Why We Need More Cultural Entrepreneurs in Security & Tech

Recently, #RealDiversityNumbers provided another venue for those in the tech community to vent and commiserate over the widely publicized lack of diversity within the industry. The hashtag started trending and gained some media attention. This occurred as Twitter came under fire for organizing a frat-themed party, while also facing a gender inequality claim. Unfortunately, as dire as the diversity situation is in the tech sector writ large, it pales in comparison to the statistics on diversity in the security sector. The security community not only faces a pipeline shortage, but it has also made almost no progress in actively attracting a diverse workforce. The tectonic shifts required to achieve true diversity in the security sector also mean a fundamental shift in the tech culture must take place. However, while companies such as Pinterest have publicly noted their commitment to diversity, very little has changed from top-down approaches to diversification in the tech community. Certainly internal policies and recruiting practices matter, and leadership support is essential. These are the core enablers, but are not sufficient for institutionalizing cultural change. Instead, cultural entrepreneurs reflecting technical expertise across an organization must lead a grassroots movement to truly institutionalize cultural change within organizations and across the tech community. All of us must move beyond our comfort zones of research, writing and coding and truly take ownership of organizational culture.

Given the competition for talent in the security industry, an organization’s culture (ceteris paribus) often proves to be the determining factor that fosters, attracts, and retains a highly skilled and diversified workforce. Because an organization cannot engineer its way toward an innovative, inclusive culture or simply throw money at the issue, this problem can be perplexing to tech-focused industries. As anyone who has even briefly studied cultural approaches knows, culture is very sticky and entails a concerted and persistent effort to achieve the desired effects. It requires a paradigm shift much in the same way Kuhn, Lakatos and Popper all approached the various avenues toward scientific progress. The good news – if there is any – is that many of the cultural shifts required to foster a driven, innovative and (yes!) inclusive work environment do not cost a lot of money. Similar to the role of policy entrepreneurs in pushing forth new ideas in the public sector, cultural entrepreneurs are key individuals who can use their technical credibility to push forth ideas and promote solutions for any cultural challenges they identify or experience. By serving as a gateway between various aspects of an organization, cultural entrepreneurs can move an organization and ideally the industry beyond a “brogramming” mentality and reputation. Cultural entrepreneurs must reflect technical expertise across a diverse range of skills and demographics in order to legitimately encourage diversity and innovation. This enables the credible organic shifts from below that foment cultural change.

Cultural entrepreneurs are required to ensure an organization’s culture is inclusive and purpose-driven, instead of perpetuating the status quo. In this regard, diversity is a key aspect of this cultural shift. Diversity provides an innovation advantage and positively impacts the bottom line. Many in the tech community are starting to realize this, with companies like Intel investing $300 million in diversity, and CEOs lamenting that they wished they had built diversity into their culture from the start. Admitting that the problem exists is an important step, but this rhetoric has yet to translate into a more diversified workforce. A concerted effort by major tech companies to address diversity resulted in at most a 1% increase in gender diversity and an even smaller increase in ethnic diversity. Cultural entrepreneurs, and their ability to foster grassroots cultural shifts, may be the missing link in many of these cultural and diversity initiatives.  

Cultural entrepreneurs across an organization can make a significant impact with minimal work or cost by focusing on both internal and external cultural aspects of an organization. First, there is a large literature on how cross-cutting links (think social network analysis) develop social capital, which in turn has a positive impact on civic engagement and economic success. A recent Gallup Poll reinforces just how hard it is to foster social capital, with results confirming that over 70% of the American workforce does not feel engaged. Many organizations know this, but unfortunately fail at implementation by opting for social activities that reinforce exclusivity or feel contrived or overly corporate. Events ranging from frat-themed parties to cruise boats with concubines clearly do little to attract a diverse workforce. Cultural entrepreneurs can encourage or informally organize inclusive activities – such as sports, team outings, or discussion boards – within and across departments to increase engagement. While these kinds of social activities may seem superfluous to the bottom line, they can positively impact retention, workforce engagement, and inclusivity by building cross-cutting social networks. The kinds of social activities certainly should vary depending on an organization, but they must appeal to multiple segments of the workforce to foster social capital instead of reinforcing stereotypes and stovepipes within organizations. However, with everyone’s heads to keyboard all day every day, technical cultural entrepreneurs rarely emerge, hindering the development of social capital.

Second, perception is reality, and cultural entrepreneurs can help shift external perceptions of the industry. A quick search of Google images for “hacker” reveals endless images of male figures in hoodies working in dark, nefarious environments.  The media perpetuates this with similar images every time a new high profile breach occurs. It’s not just a media problem. It is also perpetuated within the industry itself. A recent analysis of the RSA conference guide showed shockingly little diversity.  The study notes that “women are absent” and “people of colour are totally absent.” While it adequately reflects the reality of the security industry, it makes those of us currently in the security community feel more out of place if we don’t fit that profile, while also deterring anyone not fitting those profiles from entering the field.  Let’s hope the upcoming Black Hat and Def Con conferences are more inclusive, with a broader representation of gender, race and appearance, but I wouldn’t bet on it. It’s up to cultural entrepreneurs to continue to press their organizations and the industry to help shift the perception of the security community away from nefarious loners and toward one with a universal mission that requires a diverse range of skillsets and backgrounds. Providing internal and external thought leadership through blogs, presentations and marketing can go a long way toward helping reality reflect the growing rhetoric advocating for diversity.

The security industry, which mirrors the diversity problems in the tech industry writ large, would benefit from a cultural approach to workforce engagement and inclusivity. All of the amenities in the world are not enough to overcome the tech industry’s cultural problems that not only persist, but that are also much more exclusive than they were two decades ago.  In creative industries, cultural entrepreneurs are essential to fostering the social capital and intrinsic satisfaction that emerges from an inclusive and innovative culture. At Endgame, this is something that we think about daily and always seek to improve. We benefit from leadership that supports and understands the role of culture, while also letting us grow that culture organically.  This organic growth relies on technical leaders across the company working together and pushing both the technical and cultural envelopes. This combination of technical mastery coupled with an collaborative and driven culture provides the foundation on which we will continue to foment inclusivity while disrupting an industry which for too long has relied on outdated solutions to modern technical and workforce challenges.