Career Notes 4.9.23
Ep 144 | 4.9.23

Karen Worstell: Keep your feet planted. [Strategy]


Karen Worstell: Hi, my name is Karen Worstell, and I am a Senior Cybersecurity Strategist for VMware.

Karen Worstell: When I was a kid growing up, the thing that um, I recall is cybersecurity and computers were really the furthest thing from my mind because I really believed that I would be a Barbie doll dress designer. I'm 98% right-brained. I think in pictures. So yeah, for me, technology, that was something that my sister was gonna do and I was gonna kind of pursue a different track. It just didn't work out that way.

Karen Worstell: As I was coming up through school, uh, my father was always a tinkerer. My father was an inventor, as was my grandfather and both of my brothers, and so I was always exposed to science, we went out at night and we looked at the stars through the telescope. And I was very interested in all of that. My difficulty was that I didn't speak the language of science, which I have to say that, um, that was something that I overcame later, and it really was thanks to the modeling of seeing, you know, people who were inventing things and tinkering with things. And I think my first computer, my hacker brother, was the one who brought that over. So that was really what got me started in computers.

Karen Worstell: I was very dutiful about taking the courses in high school in science and chemistry and, you know, math and all of that. I was absolutely college bound. Uh, that was a non-negotiable in my family. So when I went to college, I was like, okay, I'll just keep doing this, not realizing that it was gonna be an order of magnitude more difficult. I remember having the conversation with my father after the second quarter of school at the University of Washington and I came back, said, "Hey dad, look, I have an idea for you, a proposal. I'm gonna switch over to, you know, studying something in the social sciences." And he said, "but who would pay for school?" So I kind of acquiesced and I, and I managed to finish a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a bachelor's degree in molecular biology. And I have to say I am so grateful today that I did that.

Karen Worstell: After I got my degree in chemistry is the day I found out I was expecting my first child. And so, I was working as a biochemistry lab assistant at the University of Washington Medical School, but I had to drop that job in order to be able to keep, you know, to care for my daughter. And I took quite a hiatus and when I was time for me to go back to school, I knew I needed to get a job and I, and unfortunately the whole biochemistry field had evolved in quantum leaps and bounds. Um, in the time, the five years that I was sort of out of circulation in the work world and that's when my brother came over and he said, sister, you need to learn to code. And I had never anticipated or ever contemplated doing any such thing. But, um, with his help, I started teaching myself programming and found out that I was very, very good at it and really liked it and that's what got me my first job. And I was hired as a security analyst into the Boeing company and uh, and it went from there.

Karen Worstell: I developed a rule that I was allowed a pity party for 24 hours, and then I had to get over it. I'll let myself, if I've really had a really rough event, um, and there's been an, a few of those, on the Richter scale, to like a 10 outta 10, um, I would give myself time to like grieve whatever it was I needed to grieve to. Kind of assess and learn what I needed to learn, but didn't allow myself more than X hours to feel sorry for myself and eat a pint of ice cream or whatever it was I needed to do. I would just, I would dust up and say, all right, what are we gonna do now? And, and that's served me pretty well, I think.

Karen Worstell: So I have a pretty fantastic job right now at VMware, uh, because it uses all aspects of my skillset. That is probably my favorite part of my job is that I interface with other people. I'm a, I'm a born people person, um, and hear what is going on with them. Then internally to craft whatever it is that we need to bring to the table to help them achieve what it is they need to achieve. So there's that aspect of my job. I do a lot of media and a lot of, uh, talking to different people about, uh, the aspects of being a cyber pro that I really enjoy because I get to talk about all the things that I've learned in my career, both as a cybersecurity professional and as a chaplain, and bring that to the table to say, here's how we're going to cope and how we're going to deal with some of the unique challenges that face cybersecurity pros. So yeah, I get to kind of be the people person, get to use my words, and I get to talk technology and it's all the best parts.

Karen Worstell: Yeah. There was a thing that happened, uh, that drew me back into the tech sector and in, into cybersecurity, and that was, uh, as I was. Uh, you know, a chaplain's role isn't only the patients and their families, it also is the staff. And I think it's fairly well known that burnout among medical professionals is at an all-time high.

Karen Worstell: I learned a lot about working at the VA was something called moral distress. And the more time that I spent a really diving into the effects of trauma, of secondary trauma, of moral distress and all of that, and the burnout that came out of all of it was that I saw similarities between the symptoms of that kind of burnout and distress in the medical community and saw that it was the same as what I was observing when I worked in the technology sector and with the cybersecurity community. And there's a principle in chaplaincy. Chaplaincy is something that was developed like in World War I, um, that the chaplain doesn't sit in their field tent waiting for the soldier to make an appointment. The chaplain goes and sits in the foxhole. And that's when I realized technology was my foxhole and that I belonged here and in bringing what I had to bring to the table, uh, to make, you know, to help the cybersecurity professionals who are here already stay in the game cuz we need them. And this is not an easy profession, so that's why I'm back. 

Karen Worstell: Anyone coming up in this field or interested in this field, in cybersecurity, I would say words of encouragement first, which is this is the best field in the world. As hard as it is, it is also the most interesting and has afforded me personally, opportunities I would've never had otherwise. What I would say is know yourself, and I learned this as a chaplain. You, you have to know yourself, know what you want, and know where you're, know where you plant your feet. I used to use a phrase a lot that said, uh, don't be afraid to take a stand but know where your feet are planted and do the internal work. The quality of your work life, the quality of your professional life is tightly wound around your inner life and make sure that you are paying attention to that.