A Cybersecurity Investigator Talks Tech Trends, Diversity in Security Industry

Cybersecurity investigator Cynthia Hetherington says, “No security manager worth her salt cares about how you look; she cares about what you produce.”

A Cybersecurity Investigator Talks Tech Trends, Diversity in  Security Industry

SECURE Perspectives is a monthly column by the Security Industry Association (SIA) profiling women in the security industry. This column is part of SIA’s Women in Security Forum, an initiative to support the participation of women in the security field through programs, professional development and networking events.

For this edition of SECURE Perspectives, SIA spoke with Cynthia Hetherington, founder and president of the Hetherington Group (Hg).  She is also an author and frequent trainer on online intelligence best practices.

For more than 25 years, Ms. Hetherington has led national and international investigations in corporate due diligence and fraud, personal asset recovery and background checks.

Cynthia Hetherington

Cynthia Hetherington

How did you get into the security industry?

Prior to becoming a cybersecurity investigator, I was a librarian and provided free research to the public. One day, a patron stopped into the library — a private detective who needed help identifying poisons. I was curious what he needed to know about poisons, thinking he was perhaps writing a mystery novel. As it turns out, he had a client who feared she was being poisoned by her husband.

I helped him by using the internet and found a listserv dedicated to forensic scientists. I sent a message to this group asking for help, and within an hour, a medical examiner emailed me directly and I put him in touch with the detective. It turned out the woman was being poisoned, and the information I located for this detective helped put the woman’s husband behind bars — and saved her life. When I realized that I could put my librarian skills to work conducting cyber investigations, a whole new career path opened to me.

When I started out, however, I had no idea how to ask clients for money. Finally, one of my clients — a former Kansas state trooper — said, “Good things are seldom cheap, and cheap things are seldom good.” I heard myself blurting out, “It will be $50 per hour.” He smiled, like a proud papa, and said, “Okay then.” I used that $50 to buy a few marketing supplies and launched Hg the next day.

How does your organization serve the industry?

Hg is committed to sharing knowledge and expertise with colleagues and colleagues-in-training. Since 1998, I have trained over 60,000 corporate security professionals, attorneys, accountants, auditors, military intelligence professionals and federal, state and local agencies in online intelligence practices.

In appreciation of their efforts to protect and serve our communities, Hg offers free cybersecurity trainings to law enforcement officers and members of the military community who otherwise could not afford to attend. In 2018, we offered law enforcement appreciation training to New Jersey state law enforcement and to the Seattle Police Department. In addition, we offered a complimentary training program, “Using Anonymity and Working Undercover with Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT),” to members of the New Jersey Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Cell.

What is your current role?

I am the founder and president of Hg, a consulting, publishing and training firm that leads in due diligence, corporate intelligence and cyber investigations by keeping pace with the latest security threats and assessments. I have authored three books on how to conduct investigations and am currently working on a guide to international due diligence.

I also crisscross the country conducting trainings and organize the annual OSMOSIS Conference, where hundreds of investigators across the nation gain insights into OSINT and receive training from the most recognized social media and open source experts in North America.

What types of job functions do women fill in your company? Is there diversity of roles in your company, or do women gravitate towards certain job functions?

I’m a strong believer in helping more women get into our industry. My biggest challenge in entering this male-dominated profession was being a woman. Most, if not all, security role models in the 1990s were men; being a petite librarian from New Jersey, I didn’t fit the model. I had to learn quickly, often on my feet, that I had the same skills they possessed and sometimes even more finely-honed skills.

As my business continues to grow, I seek to hire the best candidates. Out of a team of seven, I have four women whose roles include senior advisor, manager of investigations, investigative analyst and communications support staffer. I also offer free training to CybHER.org and RocketGirls, a program that empowers, motivates and educates girls on cybersecurity.

With more and more data that shows diversity makes a better workforce, what opportunities do you see for women in the security industry? What impediments do you see for achieving this? What could remedy some of these impediments?

I think the sky’s the limit, but we need more young girls to get interested in a profession that still has the image of the stereotypical burly security guy or shady Sam Spade. That’s why I support the excellent work that CybHer.org and RocketGirls are doing and participate as a panelist in public forums on the role of women in cybersecurity today and in the future.

Early on, I realized that investigative and security work is done with your brains, not your brawn. My solution has been to excel at delivering impactful, accurate data to Hg’s clients. I meet their ever-changing needs with non-stop hustle, as do the women analysts on my team. This has enabled clients to see past any preconceived notion of “what an investigator is supposed to look like.”

With our clients, we try to blend into their teams as coworkers and assistants instead of a standoffish security type. To that end, I’ve been able to build strong, career-long relationships with clients who appreciate sincerity and intelligence, regardless of gender, in their colleagues.

What do you see as important technology trends in the security industry?

The most important trend and change for our industry is the role of women in technology. Though not a new concept, young women are now being educated in cybersecurity — even in high school, and there is a real appeal for some to join the workforce in security roles as they exit their education.

Not too long ago, a dangerous operation run by a special forces team required a very specific man to conduct and operate that mission. Today the same mission could be handled by a small, adroit woman from the suburbs of D.C. with her technology skills and training. Our workforce and abilities have increased exponentially with these new developments.

Security industry trends are rising with new drone technology and artificial intelligence’s ability to reset data into new spectrums. Data can now be experienced and delivered in multifaceted ways that we never expected. My reports can now be drawn from a document, then into a PowerPoint and finally into a three-dimensional experience that allows a client to see a customized view, answering the who, what, where and how of their information. Seeing security like an action-packed video game brings to fruition the reality of risk to the client.

What do you hope the Women in Security Forum can achieve for the security industry?

I joined the Women in Security Forum because of the group’s efforts to connect women in the industry. I believe that together we can usher in a whole new generation of young women eager to work in securing our nation, hometowns, businesses and governments.

I was fortunate to have several amazing male employers and managers who were able to look behind my gender and recognize and further encourage my skills and hard work ethic. I believe we all benefit from a diverse workforce. Communication between men and women is key to increasing the number of women working in the security industry. I am happy that the Women in Security Forum is fostering those dialogues of mutual respect and understanding.

What advice would you give women who are in the industry?

Seek a mentor, but trust in your own skills. A mentor is there to help answer questions and be a sounding board for your ideas. We ask for their experience but must trust our own counsel, as only you will care for you 100%.

Who or what was the strongest influence in your career (e.g. a mentor, an event that inspired your career decision)? How do you define success?

When it comes to inspiration, I listened to every manager or boss I ever had. Even the bad ones taught me something, if only to not replicate their mistakes. I passionately embrace the lessons I’ve learned from stepping up and failures. As an outsider to the industry, I needed to be recognized and to do that I had to speak up. Being shy wasn’t going to get me recognized. Even though I was terrified and often awkward, I forced myself to step out my safe zone and run with my ideas. Sometimes straight into a wall! My mentors and bosses always helped dust me off, pat me on the back and send me sailing again.

In that light, defining success could mean counting your bruises, but I think it’s better to count the heads in my office. When I started, it was me and the dog. Now we have an entire team of investigators and many more dogs.

How do you achieve work/life balance?

As a woman business owner, I had to hustle so hard in the early years. Regrettably, I didn’t take enough time for life and family. I have gained a lot, but there were sacrifices I could have avoided had I been more in tune with living a balanced life. I’m all grown up now and realize that staying in the office until 9 p.m. only means I’ll find more work to do tomorrow until 9 p.m. if I let myself. As president of Hg, I instill in my staff the importance of nurturing one’s family relationships and friendships while carving out time for spiritual, intellectual, physical and emotional pursuits.

What would you say to new women coming into the industry?

Security work is not about men, women, race or creed. It’s about productivity. Security is being self-assured and confident in the work that you conduct and being excellent at producing it. No security manager worth her salt cares about how you look; she cares about what you produce. Be productive, be intelligent and be curious!

Learn more about Hg here.

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