With a son in an elite travel baseball team, bullmastiffs that are nationally ranked in the dog show circuit, a history in the military, and a hugely successful career as the Cybersecurity Director for Discover Financial Services, Gina Wierema is a high achiever in all areas of her life.
What matters at work
Gina started her career in the military, working on national security, and then moved into cybersecurity almost 20 years ago. She picked up skills early on that have helped her in her current career and identified her work values.
“[The military] grew my work ethic, knowing I was responsible for achieving objectives, and I was the only one accountable for it. I learned a big lesson about making sure you show up every day and making sure you’re performing.”
Being promoted through the military ranks was important to Gina. Learning how organization hierarchies flow and understanding what she needed to do to get promoted have served her well at Discover.
“I learned how to establish relationships with my colleagues, and understood their role as a human and family member outside work. It taught me how to balance between the mission and the human element.”
That human element was key for Gina, and she says it’s the number one reason she joined Discover. They care about company performance, and equally about how employees are as individuals.
That support for their people has been highlighted during COVID. As a Director, she’s been well-supported in supporting her team and making sure they have the resources and flexibility they need to manage the blend of work and home.
“It’s normal at Discover to talk about your family, how you’re doing mentally, how you’re managing your work and personal life.”
Serving the dot-com boom
Gina moved into cybersecurity almost 20 years ago, when it wasn’t high on anyone’s radar. Now she’s an industry veteran and offered tips on someone else wanting to explore cybersecurity.
“I started out being interested in telecommunications and computer networking. Back in high school, I was really into dial-up bulletin boards which were the first iteration of social media. I loved how you could share information, photos, documents, and I got really into telecommunications. That’s when the internet started to boom, and I wanted to be part of that.”
Gina loved learning how networks talk to each other and ended up studying at Illinois State University, one of the first universities in the Midwest that had a telecommunications major. She took an internship at Discover and the rest is history!
Initially, she was working on phone networks, ensuring they had enough infrastructure to meet customer demand. That was the beginning of what she calls her technological adventure!
As demand increased, Discover needed to ensure they were available 24/7, and Gina learned about running an enterprise network. Then Discover acquired a Debit network, enabling their customers to pay for things online. Gina had to learn about Payment Card Industry compliance and keeping peoples’ payment data safe — and this is how her entry into cybersecurity began!
Gina spent time learning about firewalls, application security, monitoring, logging, and several other activities that fall under the banner of cybersecurity.
“It was kind of pushed on me because of my tech background, and I liked this type of work. Because of my military background, I understood the importance of security in our business. Our number one thing is keeping our customers and their data safe. That correlates with keeping our nation, our citizens, and our country safe.”
Gina’s role continued into security engineering instead of compliance, where she worked on end-point controls such as malware, encryption, and logging.
How to pivot into cybersecurity
Pivoting from the military to tech and cybersecurity came naturally to Gina. We asked her to share tips for anyone considering a career in cybersecurity.
“It’s important to be very inquisitive. In technology now, almost everything incorporates cybersecurity.”
Gina suggests training, reading updates from analysts, understanding what challenges businesses are facing and how they’re mitigating their risks. She says a lot of this can be done without cybersecurity in your title!
The core transferable skills Gina thinks help with a career in security are:
- Inquisitiveness. “There is always problem-solving. You see an event or issue and want to peel that onion back and understand why. Where is it coming from, and is this behavior expected or not?”
- Resourcefulness. “It’s important you’re able to have a network of people to ask questions about the type of behaviors you’re seeing.”
- Courage. “You need to be able to ask difficult questions about a system. I don’t know everything about technology, but I feel comfortable asking questions about what I observe.”
Gina says she’s learned a lot from people by having the courage to admit when she doesn’t know something, and asking them to teach her.
COVID has led to a spike in security threats, making her role even more critical. As Discover has moved from approximately 10% of the workforce working remotely to 100% remote, Gina’s team is responsible for ensuring security controls are working correctly, so systems are available.
“With COVID, I am driven to ensure our controls are working as efficiently as possible.”
Creating your own future
Gina was part of the first cohort at Discover to go through a sponsored MBA program. The program was delivered onsite with visiting professors, making it easy for Discover employees to attend and be part of the program.
“We got a degree and learned some great things. Because the cohort was so cross-functional we developed great relationships across the company. As we learned about frameworks and the MBA (curriculum), we learned about our business and the challenges we each go through.”
The MBA is one way that Discover supports women in their organization. They focus on ensuring they have women in leadership positions.
“Our broader business has a lot of women with power. They were strong PMs, product managers, they knew exactly how their products worked, and I got inspired by that. When I moved to cybersecurity, and it was more men, I had such strong role models in previous roles that I carried with me.”
Discover has a Professional Women Impacting Results (PWIR) employee resource group.