Monica Arias has long been interested in the new and the next. That interest is what drove her to work in national security after 9/11, and in the cryptocurrency space after learning about modern-day crimes committed on the blockchain.
One thing she has noticed every time she’s been somewhere new: the importance of having a diverse early team to shape it.
“We need minorities to be willing to take a chance and apply to firms like ours and other tech firms,” says Monica, who is currently a Federal Business Development Lead at Chainalysis, a blockchain data platform. “As these companies grow rapidly, we need diverse candidates who can offer diverse thoughts and approaches to problems.”
Monica currently works closely with the Chainalysis federal government team to pursue opportunities to support customers that are in need of Chainalysis data to track blockchain criminals and bring them to justice. She was well-prepared for some parts of the job after holding various roles but had to come up the curve on technical skills — which is why she’s sure that other candidates like her, from non-technical, underrepresented backgrounds, will be able to do so, too.
We sat down with Monica to hear more about how marginalized people can break into crypto and best position themselves for success in the field.
Connecting to a Bigger Mission
Growing up around DC, Monica got early exposure to federal service. From a young age, she knew she wanted to help represent and advocate for people.
She went to law school, thinking that would be the best path to fulfilling her goals. But living through 9/11 inspired her to support national security missions more actively. That’s how she got her first exposure to her now-employer — she brought in Chainalysis for a demo to learn how to on leverage their blockchain analysis tools.
“I’ve always wanted to be a part of something that had a bigger mission,” says Monica. “And the crypto space had that.”
It wasn’t just any crypto company that interested Monica, though. She particularly liked the company’s innovative culture and fast growth.
“Chainalysis is a very open and encouraging place,” says Monica, who came in to interview at the startup having studied up on crypto, but never having worked in the field or with blockchain technology.
“The culture is very much about learning, and they’ve created an environment where they enable you to do so. The underlying foundation is ongoing learning, and soliciting ideas on how to evolve and expand.”
Leveraging a Non-Technical Background
Monica gets what it’s like to not want to apply to an opportunity because you feel underqualified — that’s what happened to her.
“In some conversations, the feedback I received was that I didn’t have enough of a technical background and that therefore it would be challenging to go and join a tech firm,” she says. “It’s a big deterrent for so many people. And it also compounds things. Because if you’re a minority or from an underrepresented group, you’re already less likely to apply. And if you have no technical background, you’re even less likely to do so.”
How did Monica break through that? She got creative.
“I had to take a step back and say, ‘You know, I have skills. How can I transfer those into a non-technical role supporting a tech firm?” she says.
We asked her to share more about what that process was like, and here’s what she said:
5 Tips as You Gear Up to Be Competitive in the Tech Industry
- Find firms that are in fields you find interesting. Since you’re going to have to do a lot of learning, find a tech firm that is involved in a field you are excited about. Monica found her interest - crypto! She’s excited to continuously be learning about the rapidly changing crypto landscape. She added, “the tech industry can be demanding so you need to stay motivated about the work you’re doing and believe in the company you’re with.”
- Find firms that are open-minded, too. Interviewing at Chainalysis even without technical skills on her resume didn’t pose a problem for Monica. That’s because they were willing to look at her in her entirety. “It’s not just, ‘Do you fit A, B, and C,’ but ‘Do you have the overall skills and ability to learn and grow in this type of field?’”
- Recognize your transferable skills. Monica coaches other people with non-technical backgrounds like hers to start by acknowledging their accomplishments in their own fields. “What have you done? Is it people managing? Because these firms manage people in one way or another. Those and other skills can be leveraged and transferred,” says Monica. “Literally, make a list and identify those skills, then highlight those skills throughout your resume.”
- Remember that most people are in the same boat. “You won’t come across too many candidates who have 10 years of crypto experience, because this field is new,” says Monica. “The perfect candidate who meets every single qualification listed in a job ad may not exist so instead recruiters — especially those who are good at their jobs - spend time getting to know candidates. But they can't get to know you if you are deterred from applying by thinking you don't meet all the qualifications.”
- Study up. Monica follows crypto influencers, keeps up with crypto companies on LinkedIn, follows government statements on crypto, and reads reports put out by her firm and others. “If this is your focus, you need to read, talk, and network — just be curious,” she says.
Chainalysis’s Ashley Vaughan on Why She Finds Cybersecurity So Meaningful, and How More Women Can Find Their Niche in the Industry
How much money do criminals control today, and where is it?
These are some of the many questions that Ashley Vaughan, Senior Solutions Architect at blockchain data platform Chainalysis, spends her days working to answer.
“You learn more about a situation or problem by following the money than from any other resource or piece of information,” she explains. “Money doesn't lie. People can lie in text messages or other means, but the path of the money leads you to what you're trying to accomplish.”
Though Ashley always knew she wanted to work with computers, she found her way into roles in cybersecurity, and then specifically blockchain security, through networking and exposure — not by setting out to do so.
We sat down to talk about her career journey, as well as what advice she has for other women looking to make their mark in these burgeoning fields.
Resilience and Curiosity
Ashley doesn’t often give up, and credits some of that attitude to an obsession with soccer as a kid.
“Playing sports makes you a more resilient person, I think. You learn failure and risk, which are very applicable to my job and my career path,” she says.
That resiliency was a good thing, notes Ashley, because as a young girl, she wasn’t always encouraged to pursue what she was most interested in: math and science. A teacher early on had told her that she wasn’t good at math, and Ashley believed that narrative until high school.
“We really shouldn’t put those ideas in children’s minds, because it affects them for much longer than you might think,” she says of the experience. “But I’m the kind of person that when someone tells me I can’t do something, it makes me want to do it even more, and do it better.”
Finding out in advanced high school math classes that she actually was good at math turned into choosing a computer engineering major when she got to college.
Graduating during a recession in 2010 meant Ashley didn’t have the job market of her dreams, but after working in IT, she networked her way into a role in the cybersecurity department of a prominent DC law firm.
“They were getting hit left and right from social engineering and phishing attempts,” says Ashley. “Due to the sensitive nature of the work they dealt with, I was exposed to the darker realities of the digital era, and I began to see a new side to the world—one of real significance to national security.”
Specializing in Cybersecurity — and Finding a Home in the Private Sector
Inspired by what she was working on at the law firm, Ashley pursued a master’s in cybersecurity with a focus on counterterrorism.
“I wanted to help protect our country,” she explains. “I have a lot of family members who are former military, so that was a natural step for me.”
That led to her taking a contract role specializing in offensive security at a government agency that frequently worked with Chainalysis. After working with Chainalysis folks onsite, she was sold and started pursuing a position with the company.
“I wanted to help make sense of blockchain data for a bigger purpose, like assisting in the continued threat of ransomware activity against American interests,” she explains.
Although she credits her public sector work with providing a solid foundation in blockchain security, the private sector turned out to be a better fit for her.
“What I love about Chainalysis is that my colleagues are really happy people, and I’ve always felt welcome and not scared to ask questions,” says Ashley. “In past jobs, where I was one of five women in a group of 150, I felt a lot of pressure. I didn’t ever want to make a mistake. I felt as if I had to be a chameleon to match the social environment of my male counterparts.”
Blockchains are all about democratizing data, and Ashley likes working with a team of people of all backgrounds to help support that mission. At Chainalysis, Ashley works with internal product and engineering to show customers how Chainalysis data can help them use complex blockchain solutions to solve data problems — and catch bad guys.
“Sometimes we’re following a bad actor who’s tied to child sex trafficking. Being part of a coordinated operation to put a stop to things like that is really fulfilling,” she says.
3 Tips for Women Who Want to Find Their Place in Cybersecurity
For a long time, reflects Ashley, she just wanted to come into work, do her job, and feel supported, without feeling like she didn’t fit in or was representing her entire gender. Fortunately, she found what she wanted — and she hopes other women will find that, too. They can start their search by:
- Knowing they’re not alone in having tough experiences. “Everyone has different definitions for how you’re supposed to act or supposed to handle your emotions as a woman at work, and it’s exhausting. It’s like, ‘This is just me.’ I can’t repeat enough how tiring that is,” she says.
- Prioritizing self-directed learning. Although Ashley completed a master’s in cybersecurity, she emphasizes that there are many other routes into the industry, including self-study. Whether you get involved in programs like Girls Who Code or do self-paced learning through platforms like Udemy or Coursera, the important thing is that you pursue independent learning about topics that interest you, she says.
- Creating and maintaining relationships. “Really talking to people is almost a lost art,” says Ashley. “Getting together with someone who has the same sort of mindset and leveraging their knowledge, and making sure you keep in touch with people who help further your career, is a good move. Most of the places I got to professionally were based on my human connections.”
Nowadays at Chainalysis, Ashley is no longer one of five women in the office, and is excited to start paying it forward so that more people with backgrounds like hers can pursue their own professional success.
“We tend to feel more comfortable talking to people who might have our same gender or educational background, and being open and vulnerable with them,” she says. “Being a visible role model is really important to me.”
Check out Chainalysis’ open roles here!
💎 Don't miss these tips for your interview with Chainalysis! Learn more about this company's amazing mission within the crypto industry.
📼 Watch this video from Chainalysis to learn how to prepare for your interview. Molly Gancsos, Recruiter at Chainalysis, shares some insights on what it's like to work at the company.
📼 At Chainalysis, they feel it's critical to build diverse teams. Their studies literally prove that a diverse workforce results in improved processes and faster and better business solutions. But more than that, the scope of the work done at Chainalysis itself is highly diverse. And so, they're building internal teams to reflect the diversity of the external solutions that they deliver.
📼 Since she joined Chainalysis, one thing that has been incredibly surprising and refreshing for Molly is the level of respect and pride that everyone has in working there and in their roles. As she says, "It's a very low ego environment. People genuinely want your feedback and genuinely want to collaborate."
Prepare For Your Interview With Chainalysis With This Tip From A Recruiter
As Molly notes, soft skills are incredibly valuable, with their importance equal to technical skills. And one of the soft skills that Chainalysis truly values is intellectual curiosity. At Chainalysis, you'll find a level of intellectual curiosity threaded throughout individuals. It's an essential quality since the team operates in the brand-new cryptocurrency and blockchain analytics space. (Talk about uncharted territory!) So, their people must have the desire to learn more about it and seek out information.
🧑💼 Are you interested in joining Chainalysis? They have open positions! To learn more, click here.
Get to know Molly
As the youngest of four girls (Go ahead say it, "Your poor father!"), one might say Molly's been a people person since the day she was born. As a kid, she looked up to her siblings and observed everything they said and did. To their dismay, this led to near-constant questioning of their behaviors. "Why" was her favorite word. Today, she still asks people "why," although now respondents give her permission to ask questions and pry into their lives. Her passion is delivering new, more meaningful, and powerful ways to listen creatively to people and then turn those emerging insights into ideas that generate results. Molly's worn many hats in her career thus far—manager, recruiter, fundraiser, salesperson, researcher, writer, marketer, and event planner. As a result, she has a unique ability to manage multiple projects and navigate complex challenges.
More About Chainalysis
By now, you may be familiar with cryptocurrencies and their mainstream growth potential. Unfortunately, a rapidly growing ecosystem can mean an increasing number of bad actors trying to take advantage of it. At Chainalysis, they believe in building trust between the key players in this space—law enforcement, regulators, cryptocurrency businesses, and financial institutions—so the industry can continue to grow. Chainalysis powers compliance, regulatory, and investigative software that detects and prevents activities on the blockchain like money laundering, terrorist financing, child exploitation, ransomware, and more. You may have heard about their role in solving the Twitter hack, assisting in counter-terrorism financing, or taking down the largest child exploitive material website in the world.
Do you know how terrorist attacks are stopped?
Military intervention is certainly one way, but Jen Hicks prefers another.
"I really, really believe that the key to preventing terrorist attacks is by cutting off their finances," explains Jen, a senior cybercrime investigator at cryptocurrency compliance and investigation firm Chainalysis.
Growing up in a military family and serving in the Navy herself, Jen has lost friends to war and considers it her life's work to help develop a more humane way of stopping attacks and stemming the growing wave of cybercrime. "I like to think that at least in my small corner, it's making a difference," she says. "That if we're able to stop things from happening without violence, then that's all the better."
We sat down with the veteran, blockchain expert, and steampunk enthusiast to unpack her role at Chainalysis, her personal interest in investigating and stopping crime, and why it's so vital that women continue to join and lead the rapidly growing fields of cybercrime and cryptocurrency.
Falling in love with financial intelligence
Jen was born in Okinawa, Japan to an Okinawan mom and Black American dad and raised between Okinawa Island and Miyako Island. Following in her dad's footsteps and joining the military wasn't her original plan.
"As a high-achieving military brat, doing ROTC and becoming an army officer felt like something I was expected to do," she explains. "But I never took a moment to do any self reflection."
When she did, around age 18, Jen realized she had political reservations about the U.S.'s involvement in the Middle East and decided against enlisting in ROTC. That was an early example of Jen breaking out from other people's expectations for her and building her own path, but it wouldn't be the last.
When she did go into the military a couple of years later, it was because she realized she couldn't afford college and didn't want her parents to go into significant debt to help her pay for it. Inspired by her Marine father, she decided to pursue a more cerebral position and became a linguist, studying Mandarin at the Defense Language Institute.
After working for a few years as a hybrid translator/cyber analyst, looking at sensitive data and combing it for intel, Jen wanted to stay in the Navy and work as an instructor, but didn't get those orders.
She decided to leave the military and look for a civilian job. Not everyone agreed with her decision, but Jen was sure of it. "I knew I'd figure it out on my own. I said, 'I know what I don't want to do, and it's this,'" she remembers.
After being recruited by Booz Allen Hamilton and working as a critical infrastructure analyst, Jen became a threat finance analyst at Leidos, where she got to combine her long-standing loves of cryptocurrency and intelligence.
"I fell in love with it," says Jen. "I saw how financial intelligence is crucial to national security—money laundering, trafficking, terrorist financing, all of that. I thought those were fascinating. So I soaked everything up like a sponge."
Jen had been following cryptocurrency as a hobby ever since she read Satoshi Nakamoto's Bitcoin whitepaper when it was published shortly after Jen graduated from high school. "I can't say that I understood every single thing at the time, but from then on, I was hooked on this idea of peer-to-peer digital currency that was, like, very cyber punkish," she says. She kept her early interest to herself because "it was such an obscure, nerdy topic," she says. But once she realized that she could work in a security capacity, investigating the dark side of cryptocurrency, from the darknet to hacks and scams and more, Jen decided to lean into her interests.
"I made it my life's mission to map how terrorists and violent extremist organizations were using cryptocurrency around the world," she says. But that mission wasn't a business priority for the company where she worked at the time, so Jen started looking for a company where it would be.
That's how she found Chainalysis.
A colleague of hers suggested she apply to the blockchain investigation firm, but Jen wasn't sure she qualified. "I had such a high opinion of them, like 'Oh my god, they're all super smart, they probably talk in Bitcoin addresses,'" she says. "But as it turns out, they really wanted me on board, so I was hired and now I get to indulge in my 19-year-old fantasies of exploring illicit activity as a job."
Jen splits her time doing investigations tied to business priorities—from looking into exchanges targeted by malicious cyber actors to investigating how someone could avoid compliance regulations and launder cryptocurrency to identifying who's phished millions out of people's accounts—and doing the work she considers her "moral responsibility."
That second set of projects includes looking into things like child sexual abuse and terrorist financing. "The spectrum is vast, and it's super, super exciting. In between these cases, I have the freedom to pursue the research that I've been wanting to for the past couple of years now," says Jen. "It's really gratifying."
Some of those leads come from her team's research; others come from law enforcement. Her team has relationships with different agencies, from local to federal. "We provide them with data to track people down and make arrests," explains Jen.
Other leads come from individuals in the community who find people like Jen via LinkedIn or Chainalysis's contact form and ask for help. "People will come and say, 'I was scammed out of thousands of dollars,'" says Jen. "It's almost always part of a larger phishing campaign. So we take that, ingest it into our database, and absorb that information into our research to see if we can find where the money went."
It's that open-ended puzzle-solving that Jen loves so much about her job.
"It's the ultimate puzzle to be solved every time you're given one of these cases," says Jen. They'll start with an address and an initial transaction and will follow transitions in and out of different cryptocurrencies, building a graph of transactions and understanding of what is happening.
Jen has two goals for her work: first, to make cryptocurrency more accessible and safer, and second, to help educate people on how it works to empower them to participate in crypto.
Now is the time to get involved
Financial crimes are here to stay, says Jen, even for people who aren't in traditional finance.
"Let's say you're a social worker or a mental health counselor or provider of some sort, right. And you have an elderly patient who just happens to mention that they've struck up a long-distance friendship online. You're going to have to know what the red flags are for possible scam attempts," says Jen.
And cybercrimes often exploit social vulnerabilities, not just technical ones. Look at the 2016 election, says Jen: "They're able to exploit deep fissures that we've always had here and do some considerable damage." On a smaller scale, criminals are sending phishing emails that look like crowdfunding campaigns which people are less likely to look closely at in their rush to help. "It's a new flavor of social engineering that malicious actors are latching onto," says Jen.
With cybercrime already impacting so many aspects of our lives and soon to impact more—"targeting IOT devices, medical technologies, self-driving cars, NFTs"—it's a prime time to shift into the field, and Jen believes that there's no one 'right' way to make that pivot. You don't have to come from traditional IT or finance backgrounds to make an impact in this space, and if you come from an underrepresented background, that's especially true.
"It's easy to build up that psychological barrier of entry to the crypto community when you see that these huge online communities might be filled with trolls saying derogatory things that are either racist or sexist, or that conversations surrounding cryptocurrencies are being dominated by certain personalities on Twitter, or there are men around you who try to confidently tell you the most contradictory things about investing in crypto. To me, all of that is just noise and you have to block it out," says Jen.
"What I want women who are interested in this stuff to do is just be hands-on with the technology itself," says Jen, who suggests starting by creating a private wallet, understanding how privacy coins work, and learning about centralized versus decentralized systems.
If you're a woman interested in the field, reach out to others! Jen is happy to talk to anyone interested, she says. "People in the field are way, way too happy to talk to you for hours about how it works or how they got there," she says. "Chainalysis is doing a fantastic job of hiring women as investigators, and our director is a woman, and it's really cool seeing the empowerment there and knowing that we're considered the best of the best. But we always want more! So feel free to reach out."