Meet Agata Samojlowicz, CISSP, Deputy Challenge Director - Digital Security by Design at Innovate UK

Agata Samojlowicz joined Innovate UK in July 2014 as a Lead Technologist for Online Commerce. She has almost 15-years of experience of commercial digital activity. She started her career with T-Mobile International in their global Content Team. After this, Agata worked for a number of innovative content developers and technology companies such as Disney, Capcom, Shazam and Tapjoy. Since October 2016, Agata has been Innovate UK’s Digital Innovation Lead for Cyber Security. She works with companies, academia, across government and other partner organisations to fund digital R&D that will grow the UK economy. Recently works closely with DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) to deliver 2016 National Cyber Security Strategy initiative – academic startups programme (aiming to increase the amount of academic research being commercialised within UK universities). Agata is a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP).

Agata Samojlowicz

Did you sit down and plan your career?

No, not my career. From my perspective, from where I am today, it’s almost like it’s been watched over. It’s like somebody has planned this for me because my career has been quite unusual. I have been made redundant four times. I’ve learned a lot from this, but initially it wasn’t the most pleasant experience, as you can imagine. Now I know that, without the experience I’ve gained by working through four different companies, all different sizes, all of them innovative businesses, I wouldn’t have the job I have today. It’s interesting, because I often have people coming to me and saying – How did you plan your career? What’s your key to success? Have you always wanted to work for innovative businesses? But really my career just grew gradually. I’m passionate about digital innovation, especially cybersecurity, but no, I haven’t planned my career. Looking back, I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had, even for the redundancies, because they helped me to understand that this is just a job. I may have a job today, but that doesn’t mean I will tomorrow. I’m trying to not be so emotionally attached to my jobs. That doesn’t mean I’m not passionate about my work, of course I am, but I just try to remember that things can change.  I don’t know if I can say this, but I think my experiences have helped to keep me humble. Just because I’m currently at Innovate UK, that doesn’t mean it’s always going to be this way. Tomorrow, I may not have this job. So no, I haven’t planned.

That’s interesting. And you always know that the plan can change. You’re probably now used to not having a plan and just kind of going with it.

Yes, exactly. With my first job, I wasn’t sure what I could or couldn’t do. The fear of the unknown would have kept me from leaving. If it wasn’t for the redundancies, I might have been stuck in one job, or maybe even skipped around 10 or 20 jobs like some people do. I think I averaged about three years at each job, and I had gotten used to that, I almost expected to be made redundant after 30 months or so. Now that I’ve been with Innovate UK for longer, it feels a little unusual. But I am enjoying it. I’m now in my third job at Innovate UK, so I guess I must be. The one thing that I don’t like is the routine – nothing is changing. I quite like uncertainty, I like to be creative in my job and do different things, not to focus just on one. Doing the same thing every day just isn’t me.

So, you’ve touched on how with the redundancies, some people may view that as a challenge, but you’ve kind of viewed it as a challenge to overcome. What are some of the other challenges you faced throughout your career? And how have you overcome them?

I would say that the redundancies were the most difficult. My first redundancy was quite challenging because it came at a time when it wasn’t easy to find a job. Before I was made redundant, I was really scared about losing my job, but I did. It took me about eight months to find a new one. It really affected my confidence. It took me about a year and a half to fully recover.

Luckily, I was blessed with a great manager at my new job.

It’s funny, even though I’m not a native speaker, I’ve always been able to talk to anyone. But when I had to talk to my manager, I had like a thing in my throat. I couldn’t say a word. But I did recover, and my confidence came back. My manager said to me, “your English has improved,” but I said, “No, it’s not my English. It’s my confidence.” And he played a big role in that. His support along the way was important. Early on I didn’t feel like myself, or wasn’t giving 100% of myself, but he didn’t reject me, he gave me a chance, supporting me on my journey. But not all redundancies were so difficult. Yes. Some were done in a friendly, positive atmosphere. It just so happened that the job was moved to different countries. So, you know, I had no choice.

I’m also sure the first time is probably the scariest as well?

Yes, exactly. The first one is the scariest, but you know, what doesn’t break you makes you stronger. It also helped me to sense when future redundancies were coming. When I was made redundant for the third time, I knew it was coming before anyone had said anything. I remember calling my husband and telling him “I think I’m going to be made redundant, just warning you,” and then a week later I was. I wasn’t the only one, but you know, I could tell what the cycle was. I could see the signs. I think that’s really interesting.

I also like how you talk about kind of redundancy thing, it often isn’t really spoken about, but I mean, it happens so often. And I also like that, you were able to overcome that, and it was through confidence and gaining the confidence that helped you. I think confidence is something a lot of people lack so it’s amazing that you were able to get that back within a safe environment.

Yes definitely. I really do have to thank my manager for that, he gave me a chance. He saw potential in me. I really do think that’s important. Without those redundancies I wouldn’t have the experience I have now. I usually don’t have to explain about the companies on my CV, people tend to know them, and why I left. I thought being made redundant that much was normal, but now I realize now that it’s unusual. I think being forced to look for a job like that was a valuable experience for me.

As I said, I could have stayed in each company for 10 years. I think it was a good thing that everything happened the way it did, it allowed me to change and learn and grow. I have a variety of experiences. I’ve worked for large corporates, I’ve worked for scale ups, I’ve worked for tiny little startups. So, I know what challenges each of them poses, and how they change or what their journeys are. I’m happy with the experiences I’ve been given the chance to have. Now that I’ve had those experiences, I’m on the other side and know how to support businesses of different sizes.

So, what’s your biggest achievement been in your career?

I would say the network I’ve built over the years, the close relationships I have. I think that people are the biggest asset you can have. People say that in cybersecurity, people are the weakest link. While I do agree with this to an extent, I think it was Angela Sasse that challenged this, she wrote a paper that said that humans are the only link. You either use them or you ignore them. I liked that, and I agree with it, we are the only link with technology. You can either use people and try to support them or treat them as the weakest link. I think treating people like they are the weakest link is a real barrier to succeeding in cybersecurity. Especially with Innovate UK, I would say that my biggest achievement is the initiation, development, and deliverance of Cyber ASAP. Putting together the cyber academic startup accelerator program, inviting and working with KTN. I think it’s through collaboration that we’ve done a great job. I like to think that, at least.  I was also involved with, from the very beginning, creating a digital security by design program. We are collaborating with Arm and with universities. If I had to name them, I think it’s those two programs that I’m most proud of being involved and connected with.

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

In the early days of my career, I felt as if my contribution wouldn’t be a valuable one. In meetings, especially with more senior people, I was quiet. So, if I was speaking with my younger self, I would say: “don’t be afraid to have an opinion and share it with your boss, or your colleagues.” I would also say: “don’t be afraid to challenge the norm, just because things are the way they are now, doesn’t mean it will always be that way.” I know John Goodacre likes that one. He challenges the norm a lot. So, yeah, don’t take things as they are, always question why.

What top tips would you give to an individual who’s trying to excel in their career in technology?

That’s a difficult question because people all have different careers, and they can go very different ways. I think really, you just need to follow your gut. It’s not specific to technology, but I think it’s really important.  For example, when I was a student, I studied economics. Well, actually, my subject was corporate financial strategies and stock exchange, but I’ve always loved maths. I wanted to study maths but I got scared because there was no role model for me. The only person I had was my tutor at Uni; he was really into numbers but not really anything else, and I was scared that I was going to be like him forever. For me, people are important. I’m passionate about people, as well as maths. I love getting to know people and their stories. I love it. I was scared that I wasn’t going to be able to do that on the path I was heading down. Looking back, it feels a bit silly, because you can always do things your way. So yeah, that’s my advice – do it your way. Don’t look at other people.

There’s nothing wrong with the way other people do things, but you don’t have to do it that way.

I think it just scared me because, other than my tutor, I didn’t have anyone else to relate to. So I didn’t study maths. Sometimes I regret it, but then, I don’t know where I would be today if I had studied maths. I think what I do now is compensating for that – I am studying maths, just in technology and computers. It feels quite natural.

What advice would you give to women who are like yourself? They were looking for, like representation, but they didn’t have it in the field they wanted to study?

I would say just do what you want to do – don’t worry about whether your demographic is well represented. Just do what you think is right. And follow your heart. Follow your heart so that you don’t regret. I’m not very techie, so I couldn’t say exactly what my advice would be for techie women, but in general, just follow your heart. I didn’t feel represented, like I said I didn’t feel like I had a role model, so I forged my own path. I realized that I didn’t have to be like my tutor, as into numbers as he was, I could still build the relationships I wanted to build. But you do need encouragement, at least I did. I think that’s probably one of my regrets. I didn’t get enough encouragement. But then, it all turned out great. When I first started out, I got into the travel industry, I’m a licensed guide. That helped me a lot. I felt like that was where the people were, it was a job in which I could get to know people. There I learned about psychology, I learned how to understand people, or at least try to.

When people go on holiday, they kind of lose their minds. They go into tourist-mode. They follow you around asking you loads of questions. I you went somewhere on your own, you’d have to find things out for yourself, like, for example, where the toilet is. But when you’re in an organized group, you become so reliant on your guide. One man I remember asked where the toilet was, and I told him. But then he came back saying that it didn’t work, asking where he should go. Do you see what I mean? I think we’re all a bit like that.  Anyway, I enjoyed it. You get to try and make people’s dreams come true, working in the travel industry. People are very demanding though. But I learned a valuable lesson during that time. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you see, what hotel you stay at, what the weather is like, it’s the experience that matters. Working in the travel industry you must build the experience, build the atmosphere to make people feel special. I don’t think I would have learned that if I had studied maths. So yeh, I think everything worked out well, I liked doing the additional work in the travel industry.

I think it helped me most with dealing with people. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing, even in technology. Building relationships with people is the best thing you can do. Working in travel really helped with that. I’m not saying that I’m an expert in building relationships, but I’m passionate about it. I don’t always have great relationships with people though – everything goes two ways doesn’t it? Not everyone is interested in building a relationship.

Do you believe that there are still barriers to succeed for women work in tech? And if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

From what I have experienced, lack of self-confidence can be a major barrier. But that goes for everyone, not just women. Although I think men are generally more self-confident. I’ve heard of this research study that says something like, when a man looks at a job description and only ticks three boxes out of ten, he thinks “yeh, I’m good, I’ll go for it,” but then women will tick all ten boxes and assume there’s a hidden one, one that they don’t tick, so don’t think they’re good enough.  I think that kind of approach isn’t necessarily prohibiting, rather inhibiting. But I mean, I’ve never felt as if I was being treated worse than men, but maybe it just hasn’t happened yet. Maybe I am just lucky.

So, you haven’t experienced it yourself? But have you seen other women struggling in observed any barriers that seem to be there for women within the industry?

I haven’t heard of any recently. Not in any of my previous jobs. I’ve heard that some nationalities were preferred, or that men were preferred for senior positions. I saw it happening. But it’s not only women vs men. It’s also nationalities. I’ve seen this this unconscious bias problem. But other than that, I haven’t really seen anything. I try to be a very positive person, so maybe I just can’t see that kind of thing

When it comes to self-confidence, how would you suggest that barrier can be overcome?

I think there are a few things. You should set yourself small, achievable goals. When you start reaching them you increase your confidence in steps. Don’t start with high challenges, start with low ones. I learned that on a Remarkable leadership course for women. I would actually recommend every woman to go to one of those and experience that.

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What do you think companies should do to support and progress the careers of women working in tech?

I would say build on their strengths. Sometimes people say, “oh, what are your weaknesses? You need to work on your weaknesses.” I think a better approach would be to, help women to discover their, as Remarkable call it “zone of genius”. Ask them: “What’s your uniqueness? What’s your kind of strength? Super strength?”. And then build on this. So instead of looking for what’s wrong with you, you should look for your strengths, and what can you do with them. Work out how to strengthen them even more. Companies should support women in that journey. At least that’s how I would approach it.

What resources do you recommend for women work who in tech? Remarkable Women?

Remarkable is definitely something that women should go and experience. Otherwise, it’s difficult for me to say because it all depends on what women are looking for, and their character. If you’re looking to gain some technical knowledge, Caps Lock comes to mind. If you’re looking to move into tech, that’s definitely a good one. But really it depends on what your needs are. I never used to be confident speaking in front of people, so I became a licensed thought leader. Initially, it was a challenge but over time it became easier for me, not being a native English person. It was a challenge, but one I had created for myself. I had to say to myself: “I’m always going to make mistakes, nothing is ever perfect, As long as people understand me, that’s what matters.” I always used to apologize for my English, but people would always say, “but my Polish isn’t as good as your English”. Really, it’s all about self-confidence. I wanted to speak and present with confidence, so I went on a course that helped with that, It’s really about what you want to do. If you want to change career into tech, go ton Caps Lock. If you’re looking to gain confidence, go to Remarkable Women. It’s not a typical leadership course. It’s more about learning about yourself, changing the way you approach things.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you ever mentored anyone? Do you mentor? Are you a mentee? Who have you had any experience with this?

I’ve never had an official mentor. I would say that in my early days, I always turned to my father for advice. He was sort of an unofficial mentor. I recently asked my colleague if she could become my mentor, and she agreed, so that is something in my future. I’ve never been a mentor myself, but people do come to me and want to talk with me about loads of different things. Then they’ll come back and tell me that it helped with this, or that. But I try not to advise people. If I advised someone, then I would be responsible for the outcome. But I do try to challenge people’s thinking and help them approach things differently. I would say, although I’ve never been an official mentor, I have had people I have spoken to come back and tell me that without my encouragement they wouldn’t have applied for a job or something like that. I really try to drill into people that they will never succeed if they don’t try

Actually, I was a mentor once. Quite recently actually. But it was only a few meetings. It wasn’t official. But yeh I did mentor a lady once.

What’s the next achievement you’re working towards? And how do you plan to get there?

I’m most looking forward to parenthood. I guess you could say that’s my focus for the next, well, lifetime. Not adoption per say, but parenting. I’m going to take a year off for parental leave. But to be honest, I’m happy where I am with Digital Security by Design. I want to see the technology we work on used in real life, knowing I had even the tiniest contribution in it.