NEWS + ADVICE
Marine Corps Radio Operator to Constellation West CEO
Lisa Wolford, a former Marine Corps radio operator, founded Constellation West (formerly CSSS.NET) in 1997. Constellation West is a certified service-disabled veteran-owned small company focused on cybersecurity, GIS, IT Software and Systems Engineering and Process Management.
Lisa has received several awards including Nebraska Veteran Services Champion, Vetrepreneur of the Year and the Nunn Perry Mentor Protégé Award from the Department of Defense. Following her Marine Corps service Lisa attended college where she graduated magna cum laude from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration and a triple specialization in management information systems, accounting and Japanese strategic information systems. If this isn’t enough, she did all this as a single parent to two young children, one who required extensive care due to multiple disabilities.
How did Constellation West get into cybersecurity
LW We were first a sub-contractor to a large firm, still are, and had the opportunity to staff some positions in information assurance. We did well with these contracts, expanded the business and then later won several contracts as a prime to support cybersecurity, specifically at the IRS. We also support several cybersecurity contracts in the DoD space.
Why is it so hard for women to be part of IT/Cybersecurity
LW Technology has been a male-dominated field for a very long time, while education and nursing have been female- dominated fields. Male-dominated industries tend to pay better than female-dominated industries.
Women are the primary caregivers more often than not. We have to understand women are typically the primary caretakers of young children when schools are closed or when an elderly parent becomes ill. For some that can be overwhelming and stand in the way of things such as their own career development.
At a recent presentation to students considering a career in cybersecurity, a young woman asked if I recommend going into soft technical, i.e. policy, or hard technical. I recommend hard technical work as you have to prove that you can do the work.
Men don’t necessarily have to prove themselves. When you see someone with a buzz cut folks say, “Oh that is a Marine, therefore this person has the skills do to XYZ because we know that person has had the training.”
But when you see Lisa, who is 5’2”, most would not assume she knows how to fire an M-16. This is how our society works. The same is true in the IT world. Lisa has worked in technology ever since she got out of the Marine Corps but has had to prove herself many times and overcome several hardships.
In my first job, I was the only female member of a 40-person technical team. Even though it was a very casual dress environment, I dressed very professionally because I was often not taken seriously and frequently challenged. As the lead architect many of the men were jealous of me. They wanted my job.
My skills, education and experience were better than the rest of the team, so I got the job. At times the challenges even stemmed from being a single parent with colleagues questioning how it was possible for me to do the job and take care of my kids. To keep above the fray, I had to be better than anyone else technically.
Younger professionals should be better in the hard technical work and then move into the policy and design. First you need to know these skills because you need to know the technical limitations.
How does a veteran prepare themselves for a career in cybersecurity
LW There are tons of cybersecurity training programs for veterans and military personnel. Our military personnel understand mission and operations like nobody else and they are very much focused on protecting their brothers and sisters in arms. Just as they have done this in the field, they can do this behind a computer.
I actively connect veterans to various training programs. But sometimes these programs are not well known and too many times veterans undervalue their own skills and experience. There are trainings that provide skills assessments that will assist veterans in determining their best career fit or their natural skill set. For me understanding technology is a natural skill set. For some it is not.
At Constellation West the civilian government contracts require CISSPs, and of course for the DoD contracts they need 8570 certifications. So for the veterans who don’t have these certifications, we can’t hire them. But again, there are several training programs available with the top most required being the CISSP. CISM is good as well.
Many veterans come out of the service, and say they are great leaders and want to be a Program Manager. For our programs they have to be PMP certified because this is what the contracts require. They also need to understand the technology they will be managing.To manage the people who implement the technology you have to understand the technology – the timeframes, objectives, and limitations of the technology. You also have to understand if your team is performing well or not performing well. This is a big advantage of the Marine Corps as they teach us lead, follow or get out of the way. It is accepted in the Marine Corps that you first have to follow and understand what is going on before you can lead.
As you succeed in your career, you also have to have the soft skills such as communication and diplomacy. Being able to communicate your technical capabilities to a customer, colleague or client is critically important.
Veterans are focused on the mission at hand, but not at their own careers. Too many times once they get home from working 12-16 hour days to their families, there isn’t any time or energy left to prepare for the next career. It is not instilled in military personnel that they need to take charge of their career, during their military career and beyond.
What are your key pointers for military women in their transition
LW Women transitioning out of the military are going to have to plan further in advance than their male counterparts. Women really need to point out their military expertise and background. Women frequently discount their military experience.
Part of this is a societal thing. Their military experience is not as valuable as a man’s. There are many people who will respect this and understand this, but not everyone is going to expect that a woman has a military background. I don’t walk around with a ‘high and tight’, so no one assumes I was in the Marine Corps. Once they found out I am a veteran, they are impressed. Unfortunately, sexism is alive and well in our society. We shouldn’t pretend it isn’t.
It is important for women transitioning out of the military to connect through networking groups – both groups that are focused on connecting professional women, as well as general networking groups.
If you are a new entrepreneur starting up, Objective Rally Point breakfasts at the Army Navy Club are a good start, or AFCEA events, which have professional women subgroups such as WIIG and WIN. You have to realize that there is only so much networking that you can do, and you have to find the right ones that work for you.
Personal time is important as is taking downtime. Time to take care yourself and carve out play time. This means something different to everyone.
Mentoring and sharing knowledge is critical as well. I’m mentoring five people. Three women and two men, three of which are former military. I want to help my mentees avoid some of the pain points I have encountered. It would be even better to see them be successful.