Michele D. Guel, winner of the Leadership ABIE Award, a Distinguished Engineer at Cisco and a founding member of the company’s internal security team, found her inspiration to join computer science from an unlikely source — her karate instructor. When she sought his help on a calculus problem, he asked if she was taking any programming classes as a student at San Jose State University.
“He said, ‘In this day and age — which seems funny since it was 1980 — you can’t afford to not study programming,’” explains Michele. “So the next semester, I enrolled in a FORTRAN class and we actually wrote programs on punch cards. You can go to the Computer History Museum to see what those are.”
Leadership Lessons from Martial Arts
It turns out that Michele had a natural talent for coding, and started working full-time as a programmer at her karate instructor’s startup while studying mathematics. Soon after graduating from SJSU, Michele landed a job as a lab administrator at NASA Ames Research Center, where she was tasked with everything from making coffee, cleaning labs and writing the occasional programs for NASA Scientists.
It wasn’t until the infamous Morris Worm — one of the first forms of malware — hit the nascent Internet in 1988 that Michele became interested in the field of cybersecurity.
“Robert Morris wanted to see how big the internet was — it turned out it was only about 27,000 posts. He had a bug in his program and it went from the east coast to the west coast and shut down thousands of computer systems,” Michele recalls. “Our Crays (supercomputers) all came grinding to a halt, and we were all of a sudden the incident response team. It was pretty exciting — many people use that as the beginning of cybersecurity in the history of the internet.”
From that landmark moment at NASA, Michele started building out cybersecurity controls and processes from scratch, largely by herself. With no protocols to work with, Michele and her team experimented and collaborated to lay the groundwork to secure NASA Ames’ systems when the internet was still budding.
“There wasn’t anything to point to, and that’s what I liked doing,” Michele says. “There was no process, there was no technology in place. So we had to think about how to harden the systems, write security policies and develop security controls. That was a very fun part of my journey.”
Securing Our Growing ‘Internet of Things’
In 1996, Michele moved over to Cisco’s internal security department, where she was the team member figuring out how to secure the technology giant’s internal operations. Currently, Michele is focusing her efforts on how to operationalize security for the Internet of Things and cloud spaces.
As the winner of the 2016 Leadership ABIE Award, Michele joins the ranks of dozens of accomplished women technologists who have put their team first as they innovate and push the boundaries of what technology can accomplish. But Michele’s foray into leadership came relatively recently.
“In the past 10 years, I’ve had to walk in that [leadership] role,” Michele explains. “Cisco’s a very fast-moving company, and you need to reinvent yourself all the time. To get to my level as a distinguished engineer, you have to be all about leadership and setting an example. To quote a non-Cisco executive, ‘You’re paid to have an opinion.’”
Michele recently co-founded start Cisco’s Women in Cybersecurity community and is an active participant in Cisco’s Women’s Summits. Her philosophy about the lack of women in technical roles is that collaboration and recognition for women’s achievements is key to bridging the gap.
“There’s nothing wrong with the women,” Michele explains. “But when men do something exciting, they’re on the playing field, they do a chest bump and they’re congratulatory. Women like to play it down.”
To shed light on women’s accomplishments in cybersecurity at Cisco, the Women in Cybersecurity community has created a “Wall of Fame,” a presentation featuring women’s speaking engagements, certifications and other achievements that roll in the background of a meeting.
“That gives other people the opportunity to say, ‘Wow, she didn’t know anything about security and now she’s a ninja blackbelt!’”, Michele says. “You need to encourage people to think that I can do that too! We have an influx of women who have never actually participated in anything security related, and now they’re getting excited and interested in it. We have people submitting proposals to conferences for the first time.”
Practicing a People-Driven Approach to Leadership
Outside of Cisco, Michele is a community leader and an active member of her local churchministry, where she has found inspiration for her leadership style both in and out of the technology industry. She also keeps her own experience and challenges of growing up in a broken home and being the first one in her family to graduate from college.
“I’m very passionate about helping people, whether it’s technology problem or helping a coworker who’s struggling through a personal challenge or in my ministry work where I meet with people struggling with all kinds of hurts, habits and hangups,” Michelle says.
For Michele, the key to being an effective leader is to think of people holistically, not just in a workplace setting. “You have to care authentically about the whole person, and know what’s going on in their work life as well as their personal life. We don’t just leave our personal lives at home when we go into the office — we bring our whole self to work. To help people succeed, you have to think of the whole person.”