“Become the example that gives permission to others so that they also want to go there.”
Last week, we hosted two events at Interac to celebrate and recognize the importance of International Women’s Day.
The first was a networking and mentorship session in partnership with ACCES Employment, an organization that helps new immigrants find employment opportunities in Canada. Ireen Birungi, AVP of Cybersecurity at Interac, spoke to our guests about the importance of mentorship and provided advice on how they can launch their careers in the tech space.
The second event was an office celebration where we brought together over 200 Interac employees to hear from Ireen and our new CFO, Linda Drysdale, on their career growth and what inspired them to enter the tech space. Following the event, we also hosted a product drive for Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter that provides a safe space for women and children fleeing violent situations.
We sat down with Ireen following the electrifying events to learn more about her story.
What is your name and position?
My name is Ireen Birungi and my position at Interac is Associate Vice President of Cybersecurity.
What are three to five things you oversee in your position?
I oversee and make sure we maintain our security-first mandate. This helps us guarantee we remain one of Canada’s most trusted brands and we do this by having the right people, processes and technology to protect our networks, systems and information from cyberattacks.
Additionally, we have an architecture role to ensure security is developed, designed and adhered to across the organization. This role is super important because if you start with good security requirements then it helps to build robust security in the design and solutions, and helps prevent security risks from arising.
Finally, security operations, which is where I started. This team monitors our networks to protect Canadians when using Interac products.
How long have you been working in the Cybersecurity and FinTech space?
I’m new to the FinTech space, however, I’ve been in the Cybersecurity since 1998 back when it was called Information Security [and still referred to]. The team that I worked for back then provided cryptographic services for Automated Banking Machines (ABMs) and how keys are injected into the ABMs.
This allowed me to get more familiar and intimate with technology – I needed to prove myself and I have one of those personalities that are always seeking to learn new things and genuinely a curious/intrigued person. When I started in cybersecurity, I was lucky enough to have a boss that gave me the opportunity to learn and progress. Now, I’ve been at it for 20 years.
What drew you to this industry?
A job [laughs]. I was 22 and never really thought I’d get into IT. Believe it or not, I was very into the arts. I did well in science and math, but I never saw myself there. My parents were pretty liberal, though, and gave me the opportunity to follow the path I wanted.
I got into tech, and more specifically information security, somewhat by luck intersected with talent for design and a strong work ethic. I was hired to be a website developer, writing code in HTML and developing dynamic code for the information security department. I really enjoyed it and the rest is history.
Are there any female mentors that helped you propel your career?
Technology is a very male-dominated sector of work and then it gets even more dominated when it comes to cybersecurity. Because of that, there really wasn’t a woman that I could refer to as a mentor. However, I did have peers in the early part of my career that helped make me feel more comfortable – we all kind of supported each other.
What has your experience been like being a woman in the industry?
I’m one of those people that doesn’t see things overtly and because of that I sometimes have a hard time seeing the bias around me. However, as I stepped into management it started to become more evident to me that I was being treated differently because I was a woman. There are a lot of people out there that have a preconceived notion of what a boss in tech looks like and being a woman, especially a woman of colour, it’s not obvious to them. Because of this, I’ve had situations where I’m supposed to be interviewing members of a team that I am stepping into and it turns into an interview about me and my qualifications or being spoken for in scenarios where I am responsible for the response.
Over time, I started to get in my head. I’d ask myself, ‘Why is he saying this to me?’. “Maybe it’s because I didn’t talk as much as I should have?’. What I realized is that maybe it’s because he just simply has his on biases and has his own idea of what a boss should look like. I’ve started to just dismiss it and I’m in a good space.
How do you navigate this bias?
When I make a decision, I stand by it. I’ve had to become a lot firmer and exert myself harder than I had anticipated defending why I’m leading something a certain way.
What advice would you give to women looking to launch their career in the FinTech and Cybersecurity space?
Stay the course. I know that there aren’t a lot of women in the cybersecurity and FinTech space, but you get to be the person to pave that road. Become the example that someone else can look at and want to go there as well.
Also, make sure you find something within FinTech and Cybersecurity that you enjoy. It’s a big space and there’s a lot of opportunity.
Most importantly, don’t be concerned about being the only person. It’s easy to be consumed by the fact that you may be different than those around you – instead, change it. Let others see that it’s possible and foster a new community of people in the space.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Gender and gender identity are one of the eight dimensions of demographic and cognitive diversity recognized through the Diversity and Inclusion program at Interac.