She’s Paving the Way for Women in Cybersecurity: How She Went from First-Generation College Student to IT Leader
A Conversation with Freddie Mac's Stephanie Johnson
When Stephanie Johnson, currently an Information Security Manager at Freddie Mac, was just starting her career as an IT professional, she found herself sitting in her car one night after work asking herself, "Why am I not being heard? Should I adjust my tone? Posture? What I'm saying?"
She wanted to make an impact and knew she could do better.
So she challenged herself to rethink her meeting approach. No longer would she sit back and wait for someone else to speak first. She decided she'd enter her next meeting as a confident subject matter expert.
And it worked.
"I put on a black suit and heels, and I came into the meeting and sat at the front of the table so I could see everyone. I sat up straight, I kept the meeting on track, and I was respectful of others but I took control. From that moment forward, I was always heard," says Stephanie.
Designing her path
Stephanie had to create her own approach and career path for her entire life. Growing up in a small midwestern town with a single mother who didn't have a large income, college didn't seem like a realistic goal for many in Stephanie's family. But she believed that education was the key to changing her life, so she found a way to make college work.
"I knew there was a better way to live. And I knew I was going to be the first
person to change the picture for my family. I wanted others to follow in my footsteps," says Stephanie.
Stephanie started off at a two-year college, where she graduated with an associate's degree in computer science. (She picked that major after doing research into the most lucrative and fastest-growing fields of study—talk about prescience.) That helped her land a job as a data analyst with the City of Pine Bluff finance department; the money she earned there allowed her to go back to college at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and complete her bachelor's.
"There were times I wanted to give up because it was hard. I carried pictures of my family,
and every time I looked at those photos, I knew I had to stay the course. I told myself, 'If you
don't do this, nobody will.' My mom was the oldest of 12 and none of her siblings went to
college. My older siblings didn't go. Now, about 70% of people in my family have…graduate[d] college," says Stephanie proudly.
While still in college, Stephanie started an internship at the Pentagon as a UNIX system administrator. "That was the role that got my hands under the hood," she remembers. Her strong work ethic and ability to provide top-notch customer service through technical issue resolution led to her receiving a full-time job offer at the Pentagon. She stayed for several years and completed her degree before leaving government work because she felt her career path was becoming stagnant, she says. She wanted to grow and learn new things.
Before landing at Freddie Mac, Stephanie held IT positions in several different sectors, including government, telecommunications, consulting, and finance. After 9/11, she was inspired to transition from pure IT into information security and cybersecurity, and data privacy.
All of her career choices were motivated by one thing: challenging herself to keep learning and growing, and by so doing, creating a path for other women (and especially women of color) to do the same.
Paving the way for women
"When I first started in my career, there was a common belief that women should be submissive," remembers Stephanie. Luckily, that stereotype has changed, but women still aren't anywhere near parity in representation or pay in the cybersecurity industry or the tech industry at large.
"I feel I have a responsibility to pave the way for minority women in IT. If I could wave a
magic wand and create the perfect job, I would be a beacon for recruiting at colleges to bring
more women into this space. There's work to be done. I am an advocate and an avenue for that work. I want to change the trajectory," says Stephanie.
Her contributions to solving that problem include mentoring women. Through lunches, phone calls, and long advice sessions, Stephanie passes on her tried-and-true pieces of advice: "I tell them they need to learn to own their craft and their brand. If they don't do that, they won't be heard. They can be assertive without being aggressive."
By mentoring younger women on her team and those from her past positions, Stephanie has been able to pay homage to two mentors of hers who made differences in her IT career: Ed and Brian, two of her past bosses who offered Stephanie a helping hand from the get-go.
Though she's had success in cybersecurity and proven that women can take on important technical and leadership roles in the field, she'll never say it was easy. "Just by being a woman, you don't always get opportunities to move up. People can see strong women as intimidating. You become a threat. There's still a lot of room for change in this space – and I'm at the front of it," says Stephanie.
Finding her fit
After years of impressive experience across IT and cybersecurity roles, Stephanie accepted a job in cyber risk management at Freddie Mac because it fulfilled her desire to keep learning and growing professionally while providing her a meaningful mission, a strong organizational commitment to diversity and inclusion, and truly open channels between upper management and employees.
"At Freddie Mac, I get to go to work and know everything I'm doing is helping make home possible for someone in the U.S. Our work matters. That is what excites me," explains Stephanie.
Our What Women Want report found that the majority of women (72%) are dissatisfied with the level of diversity and sense of inclusion and belonging in their company. That's not the case for Stephanie, who accepted the role at Freddie Mac because of their strong corporate commitment to diversity and inclusion: "I was really impressed with the company's Inclusion & Diversity (I&D) program. Once I got here, I realized the program is always getting better and better. They're always working on making this place more inclusive and I'm so proud to be part of an organization so focused on inclusion."
Freddie Mac's I&D initiatives include investing in women leaders. Stephanie is a member of the Rising Leaders employee resource group and has been nominated by her company for several leadership training programs, which have contributed to her upward mobility at work and increased confidence in her management and leadership skills.
Those leadership skills have resulted in Stephanie leading a change in Freddie Mac's cyber risk assessment program. She developed a risk-based, customized approach incorporating customer input that resulted in increased efficiency while also decreasing the backlog of tasks. "I expected there to be more resistance to change, but leadership has been really on board for changes. That's one of my favorite parts of working here," explains Stephanie.
That openness is extended on an individual basis, too—one of Stephanie's favorite moments at Freddie Mac was when she connected with Jacqui Welch, Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Diversity Officer, outside of work, and was encouraged by Jacqui to follow up and have a one-on-one meeting. Jacqui's team made the meeting happen and Stephanie was surprised by how Jacqui truly wanted to understand Stephanie's perspective and ideas for the company.
Overall, Stephanie has found the role and company that's right for her—one that values her ideas, supports her identities, and believes in investing in women in tech.
If a role like that sounds right for you, too, check out Freddie Mac's open positions or leave a question for Stephanie in the comments!