Sarah Armstrong-Smith

Inspirational Woman: Sarah Armstrong-Smith | Chief Security Advisor at Microsoft

Sarah Armstrong-Smith

Sarah Armstrong Smith, part of The Female Motivational Speakers Agency has decades of experience in the technology industry.

She worked directly on The Millenium Bug, which threatened to dismantle cyber software and systems. This trial by fire taught Sarah the importance of defensive cybersecurity strategies, particularly in business

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 of 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, as where I started my career. From business continuity, that then pivoted over the next 20 years or so, into disaster recovery, cyber security, fraud, crisis management – all of that comes under the banner of resilience. And that is how my career has evolved.

How has gender inclusion in the workplace evolved since the start of your professional journey?

When I was at Fujitsu – I worked at Fujitsu for 12 years prior to Microsoft – I was actually coaching with the Women’s Business Network for three years. We set ourselves a mission to have more women in tech and senior roles, as opposed to just more women in general.

So to put that into perspective, Fujitsu is the biggest Japanese employer in the UK. They have 12,000 people, of which about 3,000 are women. And then one of the objectives we set was to be a Times Top 50 Employer for Women.

The entry criteria for that is really tough, really hard. And we said, ‘we’re going to be bold, ambitious, and we want to do all of these things – we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing’. What was interesting to us, as well, was that when you compare men to women in these types of environments, the statistics on women and ratio to men is always going to be a lot lower.

As I said, Fujitsu has always been around 25-26 per cent women, but they had the objective to get that to 30 per cent and then over X number of years to bring that up to 50 per cent. That sounds very, very positive if you’re a woman, not so great if you’re a man. If I was to increase the number of women to 50 per cent, I’d have to potentially remove 3,000 men from the organisation. And that’s not really what we’re saying, but that is how some of these messages are perceived.

So we really have to be careful when we’re talking about this so that what might sound good for one group, doesn’t then sound like a disadvantage for another, and that we don’t fall into the trap of positive discrimination, where we have any kind of quotas and people feel like they’re just a number as opposed to an individual.

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 had this nasty habit when I was younger to keep volunteering for things when I didn’t really know what I was volunteering for. I think people sometimes feel afraid that, if you’re going to apply for a role or it’s a voluntary position and you’ll have a list of things you need to be able to do. And 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.