Sarah Armstrong Smith is the Chief Security Advisor at Microsoft, and acts as an executive sponsor to strategic and major customers across Europe. Sarah has recently published the book, Effective Crisis Management and is a keynote speaker at UK Cyber Week.

Tell us a little bit about your role?

Prior to joining Microsoft, I worked for several large institutions including Thames Water, AXA, EY, Fujitsu, and the London Stock Exchange Group. I have been on the front-line of many major incidents including IT failures, data breaches, and corporate fraud. I talk passionately about the ‘human-aspects’ of cyber and building trust and transparency. I’m an experienced PR spokesperson and keynote speaker and often talk about the human aspects of cyber, breaking down the silos and why ‘resilience’ in the face of adversity is a differentiator in a competitive environment.

This led to me publish my first book ‘Effective Crisis Management’ in October 2022, which explores the traits needed to be an effective leader, no matter what is on the horizon. This quickly became the publisher’s 2022 best seller, and I’m really enjoying sharing the case studies, stories and anecdotes that have spanned the last 25 years of my career.

I have been nominated for multiple industry awards, including ‘most influential and inspiring women in UK tech’ and ‘most influential women in cybersecurity’ over the last five years. In 2021, I had the honour of being awarded a Fellow of the British Computer Society, a role that I’m also immensely proud of.

I’m also passionate about working with SMEs and serve as an Independent Board Advisor, to help businesses navigate their tech journey and create their own path.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

No. There wasn’t a lot of career choices coming my way when I was at school, and hence I never had a set path about what I wanted to do, or how I would get there.

My absolute favourite subject at school was art, and I had the most amazing teacher that would encourage me to use my imagination, not to be constrained, and to be a creative as possible. I truly believe that this is what ultimately led me to a career in business continuity.

It took a few years to find my calling, but like many IT professionals, my story really kick started in 1999 when I found myself working on the ‘millennium bug’ programme for a large water utility. Way before Simon Sinek, I was driven to constantly ask ‘why’ and ‘how’ to understand what was critical, the impact if something went wrong and how to protect it.

I didn’t know that what I was looking at was business continuity. To me it just felt like common sense, and it was an area that I would grow to excel in. As much as it sounds like a cliché, it really is about stepping back to think about the ‘big picture’ and the ability to apply problem-solving to complex issues.

My niche in all of this, is that I found a way of articulating complex issues in a way that resonated with people, irrespective of their role. That creativity really came into a world of its own, when you’re on the front line in a major incident, where people may be panicking or not thinking clearly, so it helps to have someone who can pull all the disparate areas together into one cohesive strategy.  It’s ultimately why I was drawn to put pen to paper to write my book, to share those experiences for others to learn from too.

I now have the writing bug, as I’m excited to be writing a second book. Watch this space for more exciting announcements on that one!

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

The biggest challenge I found was being taken seriously when I was younger, particularly in my early 20’s. Lots of young people have opinions to share, and different perspectives on things, but sometimes these can be dismissed due to a perceived lack of experience.

I therefore felt like I had to work harder to earn my seat at the table, by learning and experiencing lots of different things, so that I could be regarded as the ‘subject matter expert’ in the room. I guess ultimately it is what spurred me on to want to achieve more.

I no longer feel that I need to justify myself, and in fact what we really need is that diversity of thought. Whether that’s different ages, backgrounds, genders, cultures – ultimately, it’s that true diversity of thought and experience that enables us to collectively think and act differently, rather than relying on the dominant voice in the room. This is ultimately what we need to innovate and move forward.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Apart from writing my first book, the role I have right now at Microsoft has been a huge achievement, and one that I have been able to shape and build. I joined in April 2020, just as the UK went into lockdown and therefore, I spent the first 18 months working from home and on Teams. When you don’t have the benefit of working directly with people, you need to spend more time being creative and thinking of different ways to engage people in conversation.

It was privilege for me to work across so many industries and countries as multiple organisations struggled with how to embrace living and working through a global pandemic, to transition into true hybrid working, to where we are today. So many organisations are re-inventing themselves, by considering new business models, mergers, and acquisitions and how the embrace new and emerging technology, such as artificial intelligence – love it or loathe it, the buzz around generative AI has been extraordinary and is bringing potential issues on security, privacy, and ethics right to the forefront of people’s minds.

I’ve also had the privilege of speaking at 100’s of events and conferences around the world where I get to share my love of tech, cybersecurity, and address some of these big questions that are top of mind. It is unfortunate that as much as we want tech for good, there are those that want to use it for nefarious purposes too. 

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?  

A willingness and desire to never stop learning, and a curious mind that is not afraid to ask questions or challenge the status quo. You need to be willing to be disruptive if you want to influence change!

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

Be mindful that technology transcends every aspect of our lives, and so the possibilities truly are endless with regards the type of role that people may have. People also can try lots of different things, to see what they enjoy, and to potentially pivot in different directions, or different paths.

Once I determined that business continuity was the career for me, it was a natural pivot for me to move into disaster recovery, crisis management, cybersecurity, all of which come under the wider umbrella of resilience. Ultimately how do we innovate and do all the cool things that tech has to offer, but in safe, secure, and resilient way. These are fundamental to how we utilise new and emerging tech, and I’m fortunate that I get to fulfil this role with Microsoft.

What barriers are there for women working in tech, and how can they be overcome?

The biggest challenge in any role, is you need to see it to believe it. For example, the more we tell people that tech is a male-dominated industry, and it lacks representation from minority groups, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as people are put off from joining.

Instead, what we should be highlighting is what a fantastic career opportunity it is for all, by celebrating the diversity of people and positive role models that are already in those roles, so that people can envisage themselves doing something similar.

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

It falls in line with the previous question, in that we often over generalise and stereotype people, by assuming that women lack confidence, don’t have an interest in a career in tech, or leadership positions. These are all false barriers that can get in the way of people realising their full potential. We therefore need to find ways to help overcome and deal with some of these perceptions, because I truly believe that with the right encouragement and support, anyone can fulfil their potential.

Ironically the global pandemic has been a brilliant example of how we can break down some of these barriers and misconceptions through the ability to work from anyplace, at any time, from any device. That means that even people with specific care-giving, or other needs that perhaps restricted their ability to find work in some industries, are now finding fulfilling careers, that work in unison with their lifestyle as opposed to against it.

How would you accelerate the pace of change for women in the tech industry? 

We need to remove the notion that tech is predominantly a male-dominated subject, or that you need to be deeply technical to succeed. It is sad to me, that schools are still promoting subjects for girls, or subjects for boys. Examples might include computer science for boys, or drama for girls. These stereotypes therefore get instilled in children at young ages, whether we mean to or not. The reality is that we want children to experience as many different things as possible, to be excited about what lies ahead, and to enable them to be as creative and inquisitive as possible.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

LinkedIn is a treasure trove of information. You’re able to follow multiple different people and organisations, on a variety of different subject areas. They invariably will promote research, blogs or advertise events and conferences etc. So, there is an ability to get access to multiple resources and information from a single platform, as well as learn new things and research the type of roles that are being advertised, and the skills required, irrespective of whether these are entry or executive level.