Sara Garvey has always been inquisitive and reserved—so much so that her father once left an application form for MI5, the UK's domestic counterintelligence and security agency, on her desk as a joke.
"I called his bluff and got through three rounds of interviews before calling it off, as I couldn't see myself living in London!" shares Sara, who hails from Armagh in Northern Ireland and currently works in Belfast as a Security Researcher at Contrast Security, a leading provider of enterprise application security offerings.
Sara studied computing at university and did her thesis on intrusion detection systems. She loved the work and realized she'd found her passion. "Beyond the technical side, I love that security allows a creative, analytical side—having a hunch about something, and tugging at the thread to see where it leads," she says.
We sat down with Sara to talk about how she broke into the security industry, what her day-to-day looks like working with a distributed team at Contrast, and the career advice she has for other introverts for whom "just ask for what you want" isn't particularly useful.
Progressing despite gatekeeping
"One of the reasons tech, and more specifically, cybersecurity, is so difficult to get into is the initial hurdle you have to get your foot through the door with obtaining all the necessary certifications," explains Sara, who notes that such certifications are both timely and expensive. "Straight away, that eliminates a subset of people."
Sara went a different route. She got her first job in tech as a software engineer, where she learned development practices, how to code in different automation frameworks, and how to collaborate well. She continued to build her security-specific knowledge with online courses and Capture the Flag events (CTFs), which are cybersecurity competitions where teams collaborate together to solve complex security and coding problems.
She was feeling frustrated in her role and was browsing job postings when she saw a listing for a Security Researcher at Contrast. "It had everything I was looking for," she says. "The job spec was really, really appealing to me. I thought I was more than capable of doing it, there was no bias in the language, and it seemed like a really good opportunity."
Sara applied, and despite not having a long list of certifications, got the job. "Thankfully, Contrast took a chance on me and took me at face value with my practical experience," she says. A year and a half at Contrast has "solidified my reasoning that this is the career path I should be on," says Sara, and her team agrees; Contrast's Vice President of Engineering, who nominated her for this profile, called her "an exceptional security researcher" and highlighted that her involvement in Contrast's CTF team has been "instrumental in making us better."
She's seeing more companies follow Contrast's lead and reduce their emphasis on formal certifications, favoring practical experience instead, and she thinks that will be key for leveling the playing field for talent of all backgrounds. "Cybersecurity is notoriously understaffed, yet so hard to get into," she says. "A lot of people don't have the means or time to obtain those [certificates]. Not everyone wants to study for four years, or can."
For other women struggling with tech's (and cybersecurity's) gatekeeping, Sara offers some practical advice: "Have side projects on GitHub, continue online learning, write blogs, and be active in CTFs and Bug Bounties to make your CV stand out and to obtain practical experience to talk about in an interview."
Finding success on a distributed team
Sara was one of Contrast's first hires in their Belfast office, and she worked there with several coworkers until the coronavirus pandemic sent everyone home. "I don't mind working from home, actually," she says, smiling. "I always want to control the aircon."
Even when she was heading into an office, Sara was collaborating with teammates across time zones, as Contrast's team is distributed around the world. They make it work, says Sara, because the culture is built on flexibility and trust.
"The culture is more casual. I can't think of anyone, right up to the top level, that I couldn't approach here," she says. "One thing that I really love is that there's a lot of trust. My current manager is in Iowa, so I've met him twice weekly, but there's a lot of trust and independence in my work. There's no micromanaging at all." (There is some occasional teasing when Sara can't remember the names of American football teams—"especially around Superbowl time, which I don't get," she jokes—but that's not so bad.)
Introversion at work
One of the main reasons Sara likes Contrast's culture so much is that it allows her to be herself.
"A lot of career advice is just for one type of person, like 'opportunities will pass you by if you aren't loud about it,' but it's not one-size-fits-all," says Sara. "I think one of the most important things is to have a manager and teammates on your side who understand your personality type."
She's found that at Contrast. "I got pretty lucky with my manager, and the entire team, actually," she says. "My manager likes to sometimes force me out of my comfort zone for demos and speaking opportunities, which is good; he doesn't take it too far."
Having a supportive team is half the battle—but here's the other advice Sara would share with fellow introverts:
- Think of the long term. "Promotion or salary discussions have never been easy for me. But I have learned that if you don't state your intentions and fight for yourself, who else will? I approach it as a few minutes of uncomfortableness for long-term gain."
- Go into negotiating conversations with data. "Research your market value, present goals you've achieved. It can make an uncomfortable conversation much shorter and takes the emotional element out of it," says Sara. "There's no reason an introvert should be left out or not compensated enough just because that's their personality type."
- Set up a goal-based performance review system. Sara likes how Contrast does performance reviews, where she and her manager both rate her work against a set of previously-determined goals in regular one-on-ones. "There's really no awkward conversations or debate that way; compensation is earned from that track record."
- Take advantage of virtual meetings. "You can jump in a bit quicker, and it's easier to make your point," says Sara, who also recommends communicating with the meeting host prior to big meetings to make sure you'll have a chance to speak. Better yet, see if your company will consider assigning moderators for large virtual meetings, as Contrast does, to make sure people don't talk over each other and that everyone has a chance to be heard.
If you're interested in working with Sara or learning more about how Contrast Security's culture encourages employees to be themselves, check out their PowerToFly profile here.