Interviews 16.04.2024

Getting to Know: @cybersecmeg

Eleanor Dallaway ticks off another bucket list interviewee: the enigma that is @cybersecuritymeg

The woman, the myth, the legend: @cybersecmeg’s travels recently landed her on British shores, and Eleanor Dallaway did not miss the opportunity to ask the real Meg West to stand up…

Cybersecmeg practically bounds into The Landmark hotel, her backpack almost as big as her, her smile ever so slightly coy. I’m tempted to dive in for a big hug. Having followed her on Twitter for as long as I can remember, I feel like I’m meeting a friend. Meg shares a lot of herself on social media, which gives me the false impression that we have a personal relationship. But we don’t, so I stay rooted in the comfy chair, finding it slightly surreal to be sat face to face with someone I’ve seen so many photos of online.

We’re meeting in one of the most opulent lounges in London, and Meg’s leggings, oversized t-shirt, converse and gigantic backpack look jarringly out of place. But I love it, and I soon learn that one of Meg’s favourite things is to excel in something or somewhere she doesn’t look like she should. It strikes me that this must be ticking that box for Meg. “Is it OK if I dress casually?” she’d asked me beforehand. “Come as yourself, Meg”, I said, and she absolutely did.

Travel “has become integral to my existence”

If you’re on Twitter, I’m confident that @cybersecmeg needs no introduction. However, for the readers who abstain from Musk’s plaything, let me introduce you to Meg West, senior cybersecurity consultant at Crowdstrike. By the age of 27 (her current age), she has a Master’s degree in cybersecurity, worked as an incident response manager at a Fortune 100 company, earned her CISSP and Sec+, serves on (ISC)2’s DEI task force, and makes extremely popular cybersecurity YouTube videos.

While we’re on lists, let me add: she bought her own house at the age of 21, was married and divorced by 25, had brain, neck and spine surgery, drives a sports car good enough to make “groups of guys stop and stare”, has 136,300 Twitter followers, travels sufficient to make any explorer jealous, lost over 90 pounds in weight, and is now able to throw a dart at a map and know that wherever it lands she’d likely find a friend she can stay with.

Cybersecmeg has been living life in the fast lane and has concluded that, in some areas, it’s time to pump the breaks. Much like the pace of Meg’s life, this interview has taken off at one hundred miles an hour, so let me ease off the accelerator and take you back to the start.

The Beginning

Meg was raised in Florida by parents she speaks extremely highly of. Her family is so tight-knit that when her parents relocated to North Carolina later in life, Meg and her sister followed as adults. “Right now, being in North Carolina is good for my soul,” she says with a smile. “I don’t know if I’ve found a place that I could geographically call home. The older I get, the more I feel that home is where my people are. I like to think that one day I’ll find home, and that will have to do with another person.”

As a student, Meg was smart, super smart. “I did the International Baccalaureate programme at high school.” She catches my puzzled look and explains, “It’s basically doing University while you’re in high school.

“There was a cohort of us. We were segregated from everyone else, doing classes together.” She describes it as a little bubble, “which was great because we were ambitious, hard-working, and all had a common goal in mind.” That cohort went on to excel in different areas. “Some are working for the top senators, on presidential campaigns, doing the most remarkable things,” says Meg with stars in her eyes.

“They offered me $50,000 more than I asked for, so I felt respected from the get-go”

She started her Bachelor’s degree as a junior, “which was great because it saved lots of money, but difficult because I had to choose a major at 18. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I started pre-med thinking I’d go to medical school.” That didn’t last long as Meg switched paths to journalism. “I love writing, but I was like, ‘erm no’, and then I ended up with a political science degree, which is hilarious because I knew nothing about politics and don’t like being involved in it.”

Her next degree will make more sense to you: her Master’s in cybersecurity.

“I always had an affinity for doing things that you would not think I would do by looking at me,” she tells me, inspired by her mother, a successful Attorney with her own law firm. “And she was so at a time when women weren’t expected to be. So when I looked around at careers, I asked myself what I could do that would be exciting, offer really good money and career stability and that most people wouldn’t think I would do?” The answer hit her like a wrecking ball: Cybersecurity. “It came so easily,” she remembers.

“Lo and behold, Tech Data had an associate cybersecurity analyst position open up just as I was having this epiphany,” she recalls, nodding to that fate-like twist. “I wasn’t qualified for the job whatsoever, had zero qualifications, but I told them I’d enrolled to get my Master’s degree in cybersecurity and promised I’d work harder than anyone else they’d interview.” A self-declared great talker, Meg recalls interviewing with the CISO and “very easily communicating why I was the best fit for the job.” Out of the 50 people that applied for that role, “they chose me,” she grins.

Meg is confident, very confident, but there’s a side of her that seems to crave validation. This is my observation, not hers. My theory is supported by many things she tells me, including her announcement that she recently accepted a new job at Crowdstrike. “They’d been reaching out to me for quite some time, and they made it explicitly clear that they wanted me and the impact they knew I’d have on the company. I go where I’m wanted.” I admire her honesty and feel that I understand Meg on a deeper level.

In her previous move from Tech Data to IBM X-force, her decision was made the same way: “They made it explicitly clear they were interested in me and asked how much I wanted. In hindsight, Meg contends that the figure she requested severely underestimated her value. “They offered me $50,000 more than I asked for, so I felt respected from the get-go. And do you know what? It made me work harder to live up to how I thought they envisioned me. It was an incredible place to work.”

That was before, this is now

Meg is now a senior cybersecurity consultant at Crowdstrike. “The role is centred around incident response, cloud security, and security operations. It’s broad,” she observes. Crowdstrike is doing incredible things. The stock keeps going higher, and the brand name is on everything. I don’t think there’s a better place I could be working.

What excites her most about the new role? “The opportunity to make more of an impact,” she answers without hesitation. “I’m so used to working for rigidly defined Fortune 100s. When you work for the same company for too long, you stagnate. And frankly, if you’re not moving every two to three years, you lose a huge amount of potential money.”

Speaking of moving every two to three years, Meg moved to Spain for two. “I expected to live there indefinitely, but unfortunately, COVID began, and they did not renew my visa.” The move came as part of her tenure with Tech Data, where they sponsored her to relocate to be nearer to her European team. “I loved it,” she recalls wistfully. The promise of travel and flexibility drew her to Crowdstrike, where there is “somewhat of a digital nomad culture. I haven’t been into an office in years, and I don’t want somebody telling me I have to,” she says piquantly.

If you could move to any country tomorrow without any visa issues, where would you go? “Ooo, that’s a great question,” she says, her eyes lighting up. Maybe Greece. The economy is awful, but it’s beautiful and has so much culture.” Besides, she adds, “I’m 20% Greek, so I have some heritage and family there.”

She’s alive

For someone who didn’t leave the country until the age of 21, Meg has racked up an impressive amount of air miles since. “Once I left America, travelling became a craving, a need,” she admits. In the past three years, Meg has visited 25 countries. “It has become integral to my existence, the thing that makes me feel alive,” she tells me.

Here comes the bit that I find so psychologically interesting: she starts to talk about herself in the third person: “Travel gets me out of the bubble that Meg lives in. Meg lives in a nice house and drives a nice sports car; she has all these first-world privileges.” She then switches back to the first person. “But when I’m travelling, staying in hostels and trying to figure out where to do my language and how to speak the language, I’m pushed out of my comfort zone and forced to grow. I’ve done more mental and emotional growth in the last few years than all my years beforehand.” With the switch, it’s easy to see which Meg she feels most comfortable with. I know, I know, I’m a journalist, not a psychologist; I’ll get back in my lane.

“I was obese, I was miserable, and I was in a toxic relationship. I became addicted to self-improvement”

Travel, Meg admits, has been the distraction she needed from her addiction to achievement and self-improvement. “It has been an outlet that forces me to focus on what’s inside rather than pushing all the feelings down,” she admits.

“I used to be so focused on overachieving.” She’d be in constant pursuit of the next certification, the next job, the next promotion, the next material thing. She was compensating for the parts of her life she was not content with: “I was obese, I was miserable, and I was in a toxic relationship. I became addicted to self-improvement.” Part of that resulted in her losing 90 pounds in two years. She shows me her mind-blowing before and after photos.

“It’s much better to be addicted to going to the gym than drinking alcohol, but when you take a step back and look at it, they’re generally the same thing,” Meg muses. She found that fixing her mental health first fixed her physical health second. “Working on the inside fixes the outside,” she prophesies. “I’m physically fitter, I’m not experiencing depression or anxiety as often, and I’m just a happier, kinder, more loving person.”

And then comes my favourite quote from this interview: “They say you’re a culmination of the five people you associate with the most. Would you be proud to be a mix of those five people?” I love this concept.

Expect the unexpected

Meg holds a secondary black belt in martial arts, which fits her penchant for surprising people. “I want to give the middle finger to anyone who thinks I can’t do something. Call it sick, but that’s why I get a kick out of being a tiny little girl walking up to a big, loud sports car and seeing faces that read ‘I didn’t expect her to be driving that!’” she says, digressing.

“To this day, I attribute my success and zest for life to doing martial arts for so long. For every belt I wanted to attain, there was a characteristic attached to it that you had to exemplify: confidence, self-respect, discipline, determination.”

“My favourite part of myself is that I’ll wear my Chucks with a ballgown dress.”

At 24 years old, Meg earned her CISSP and is the first to admit she stuck out like a sore thumb. “I was studying with a group of white middle-aged men. No one looked like me. There was not a single person under the age of 30, not a single woman, not a single person with different skin colour, and that was aggravating to me.” So she started making social media content around the CISSP, launching @cybersecmeg. “I’m such a huge advocate for (ISC)2 because I wholly believe earning the CISSP changed my life.”

Consequently, Meg was invited to the (ISC)2 DEI task force and is a North American council advisory member. She has interviewed to be on the Board of Directors but “just didn’t have the executive-level experience they’re seeking.” Not one to give up, Meg is receiving mentoring from current Board members in the hope that it will be a yes the next time she interviews.

Her track record of achieving what she sets out to suggests it’s only a matter of time until she gets the call-up. After all, she’s used to fighting for what she deserves. She recalls: “At Tech Data, I was the only female on the team and the youngest by a decade. Within my first year working there, one of my senior male colleagues said, ‘You were a diversity hire’. I don’t get sad, I get mad, and I vowed to show him.” Recently, Meg secretly checked his LinkedIn. “Let’s just say one of us is real successful and one of us ain’t,” she grins.

This isn’t the only time that Meg has encountered misogyny. “On a video call with a CISO, one of my first clients at X-force, the first words out of his mouth were: ‘Why are you wearing lipstick?’ At first, I was embarrassed. But then I remembered: I’m a consultant, you came to me for help. And if I were a man, would you comment on my appearance?’ Meg says from that moment forward, “I knew I’d have to overcompensate because of what I looked like. It was demoralising, and I felt I needed to do more shifts to be on equal terms with men.

“I work with Fortune 100, government agencies, and they see you and think ‘Oh, she’s not going to know anything’. But you can see their faces changing when I speak efficiently and clearly know my shit.”

Through the bursts of misogyny shone her guiding light in the form of three male managers (and unofficial mentors) at TechData. “It was like having three fathers at work, constantly pushing me, holding me to the highest standards in and out of work, caring about me. They are the reason I’ve been so successful,” she reflects with gratitude.

The formula for success

Throughout our time together, Meg tips her hat to various ingredients in what she considers the recipe for her success, including gaining her CISSP, her managers at TechData and martial arts. But when pushed for the most important of all, she doesn’t hesitate to say: “My incredible mother, such a badass who was incredible to look up to. And a father who empowers me and tells me I can do anything I want.”

Meg and Bella

And what she wants is to be CISO of a Fortune 100 company by the time she’s 35. “It will happen. I’m a big believer in speaking things into existence,” she says.

“To be a senior consultant at one of the top consulting firms in the world at my age is unheard of. I’m very proud of that. I make great money, I have a great career, I’ve established myself, so now I’m more focused on what I can do inside to better myself?”

When I ask her what she’s most proud of, her work doesn’t feature. “I’m most proud of how big of a heart I have. I’ve been through so much, but anyone close to me will tell you I have the biggest heart of anyone I know. It’s my greatest strength but also my greatest weakness, but I refuse to harden myself.”

She does contend that dating is hard. “Men generally date at their level or below, whereas women date at their level or above. So when you’re successful, make great money and are cultured and well educated, you run out of men,” she says. Married at 21 and divorced at 25, Meg knows exactly what she wants from a relationship and reflects on this as an experience for which she’s grateful. “Better to know now than 20 years from now. I’m a huge people person, and I live in a big four-bedroom house with just my dog, Bella,” she says, leaving no doubt that she’s looking for love.

I’m just Meg

So, what does the future look like for @cybersecmeg? Well, on that. “Everyone knows me as cybersecmeg, but I’m starting to think I want to be just Meg,” she considers.

“When I was young and not established, I was over-compensating and on such a hustle and grind that cybersecurity was my entire life. I overdosed on cyber. But then I realised I didn’t have to be cybersecurity 24/7, and actually, it’s better if I’m not.” She considers herself less burnt out and more focused on her mental and physical health.

“When I was young and not established, I was over-compensating and on such a hustle and grind that cybersecurity was my entire life. I overdosed on cyber”

“There are so many different sides to cybersecmeg,” she says, confirming my theory that she uses third-person when she doesn’t fully identify with that version of herself. “There’s the cybersecmeg that goes in front of the Department of Homeland Security; then there’s the me that sleeps in a hostel with random people and goes out to grab wine with them. I can pivot quickly from a well-put-together, refined person giving speeches to thousands of people, to sitting in a pub with random strangers and talking shit.

“People want to fit into a box, but I don’t. I want to allow all parts of myself to co-exist. My favourite part of myself is that I’ll wear my Chucks (Converse) with a ballgown dress.”

Whilst Meg confesses that she used to seek validation from social media, she considers it more of a drain these days. “When people start expecting you to give them something, it takes the joy out of it.

“I’ve stopped doing things to please other people,” she says, “and try just to please myself.” Perhaps this epiphany came from being diagnosed with a rare brain disease. Debilitating headaches led to brain, neck and spine surgery and the promise of this surgery every decade. “One day, everything was all peachy, and the next day, I learnt I had a rare brain disease that has no cure. It was a pivotal moment in my life. What actually matters? Nothing if you’re not happy and at peace with yourself.”

So, the big question: Are you at peace, Meg? “I think so,” she says. “Going through all the hard stuff and being OK brings me peace. My focus right now is being the best version of me, continuing to grow and meeting someone I can grow with.” And travel? I ask. “Definitely, travel too,” she agrees. I watch her light up as I ask for her bucket-list destinations, and she launches into a long list that includes the Sahara Desert, Machu Picchu and Antarctica. When her passport remains in her drawer, she fills her time hiking, reading, and rock climbing, “oh, and I recently bought a piano on impulse,” she laughs.

But the big reveal is her confession: “I don’t know if I’ll always be in cyber. I’m not married to the idea of it anymore, and I don’t know if I’m in love with it.” We spend quite some time pondering this. “I care about helping organisations be secure and protect their information, and it’s important to me, but it’s just a job,” she concludes. It’s not my existence.”

It is just a job, but she’s damn well good at it, and she’d be a great loss to the industry if she did bow out. But for now, @cybersecuritymeg lives on. She slips that big rucksack back on and sets off for her train. I’m not entirely convinced she’s found peace yet, but I wholeheartedly believe she won’t stop travelling, experimenting, and searching until she does. And like her other 136,3000 followers, I’ll enjoy watching that from the sidelines.

Meg’s tips for breaking into cyber:

“If you’re looking to start out in cybersecurity, join a large company and start anywhere within the company. Once you’re established and have shown that you’re a hard worker, willing to learn, can communicate well, and are a team player, it’s much easier for companies to hire internally or promote you than to hire externally.”

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