A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?
Three years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Maximiliane Zirm, IT security consultant.
Today’s Woman in Tech: Maximiliane Zirm, IT security consultant
Maximiliane Zirm works as a senior IT security consultant at mgm security partners and leads the team for penetration tests. She also works as a consultant in various software projects, holds training courses for software developers in the area of web application security best practices and conducts security analyses for web and mobile applications.
When did you become interested in technology?
My interest in technology was aroused very early on. Mainly my father was responsible for this; he was able to get me enthusiastic about computers and everything that goes with them at an early age. No opportunity was missed to deepen my knowledge, e.g. through computer courses for children. Of course, we always had some kind of technical toy at home. I then used every opportunity to deal with them. I used them to get to know the operating system or hardware better or to try out my large collection of PC games.
What did your career path look like?
Actually, it was already clear to me in grammar school that I wanted to study computer science. My father had handed me a flyer of the course of studies “Internet Computing” at the University of Passau and I was enthusiastic from the first moment on. There was less math, but also law and economics, and a focus on web technologies. It sounded perfect.
However, at the last second, I had doubts. Is a technical degree program really the right thing for me? At that time we didn’t have any computer science subjects in school, so I had no idea what to expect in my studies. I also remember an information event at the university, which I attended with a friend. There, a very unmotivated professor was joined by a student at the time, who enthusiastically told me how he and his fellow students sat in the computer room in the basement for days on end and programmed. At the time, that wasn’t really my idea of how to spend my free time.
And then there was my chemistry teacher at the time. He wanted to know from everyone what they intended to study. Upon my truthful answer, he just looked at me confused and then said “As a woman? Brave…”.
All these things made me so insecure at the time that I actually decided to study European Studies instead of Internet Computing, a course with 80 percent women, even at the University of Passau. Since I have always been interested in languages and culture, I thought it was a pretty good “consolation prize”. However, I very quickly realized that I would not be happy in this field. That’s why I dared to take the step and changed to the computer science faculty in the 2nd semester. The best decision I could have made. I then worked on my Masters in computer science with a focus on IT security and then started my professional life as a pentester.
Do you have any role models?
My mother was and is definitely my role model. She always supported me, believed in me, and showed me how to go through life strong and self-confident as a woman.
Another role model in the field of IT security for me is Parisa Tabriz, who leads the security team at Google Chrome. She radiates an incredible amount of self-confidence and positive energy, which motivates me again and again. She shows everyone that you don’t have to hide your womanhood in the wasteland to be successful – quite the opposite! Her official title at Google, which she chose herself, is “Security Princess”. She chose it deliberately, also to show men in the field that women have a place there, of course. Princesses can also be interested in STEM and can be successful in the area.
A day in Maximilian’s life
I work as a Senior Application Security Consultant and team leader of the penetration testing team at mgm security partners GmbH in Munich.
In my role as Consultant Software Teams, I support software teams in developing their products securely and integrating security into the software development lifecycle at an early stage. Currently, I am in charge of several teams, i.e. I have regular calls and consultations on current security-relevant topics, I conduct risk analyses and code reviews and try to find solutions with all stakeholders to create a secure product in the end.
As head of the penetration testing team, I am responsible for making sure that everything runs smoothly in our pentesting department. As a penetration tester, you take the position of an attacker or hacker and try to find as many weak points as possible in the application or network to be analyzed. These are then presented to the customer in a report and measures are recommended so that they can be efficiently eliminated. I myself have been doing this job for over two years. Today, I no longer do testing myself, but look after our team of 16 testers, take care of their concerns, make decisions, take over customer meetings, and motivate and coach our team members. This kind of work is exhausting but incredibly versatile and varied and I can imagine striving for less “technical” roles in the future.
I believe that the lack of women in the tech industry is due to the fact that girls are still given the wrong image of the industry at school and university.
What projects have you worked on?
I haven’t developed anything myself except for some small scripts, because the IT security industry is more focused on consulting and pentesting, more on hacking.
However, internally I am the project manager of a small software team where we are building a Report Creation Suite for security reports. This is a web application that mainly helps our penetration testers to create their reports quickly and easily and to access an extensive knowledge base. In the course of this (and through my consulting work in software teams) I was able to gain some experience in developing software projects.
Why aren’t there more women in tech?
I believe that the lack of women in the tech industry is due to the fact that girls are still given the wrong image of the industry at school and university. Often only the classic “nerd” is seen as a typical representative, with whom girls and women often find it difficult to identify. Yet tech is so much more. When it comes to the fact that a woman’s “classic” career path is usually not in the technical field and you often have to explain or justify your decision to do something else, as I did back then, many young women think that it might be better for them to take a different path after all. I felt the same way when I was at school.
That is why it is so important to get young women excited about technology and to show them that they do not need to be afraid of studying computer science, for example. Within the framework of “Girls Day”, for example. Or through school visits. During my studies, I went to several high schools with a few fellow students, including my own, to present my course of studies in a regular computer class and built a small Android app with the students. Often it was the girls who had the most creative ideas and implemented them with enthusiasm. This way you can take away their fear of studying and show them that they can expect great people and a relaxed environment.
Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?
Having a woman on the team can often change the dynamics and culture for the better. Of course, one should not reduce this to stereotypes – but I have seen that the usually more emotional and social type of women creates a pleasant working atmosphere at all levels. Often this puts a brake on the very competitive way men deal with each other. I have also seen in management positions that women are very committed to creating a relaxed working atmosphere in the team, where everyone can use their strengths and negative influences are kept away. In my opinion, a balanced relationship between women and men, at least to some extent, would ensure that there are fewer lone fighters and competitors in companies. This leads to an improvement in productivity at all levels.
Did you face any obstacles?
I was lucky and during my studies and also during my working hours I was only positively encouraged and never restricted. Except for a few experiences, my way was uncomplicated. The typical situations occurred in my job, they were mostly triggered by misunderstandings due to my first name. Most customers or contact persons were prepared for a “Maximilian” – and accordingly, they were unsettled or surprised when I showed up. However, I quickly learned to use such situations in a positive way in order to remain in my memory. Usually, a short, friendly conversation is enough to break the ice quickly.
Working in the tech industry means dealing with incredibly exciting and varied topics. And most of the people you will be dealing with are incredibly relaxed, unprejudiced and sociable.
If there was something that hindered me on my way, it was often my own self-doubt. Sometimes I was unsure whether my skills would be sufficient for the next challenge. I was lucky that I always had superiors (all men, by the way) who encouraged me and who, through their trust in me, could also positively change my self-confidence over the years.
What I have often experienced is the assumption that you are only a “quota” woman. As a result, in many areas where men are simply given knowledge without comment, we women first have to prove ourselves. Especially in the field of IT security, where the proportion of women is even lower than in the rest of IT, this cliché still seems to be common. Of course, this is not a real problem and you can quickly convince most people that you have earned your place. But in the long run, especially after so many years of professional experience, it tires you out having to tell the same thing over and over again.
What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career?
Never let yourself be unsettled! Working in the tech industry means dealing with incredibly exciting and varied topics. And most of the people you will be dealing with are incredibly relaxed, unprejudiced and sociable.
And: Everyone starts at 0! I have often noticed, be it in my studies or at work, that men are often very good at selling themselves and their skills with confidence. This does not mean that you know or can do less just because you don’t feel so confident. Trust in yourself, don’t compare yourself with others, and be self-confident, then you will quickly be successful.
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