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Women Helping Women in DevSecOps

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Interview with Dr. Ikjot Saini, Co-Director at SHIELD Automotive Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence @ the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada and Assistant Professor in the School of Computer Science.

By Deb Radcliff

As she pursued her Bachelor’s in computer science and engineering, Dr. Ikjot Saini learned basic programming in C languages and Java. And that’s when she got hooked on software debugging. “Once I started building algorithms, I got my adrenal rush chasing bugs in my programs,” she says. “I started addressing the challenges in resolving the errors and debugging them. Then I went around fixing bugs for everyone else in the lab.”

This was 2010, and, at the time, she had no female-identifying mentors or students to share tips with. Instead, she followed her own personal compass and pursued her master’s degree. There are even fewer females following this field at the master’s level, she says. So, Ikjot feels lucky and honored that she found a strong female mentor in her doctoral supervisor who helped her take her love for bug hunting and apply it to securing vehicular networks.

In this interview, Dr. Saini weaves a circular story about founding student-based mentoring programs and handing that baton to other female students.

Q: What did you appreciate most about your mentors while pursuing your master’s and doctorate degrees?

A: My first mentor was kind and helped me understand my path forward. She enabled me to pursue my favored research area—     privacy and cyber security in vehicular networks—which was quite new at the time.

Then, towards the end of my doctorate degree, I met another engineering professor who helped me further understand how to translate my interests into a career path. When you have some role models who you can work with, that really helps.

Q: In 2019, you also started the student chapter of WiCyS, which stands for women in cybersecurity. Can you tell us about how that expanded the circle of mentors, mentees, and new mentors?

A: I met wonderful women with similar interests, which was very inspiring as each one had a different trajectory in the field of cybersecurity.

After that, I founded the first Canadian student chapter for WiCyS in Windsor, which is still very active. Now, I am a professor and no longer a student, so I’ve turned the chapter over to one of my student mentees. And I’m also academic chair of the WiCyS Ontario professional affiliate where I double up and help form other student chapters. We currently have six student chapters in different Canadian universities, all run by female students.

Q: What is the value of such mentorship programs?

A: I did all of this to be an example so that other women who are getting into S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education programs can see themselves as gifted, talented, and strong contributors to their fields of choice.

Women need to have that pool of role models around them. They need the influence and perspectives of different people, personalities, and characters. This raises their confidence and provides inspiration. It helps to know that this other woman can do this, so they can also learn these skills and be capable as well.

Q: How do you identify your mentees?

A: Part of my responsibility as assistant professor is to make female students comfortable and safe to raise their hands and ask questions. If I can enable their curiosity in the classroom, maybe they will reach out to me if they want mentorship.

Two years ago, when I had five females out of 104 students in my classroom, three of the female students came to me in my office after the midterm. They needed guidance and help with what directions to pursue with their computer science degrees, just as I did. These are informal, long-term mentorships and I’ve seen all three of them grow exponentially in the past three years.

For example, one of my mentees just graduated with her bachelor’s. She has so much talent, so many skills, but she couldn’t see her own potential and capabilities. She needed external validation, so outside of her coursework, I encouraged her to go to leadership conferences, hackathons, and other competitions that she always excelled at. Now she’s on her own, knows her capabilities, and has determined to pursue a master’s degree. And, full circle, she also served on the student WiCyS board for our university. It is truly rewarding to watch her doing the best of her potential and achieving her goals.

Q: What specialty areas do you see women excel at?

Now, in my field of research, I have mostly female students interested in developing Artificial Intelligence. The rising challenges in autonomous systems are AI ethics, fairness, and algorithmic bias. So, these engineers and developers need to understand the legal, technical and hardware requirements to prevent such bias. This is appealing to women who love defining different variables and uncovering the blind spots. They also see that this is more about serving the community rather than just building the technology.

Additional Resources:

  • Girls who Code programs, get togethers, internships and more
  • Girls In Tech designed to help women enter and excel in tech fields
  • WyCyS supports recruitment, retention, and training of females in cyber security
  • GrammaTech Blog: Is Your Codebase Too Male?

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