Parisa Akaber

Inspirational Woman: Parisa Akaber | ICS Security Consultant, Siemens Digital Grid

Parisa AkaberParisa Akaber is an industrial control system (ICS) security consultant at Siemens Digital Grid, working on safekeeping and securing industrial control systems as well as the necessary software and hardware that is used by these systems; driving innovation in risk-based security services for industrial environments.

Parisa joined Siemens Future Grid in 2018 as a Knowledge Transfer Partnership Associate to work on a collaborative project with Newcastle University, where she has also started a PhD in Electrical and Electronics Engineering. In her role as an Operations Research Scientist, she was responsible for the design, mathematical modelling and implementation of a state-of-the-art multi-stage optimisation platform for e-fleet charging scheduling, logistic operation planning and power management.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

My name is Parisa Akaber. I currently work as an Operational Technology (OT) Cybersecurity specialist for Siemens, where I support the delivery of cybersecurity services to customers in the energy and critical infrastructure sector.

Before joining Siemens, I studied computer engineering and information systems security in Iran and Canada and am now pursuing a PhD in power systems part-time while also working full time. I’ve been working in the energy industry for almost seven years. My main focus has been on energy systems modelling, electric mobility and cybersecurity for Industrial Control Systems (ICS).

In the Siemens Cyber Practice, I provide cybersecurity consultancy services such as threat and risk assessments around operational technology and control systems. I also lead the integration of internal cybersecurity procedures that ensure the energy products, solutions and services we offer are aligned with highest cybersecurity standards.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Sometimes I’ve tried to plan, but most of my career steps happened unexpectedly. For example, moving from Canada to the UK was a rather sudden decision that my husband and I made in just a month as we wanted to expose ourselves to new opportunities. The move was challenging as I had to build my network from scratch in a new environment, while at the same time changing my career plans. At the time, I thought I would do my PhD straight after finishing my master’s degree but actually, being exposed to industry turned out to be a hugely valuable experience and crossed in the middle with the PhD path.

It is good to have a rough roadmap in mind, but at the same time you shouldn’t be afraid to leverage new opportunities and move out of your comfort zone. And always think about how to gain new skills as skills are your most valuable assets.

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

Moving to the UK and starting again! Moving country in general is a challenging step, and I’ve done it twice, although the second time was easier. Because I had studied in Canada and worked there, I had a ready-made environment to progress my career in, but I left and came to the UK. So this meant building a new network in a place where I didn’t know anyone, which was difficult and sometimes stressful. Having said that, it definitely improved my resilience.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

In my previous role as a Knowledge Transfer Associate, working in between Siemens and Newcastle University, I developed advanced mathematical models to address a real-world industry challenge: how to optimise the charging of electric fleet vehicles such as electric buses. The outcome of this partnership project is my biggest career achievement to date, a data-driven, scalable and reliable solution for logistic and power management of electric fleets that is currently part of the Siemens e-depot smart charging SaaS solution.

It was challenging and interesting to see how real-world system behaviours and characteristic with all their uncertainties could be captured in advanced mathematical equations and how solving those models could meet customer objectives such as minimising e-fleet charging costs and reducing power peaks.

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

Being persistent and ambitious. I can think of many moments in the past ten years when I felt disappointed about not achieving what I thought I should have achieved, or when things I believed were important for my career didn’t happen. However, looking back now, most of those moments turned into opportunities to learn and explore, which helped me build more resilience. If I feel disappointed about something now, I know that I can persist, I can still keep moving forward.

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

Grow your skills – not only your technical skills, spend time on identifying what soft and interpersonal skills you should focus on based on your career roadmap. This could include project management, time management, strategic decision making, coaching or mentoring skills, presenting and communication skills – these are important in every industry.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

In my view, one of the main barriers is women thinking they are not good enough or that men are better at certain things. It’s not necessarily feedback from others but an intrinsic belief, perhaps based on societal preconceptions, that can result in women not feeling empowered to succeed.

I personally can think of situations, especially at university, when I thought that had to prove myself just because I was a girl. Or being the only female in a meeting and feeling that I should not talk because men in general talk a bit more loudly. No one treated me differently, but rather I treated myself differently because of unconscious preconceptions. Now, I’ve learned that I should share my opinions.

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

I would like to see more women in executive roles. To achieve that, we have to invest in them, for example by offering formalized development opportunities for female leaders that are focused on building the leadership competencies they need. Siemens for example runs a mentor programme as part of its regular Growth Talks to help employees advance their careers and realise their potential.

There are currently only 21 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

This problem is bigger than industry alone. I would start by looking at our education systems, right from nursery, where girls and boys tend to be treated differently. Why do we have toys, dressing up clothes and book sets specifically for girls? Why is Fireman Sam a man? Why do we tell girls to be gentle and boys to be tough? We need to fight the stereotypical thinking, we need to make girls feel empowered and we need strong female role models.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I’d like to recommend two books. Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang and Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology by Ellen Ullman. Both are must-reads for women in tech.