Zinet Kemal, CISA, CySA+, Network+, Security+, was a legal assistant in Ethiopia before moving to the United States 6 years ago. Once she arrived in the United States, her technology career journey began, but her interest in tech started much earlier. She has long been fascinated by the power of technology to help solve people’s everyday problems. Currently, Kemal works for Hennepin County as an IT auditor identifying weaknesses in the system network, making recommendations to prevent security breaches and effectively evaluating IT risk by auditing cybersecurity controls, and volunteers as technology director at the Information Systems Security Association (ISSA) Minnesota (USA) Chapter. She is most interested in cybersecurity and IT risk management and compliance. At Hennepin County, she also serves as chair of a subcommittee of the millennial’s employee resource group. Here she shares her story about changing to a new career while also adapting to a new country with her family.
Q: What struggles have you faced entering the technology industry?
A: One of my biggest challenges changing careers has been attending school while raising a family. Raising three young children and attending classes can be difficult and finding affordable childcare can be even more difficult. Even so, it has been rewarding to know that I can inspire and serve as a role model for my children. I show them how to be consistent, resilient and how to pursue goals. When making the switch to technology, I did not have the background in math, programming or the necessary computing concepts, and that was also a challenge. I have risen to the challenge, however, and studied harder to catch up to my other classmates who were born in the United States and have had exposure to these concepts earlier in their education. Outside of school, navigating and learning how to break into the workforce, including learning a different work culture in a new country was another hurdle.
Q: How have you seen the industry change during your career?
A: I am still newer to the industry, but I have learned and observed some interesting things about the industry itself since starting my journey. I have noticed in school that there are very few women in my classes and there are even fewer women of different ethnicities. I have learned that women in the cybersecurity industry only account for 11% of the workforce, though that number is expected to grow to 20% by the end of 2019. This figure is too low. The industry needs to continue pushing for more women in tech. Initiatives and associations such as SheLeadsTech and Women in Cybersecurity help increase awareness on the topic and move the needle in the right direction. I also believe women leaders are important in changing the industry because women role models help motivate other women who aspire to break into the field and also strive to become leaders.
Q: What advice do you have for others currently in or looking to join this industry?
A: For those who are looking to join this industry, I would say if you set your mind to it and are passionate about technology, you can do it and it does not matter if you are changing careers, new to the country or lack experience. Avoid intimidation and stereotyping and tell yourself, if you put in the work you will go a long way. I will say in technology, one needs to be willing to adapt to change since things in technology constantly evolve. For those already in tech, knowing the goals and processes of your organization will help you not only see the bigger picture, but also make you indispensable to your team. Once you find something you are passionate about to specialize in, be open to learning and self-development. I like to explore and earn certifications so that I learn new concepts. As a working mother, I am very passionate about contributing to changing the narratives on issues of gender and the racial pay gap. I think this is especially important in technology and will do what I can to encourage the industry to move toward equality and reducing disparity.
Q: What excites you about your career and the tech industry?
A: In my current role as an IT auditor, I enjoy learning about the different areas of IT and security concepts. With each audit engagement, I get the opportunity to learn and research a specific area of IT and security. This helps me develop expertise in that space and helps me get excited and stay engaged in my career. The fact that technology is constantly evolving makes it exciting in itself, and it pushes people to learn and keep up with the environment. I find that very fascinating.
Q: How do you progress your learning and share your knowledge with others?
A: When I arrived in the United States, I pursued my bachelor’s degree in computer science, an associate degree in computer programming and a certificate in cybersecurity and privacy law. I pursue new certifications frequently and am currently working toward my Master of Science (MS) in cybersecurity. I also firmly believe that teaching can help you solidify and relearn concepts. To that end, in the Fall of 2019, I began teaching a class in information security at a community college as an adjunct professor. I hope my teaching can inspire others and my knowledge can help them on their own journeys.
Q: What do you do when you are not working and teaching outside the home?
A: When I am not pursuing my career in tech, I enjoy spending time with my 3 children (soon to be 4) and my husband. I like seeing everyone in my life active and pursuing what they love. I am grateful to have a husband, who is encouraging, believes in my potential and enjoys seeing me pursue what I love.