the variety.
Actually what I find interesting in looking back at some of the other blogs you've done where women are talking about oh yeah, I just fell into this, because I think nobody knew to come to that particular thing directly. It just didn't happen.
The other thing, in terms of why maybe there is a lack of women, I think it's possibly something that I haven't encountered. So, I don't have kids. I've never encountered the potentially negative perception of I need the flexibility. I need shorter working hours. I’ve got to go and pick up the kids. That kind of stuff. So, I think that might be a reason in some instances and technology, certainly traditionally - maybe not more recently under the COVID thing - but potentially there's that perception of (especially where there's the male senior management) they're just not willing to accept. I've never encountered that personally, but I suspect that might be something that's out there. I'd be interested to see whether other responses you get to that question from people who do have a family, whether that's one of the barriers.
When I was approaching the fact that I was going to do this blog, was the fact that actually one hope off the back of COVID is going to be, will the fact that companies have been pushed into supporting homeworking and flexibility and all those kind of things, actually mean that there's greater opportunity for women now in technology and payments? If they previously thought that these companies, aren’t going to support the way I want to work, especially women who have to go part time, for example, to be able to do the school run and support their children. Well, maybe if we've proven that flexible working, the working from home thing, works then maybe we'll get people who might have been in IT security or technology earlier in their career, who left, now coming back in and bringing a whole different set of skills back into the workforce. So, hopefully that’s something that is going to happen as well. We’ll see if that turns out.
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 how do you overcome it?
Natasja Bolton: I don't think this one is specific to women. That's my experience anyway. I think confidence challenges exist for everybody, whether or not they make them public and air them to their colleagues. Debatable, but certainly a lot of my close working relationships, and back in the start-up I mentioned, you know, we were a small team of consultants. The only women there were me and the receptionist for a long time. But, actually, what you realize from that is they all have doubts and concerns that we can't do what we've been asked to do, and we can't deliver it. And what I found is that everybody is mutually supportive. It's just maybe women say it out loud more than men do, maybe. In terms of overcoming it, what I found in that role and recently is you just have to recognize actually that other people have more confidence in you than you necessarily do yourself. You know, they’ve actually got confidence in your skills and abilities otherwise they wouldn't have asked you to do it. So sharing those insecurities, getting that positive response back, getting the encouragement. It’s a bit like I was saying earlier where, just get your initial idea on paper and we can work on it. That kind of thing I think is how you overcome those insecurities. What you find is, if you get something on paper, when you come back to it two days later, after your subconscious has mulled it over, actually it’s better than you thought.
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? How did you handle it?
Natasja Bolton: I can think of only one meeting in 20 odd years in this industry where I really picked up that one of the men in the meeting was being very sexist or misogynistic about it. Otherwise, nope, never. I never noticed any negative impact. They might be surprised that you turned up, but the STEM subjects - the technology subjects - they weren’t closed to me at school. Me and other female friends went ahead and did those subjects at school and at university. All of the teachers – actually men – were very supportive of us going into those subjects. Even my managers early in my career, they were all very supportive in wanting us to develop and do well, so I’ve never really said that I found it a negative. And actually most men want more women in technology. One colleague I remember telling me that actually they welcomed the change in tone and the change in the topic of conversations that come from having women on the team. Suddenly it’s not conversations about football. It’s different things. It brings more diversity. Like in anything, you get a greater mix of people, things change and it’s all for the positive. So actually no negatives, I would’ve said. It’s always been a positive.
What advice would you impart to other women about how to succeed in the payments industry or in a technology-based field in general? Is there anything that you wish you had known?
Natasja Bolton: First thought first: my advice is following the same kind of thing that I did. Which is: I'm only where I am now because, at one point, I was happily ensconced in the big corporate thinking that this is the place to be. I then took a big, fairly risky jump out of that and into something else. And that, to me at the time, seemed like a huge leap into the unknown and why would I leave this big shiny corporate career-for-life type company? And, actually, it was friends and family that said, actually, this is the best way to go. You know, you're really early in your career. Why wouldn't you try this? I think my advice to women who are early in career is to look for the new. Look for the university start-up, take all those early opportunities because you don't know where it might lead. It could be amazing. And if it isn't, well, you can move on, since you're early enough in your career. You can jump from one technology company to another until you find the one that suits you.
And that leads me to another recommendation, which is, think about consultancy as a career choice. Certainly from my point of view I’ve been a consultant for many years and what you can do, and the learning opportunities within a consultancy role, especially in technology, IT, security information can be very varied, significantly varied, all sorts of stuff, all sorts of companies. What you can find, without ever actually leaving the job that you have, is you can find what types of technology companies, technology jobs are out there. What other types of jobs might you be interested in? What kind of companies are out there? And, the important one from my point of view is, what kind of company culture is the one you want to work for? What's the one that gels with you? I mean, as a consultant, a number of times, I went to a company and went oooh, I couldn't work here, you know, whether it was very bureaucratic or very formal, something just didn't gel. I always find it interesting how company culture is created, just out of a bunch of people who work together. But consultancy is a way of finding what works for you, what gels with you. I highly recommend that. And the other reason is because it helps develop all those soft customer service type people skills that do everyone in good stead, regardless of what company they're in, but in some cases are lacking in technology companies. In terms of, is there anything you wish you'd known? That people are very willing to give their time and knowledge when you ask them. And I was always very shy very early on in career of asking for advice. Do you think this is the right thing for me? The mentoring kind of thing. I think if I had recognized mentoring as a thing early on that might've been something I'd gone for, but I advise seeking out advice and guidance. People are always willing to share.
Well, Natasja, it has been such a pleasure speaking with you today, and we certainly appreciate your time and your very thoughtful responses. So, thank you so much for being with us today.
Natasja Bolton: You’re welcome. Anytime! It's good to chat. Just like I said, challenging questions, but very worth thinking about, so thank you.