Microsoft’s Chief Security Advisor Sarah Armstrong-Smith encourages women to push themselves forward


In this exclusive interview for PA Life Microsoft’s Sarah Armstrong-Smith, one of the Top Trending Cybersecurity Speakers in the world, discusses what led the cyber expert to work for Microsoft. Sarah also reflected on her work during the Millenium Bug and revealed the advice she would give her younger self. Discover all of that and more, in this exclusive interview which is part of our inspirational women series around International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month.

What led you to cybersecurity, data protection and digital transformation?

“I’ve been working in the technology environment for over 20 years now, and I chase this back to sort of 1999 – all those many years ago! I was actually working for a water utility company on the Millennium Bug or Year 2000 programme, and many companies were on really large transformation programmes to recode a lot of their computers and servers.

“The theory was, at the stroke of midnight, a number of computers and servers would melt down, because of the way that the year ‘2000’ was actually coded into a number of different systems.

“And really, for me, from a young age, I’ve always been driven to keep asking ‘why’ and ask abundant questions: ‘what if the systems go down?’, ‘what if we can’t get people to work?’, ‘what if what if’ – all these types of things. And I didn’t really understand at the time that what I was looking at was business continuity. For me, it just felt like common sense to keep asking these ‘what if’ questions. I always look at that as the point where I started my career.”

Having worked on the Millenium Bug, what did you learn from the potential threat?

“I think having a background in business continuity has really enabled me to think about the big picture, those worst-case scenarios – ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen?’.

“We need to think wider, we need to think about incidents that are not just relevant to our own company, but issues that go cross sector and even across the world. That scope and scale is really important, and some of these major events have also triggered global changes, as well.

“So, I think back, and I would say 9/11 was a really good example of a major incident, at massive scale, that we probably never seen before, how that was televised and the shock that came with it. It really brought home the impact of terrorism, and again, how important business continuity is at that scale.

“That’s from small businesses up to those large enterprises as well. So, ultimately, when we’re thinking about these threats – it’s not just about business continuity but cyber security attacks as well – it’s really about thinking holistically, thinking much, much, much wider. It’s really about having resilience to all of these types of attacks and types of threats.”

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

“Don’t be afraid to keep pushing yourself forward! I think people sometimes feel afraid that, if you’re going to apply for a role or it’s a voluntary position, you’ll have a list of things you need to be able to do. Because I’d go, ‘oh, I don’t know, I can’t do that one, so I won’t apply.

“And I now think – just do it anyway! Because actually, you’re going to learn on the role. You never know until you put yourself forward and you really never know where it’s going to lead to. But again, if I look back, I never really set out to be in tech. I never even thought about business continuity or cyber security. Actually, when I was much, much younger, I wanted to do something with art, I wanted to be graphic designer because I loved art.

“So, my advice would be, don’t worry about not having a life plan or that you don’t have things all mapped out. Just take these opportunities, have these experiences, keep learning along the way. There may be things you like and things you don’t like but hopefully, over the course of your career, you’ll find something that you love and cling to it.

“More than anything, I would say, just enjoy the journey.”

This exclusive interview with Sarah Armstrong-Smith was conducted by Mark Matthews, courtesy of The Cyber Security Speakers Agency.


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