Our guest today is Niel Harper, Experienced Board Director, and Technology & Cybersecurity Executive.
Niel discusses with us the advantages and challenges of pursuing a career in technology as a citizen of a small Caribbean nation.
He will discuss his opinions on certificates and his ideas on going to college and whether or not it helped him prepare for the latest technology.
Niel explains what a board director actually does, how it relates to his CISO responsibilities, his perspective on working for international organizations across countries, and the most valuable lesson he has learned throughout his career.
I think for me, it's about that multi-team player effect.
I don't think I would have been successful unless I helped others to find their path, find their inspiration, and to help them to succeed.
Thanks for being an imposter - a part of the Imposter Syndrome Network (ISN)!
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Make it a great day.
This transcript is machine generated and may contain errors.
[00:00:00] Chris: Hello and welcome to the Imposter Syndrome Network Podcast where everyone belongs when we're all imposters. I guess none of us are. My name is Chris Grundman and I'm here with my absolutely amazing co-host Zoe Rose.
[00:00:22] Zoe: Hello!
[00:00:23] Chris: This is the Niel Harper episode and it's gonna be a great one. Niel is an experienced board director, a technology and cybersecurity executive, a speaker, a mentor, and a digital rights advocate.
[00:00:38] Chris: Hi, Niel, would you mind introducing yourself a bit further to the imposter syndrome network?
[00:00:44] Niel: Yeah, sure. So, so I'm very, very happy to be here. I'm Niel Harper. I'm originally from, um, Barbados, but over the course of the last few years I've lived and worked in over 15 countries. I've been working in technology, risk management, cyber security, and privacy for approximately the, the last 20 uh, years.
[00:01:09] Chris: Awesome, thanks. I'd like to kick things off today by talking a little bit about technology career opportunities. In the Caribbean, right. You're from Barbados. And while we'll dive deeper into the illustrious career you've had so far in just a bit, I do wonder if building that career has been harder in any way based on where you come from geographically.
[00:01:31] Niel: Yeah, that's a very good, uh, uh, question. So I've been fortunate to. to have developed my career in Barbados, but working for large international businesses. So I started out working for a British. Telco called the, uh, cable and wireless, so very large British Telco, and I started out as an engineer there.
[00:01:58] Niel: I've also worked for AT&T Wireless, building out their cellular networks across the region. I've also worked for Fortune 100 Bank, uh, north of American Bank, that that's based in Barbados. And, you know, I've just had the opportunity all though I'm from a very small country, I've, I've always worked for very large international companies, so that's helped with my transition out outside of Barbados because my, my background and my training and my experience has been with large multinationals.
[00:02:36] Chris: Yeah, I can see how that definitely provides a springboard, right, where you're kind of bridging the gap through these multinational c. What about even before that? I mean, is, is the access to education and maybe mentorship and sponsorship or even understanding that there is this big wide tech world out there, is that, is that different coming from a, a Caribbean island or, or not so much?
[00:02:54] Niel: So the thing about Barbados, we, you know, Barbados is a small country, but we are very developed, we're number 51 on the human development index. So we have free education, free healthcare, very, very. Infrastructure. You know, for example, I have one gig fiber to my home in Barbados. So there's always a lot of opportunities in Barbados from a, from an education perspective.
[00:03:24] Niel: There are a lot of people in Barbados with bachelor's in it, bachelor's in Computer science, masters degrees in computer science. And you know, I think that's one of the ways that the government of Barbados has invested in its people by. Giving them free education.
[00:03:43] Zoe: No, that's a really good point. I, I, that was one thing that I really liked about certain countries in Europe.
[00:03:48] Zoe: They also have free education and I think that kind of, that allows more people to go and get the training that they need essentially without having that barrier of the financial backing. Cuz I know from my experience that was a quite a blocker for me cuz I'm still paying off my student loans.
[00:04:07] Zoe: One thing, I, I think my question would be is when you're coming from a small community, essentially a small, a small, uh, country, and finding your way into these large organizations, what are your thoughts on that?
[00:04:22] Zoe: Is it something that's quite difficult to do, or is it. Potentially easier to go to a large organization cuz maybe they're more capable of handling a variety of people.
[00:04:33] Niel: So that's another very good question. I think for me, you know, there have been a lot of obstacles. In working with large organization because I think the expectation is that people from from small countries, there's this assumption or this expectation that we are not as as experienced, that we're not as knowledgeable, that we don't understand the technology, we don't understand the field as well as people from developed countries.
[00:05:02] Niel: It means that you have to be constantly proving yourself. You always have, and you have to be investing in yourself as well. You have to be developing yourself so that you can remain competitive because of just where you're from. So, yeah. Yeah, it's been, it's, it's been hard and it's something that I always kind of keep in the back of my, my, my head cuz it keeps me, um, driven.
[00:05:27] Zoe: No, that's a really good point. Uh, that's one thing I have noticed with, um, people that I mentor as well is, uh, if they come from like North America or they come from, I don't know, someone, the uk you know, certifications aren't considered the biggest thing.
[00:05:41] Zoe: They're sometimes they're good for like, uh, bypassing the HR interviews, but they're not as vital as people that I work with or speak to in Asia, for example, or like, um, one of the ladies I have been mentoring, she's in Sri Lanka and she says, actually, certifications there are very important because just as you said, it's to prove I do know what I'm talking about.
[00:06:06] Zoe: You know, it's almost the same thing that I've dealt with in my career is that credentialing, having to validate yourself over and over again. That's probably quite tiring, isn't it?
[00:06:15] Niel: So I. And, and this is, it's from some person who, who has quite a, a few certifications. Yeah. I found investing in certifications with a way of kind of demonstrating the potential in employers workmates as well.
[00:06:34] Niel: That I at least had a baseline knowledge or, or a core set of competencies for my field. But, you know, there are many people who are professional certification takers as well who may understand. How to pass an exam. But, but they don't actually, when they get in the field, they actually can't get the, the job done.
[00:06:56] Niel: So I, I think the certifications is part of it, but then when you actually get in working in an organization, you know, having to solve problems, then you still have to demonstrate that you're competent, that you can solve problems that you understand both the, the book knowledge, but also the, the practical knowledge of working in the field.
[00:07:17] Chris: That makes a lot of sense and it, it resonates with a lot of what we've heard from other folks on the podcast around this kind of gap between academic and, and kind of theoretical or, or even, you know, the book learning that the certification skills even I think is, is kind of maybe lumped in there versus practical experience.
[00:07:36] Chris: And that, that there is some kind of gap there. And we've heard from both sides of it, right? We've heard some folks who, who go off to university and come back a little bit disappointed that they didn't really get that, you know, the information they really wanted to know about technology and, and more of the hands-on stuff, I guess.
[00:07:49] Chris: And then the same thing from like, you know, people who are now hiring managers and, and are looking for new employees and, and looking at, okay, well cool you got this, you know, degree or even this certification, but can you actually do the work. Was your ex university experience different or did you have similar challenges?
[00:08:05] Niel: Yeah, so, um, interesting is I went to school in Barbados at primary and secondary level. Then I moved to, uh, Canada for a few years and I went to a technical school where I did a technical diploma where everything was very hands on. Like we, we were building computers, we were building networks, we were implementing novel, the novel in the network.
[00:08:32] Niel: So it shows you, I'm a bit old, but implementing Novel implementing HBUX and open VMS. So, I mean, I think for me, because I went to a technical school, When I was ready for the workforce, I, I had a lot of the practical skills and then you, you know, I went directly from school. I moved back to Barbados and I was part of the team that launched the first internet service provider in Barbados.
[00:09:04] Niel: So like, it was very hands on straight from school. So I. You know, just getting that experience at school really, um, helped me to kind of transition very seamlessly into a very technical day-to-day job.
[00:09:20] Zoe: Yeah, I think I, I have a very similar experience. I also went to school in Canada, so I'm curious what school you went to, but, uh, that kind of brings me to, you've been in industry for a long time.
[00:09:31] Zoe: And one thing that I've noticed is people that have been in industry for a very long time, they either, they go almost two roots. I mean, not always, but, but kind of. It's either they go very, very hands-on technical specialist or quite senior and a little bit more hands off. Some people have, you know, layers in between.
[00:09:49] Zoe: But I'm curious as to what your current role would, it looks like. I guess what, what you would do a day to day and maybe things you really like about your role.
[00:09:59] Niel: Yeah, so I'm presently in the chief information security officer role for an international org. Basically looking at. Technology, governance, risk and compliance.
[00:10:17] Niel: And it's really about, my role is really from a, a strategic perspective to understand the organization's risk and to develop a program that really addresses those risks. And, you know, it's across multiple, the, um, jurisdictions as well. So understand the legal regulatory implications of the organization. You know, understanding, you know, who are the different constituents that we are serving, but also as well from a jurisdiction perspective, what are the de regulations that we're subject to?
[00:10:51] Niel: So it's. Yeah. I mean, I really love the work I do. It's, it's not as, as hands on as work I've done in the past, but it's, I usually say to friends, but when you get to a CISO role, and I've been a CISO in a number of different work organization. I was previously the CISO for the United Nations, but when, when you get to a CISO role.
[00:11:16] Niel: I would say 65% of your time is relationship management , you know, it's building partnerships, understanding the, the pain points of executives and other leaders. You know, helping people to understand your vision, explaining your vision, and, and translating a very technical perspective of the business to the language that the, the executives and the board of directors can actually understand.
[00:11:46] Niel: So looking at business risk, financial risk, operational risk, reputation. And ensuring that in managing those relationships that you can get people who can be executive sponsors and people who can support your vision. One, support it in the boardroom, but also ensure that you have the actual resources to execute against that vision and resources in terms of people, process, and tech.
[00:12:10] Chris: That makes a lot of sense, and I've seen similar things happen throughout, throughout my career where it becomes more and more about people and relationships and sharing knowledge and that that part of it is, is just as important as some of the hardcore technical stuff, which is interesting.
[00:12:22] Chris: One thing you mentioned there that, that I think is interesting to maybe call out a little bit, right, is that interaction between a CISO and the board of directors.
[00:12:29] Chris: And I wonder if you have kind of a leg up there on some other folks, because you are an executive advisor at Hugo. You're on, you're a board director at, uh, ISACA I think you've held some other advisory and, and board positions and director positions in the past. Has that helped you to be a better ciso or has been a CISO made you a better board director or are they related at all?
[00:12:49] Niel: That's a very, very good question. I, you know, I was a CISO before I was a board director, but I think a few things. So I, outside of having like technical certifications, I also have an an MBA and I also have a law degree. So, you know, having that perspective of the technical side of the business, the regulatory and compliance side of the business, and then the, the core business, like business strategy and sales and marketing, that gives me a broader perspective.
[00:13:26] Niel: Being a CISO because I'm always thinking about, you know, how can security be a business enabler? How can security help us to better manage risk? How can security help us to paint a better picture for investors in terms of, are we running, uh, trusted systems? Are we managing the risks, do we understand the risk that the organization is exposed?
[00:13:50] Niel: So really kind of being, being able to speak that language that you can competently engage with the technical folks, competently engage with the legal folks, but you can also speak the business lingo as well. And I think that has helped me to be a good ciso, but I think also being a board member and an executive advisor has also, um, helped me to be a better CISO and vice versa.
[00:14:16] Niel: I think being a CISO has also, um, helped me to understand the, the business perspective as well, because you as the business are looking at a number of risk of having worked in risk management. Well, cause I, I have been a, um, a head of audit also, so that, that risk perspective has really contributed to the, the board.
[00:14:40] Niel: And risk oversight, which also contributed to, to being a, a strong CISO because essentially a CISO role is an an information risk management role.
[00:14:52] Chris: That's interesting. I like that. I'm just kind of pondering that, that in info information risk management role I is interesting. I think I like that label. You know, just one more layer deep on that.
[00:15:01] Chris: I think, you know, we've talked to, I think a couple of CISOs at this point now, so, you know, faithful listeners probably have a general idea of what a CISO does. And, and you've described it well again here from kind of your perspective. But what, what we haven't had is, is a director on, and so I wonder, you know, if you can tell us a little bit about what does a board director actually do?
[00:15:22] Niel: Yeah, I mean, Essentially, my role as a board director and any board director is really to represent and protect the interests of the business' stakeholders, and that would be the investors, the staff, the customers, you know, the key stakeholders of the business in ensuring that the, the business has strategic plans that contribute to organizational growth.
[00:15:52] Niel: Also looking at risk oversight, making sure that from a financial perspective, that the business is also being managed and well. You know, also looking at things like succession planning and that I'm hiring as well as firing, you know, making sure you have the the right executives in, in place, ensuring that the CEO is actually delivering against stated objectives.
[00:16:19] Niel: And also just looking at, at your regulatory compliance, your risk management, you know, Interestingly enough, being on a board, my expertise as a cyber professional is probably comes to the fore less than 10% of the time. It's really that there's a lot of focus on sales and revenue and EBITDA and looking at, at strategic plans.
[00:16:46] Niel: Approving funding and the budget. So, you know, it's really a broader perspective of, of how the B business is run. But then when it comes to looking at the performance of the technology department and looking at the performance of the information security department and looking at how operational risks are are managed, then my background and my experience, it becomes more and more important.
[00:17:13] Zoe: Yeah, it's almost like you're taking from across your career all of the different pieces you've learned along the way. Especially that relationship building and then applying it all at once. little bits here and there, but all together. No, that's really impressive. Maybe one day I'll get there, but I'm still at the still.
[00:17:34] Zoe: Still a bit to go. At one point I was really interested. Is your perspective about working for international organizations, but also within different countries and different cultures? One thing that I currently do is I work for an organization within the E M E A region, and one thing that I look at when I'm hiring people is how comfortable they would be working with diverse teams and working with diverse organizations.
[00:18:03] Zoe: Right. So do you feel like. Having experience in different countries benefits you to the point where it actually makes it easier for you to handle that kind of, those different cultures and different, uh, personalities in your building, your relationships. Would, would you have changed anything there?
[00:18:22] Niel: Yeah, I, I don't think I would have changed, um, anything.
[00:18:27] Niel: I've been fortunate again to have worked in a, in a number of very diverse environments. You know, I, I previously worked at the Internet Society with, um, Chris, and you know, the Internet society has. A hundred, um, chapters, a hundred thousand plus members in over a hundred and and 20 countries. And, you know, I spent a lot of time interacting with those members, even visiting many of those countries, also working for the, the United Nations.
[00:19:02] Niel: In my department alone in the United Nations, we had 17 different nationalities. So I. And I've worked at a number of different organizations in Europe, Africa, Asia-Pacific, south America, and you know, I think that diversity is really important. And not just diversity in terms of national diversity, but also gender diversity, sexual diversity.
[00:19:28] Niel: I, I think it's very important to succeed in an international organization. You know, you have to be open. Very, very, not just open, but adept at managing multicultural relationships, especially, you know, especially when, when it comes to differences in values, differences in culture, the differences in religion.
[00:19:51] Niel: You need to be really open and sensitive to the differences that bind us.
[00:19:59] Zoe: Yeah, it's that point of, you know, not just hiring a diverse team, but also supporting a diverse team.
[00:20:05] Zoe: So, listening to you talk about your career, it's quite impressive. I mean, it's, you've been in industry for a very long time, across a variety of positions, locations, different cultures.
[00:20:16] Zoe: Has there ever been a time where you've felt like you were an imposter?
[00:20:20] Niel: I think I have two specific, um, instances, which I felt like an imposter. The first one I was working for AT&T wireless. I was, I was 26, I was still a kid, and I was responsible for network operations at AT&T Wireless. So basically they build out the cellular in the networks.
[00:20:45] Niel: So, and then they, they hand it off to the, the team that does their operations. So I could remember the day that they handed off the network to me. I'm a 26 year old manager managing a very young team as, as well. And they hand this multimillion dollar network to me that's making 10, 12, 15 million dollars a day and said, Hey, this is now yours.
[00:21:17] Niel: And I can remember, think to myself, W T F. I don't know what I'm doing at all. Like I'm lost. I wasn't, but I, I think at that time it felt like I, I didn't have a, a clue, like I was like, what am I doing in this job?
[00:21:34] Niel: Then the second time in 2014, I was recognized by the World Economic Forum as a young global leader.
[00:21:46] Niel: What that is, that's a program where we. A group of prime ministers, presidents, different people identified the top kind of 100 professionals under 40 who've been successful at a very young, um, age. And then they put them through like an incubator program and a, a training program to improve their leadership skills.
[00:22:10] Niel: And I could remember my first YGL meeting and I turned up on this. All these really incredible people. You know, people my age, mid thirties. And they're, they're presidents of tech startups. They're, they're running multi-billion dollar banks. Like, I mean, and I was just like, okay, I should not be the, uh, here
[00:22:33] Niel: I've not done half as much of these people. But, you know, then after a while I recognize, look, look, I have made a, a pretty large, um, impact. To my field, in my region, outside of my region, and I, I think I did deserve to be part of the program just at, at first I felt a bit overwhelmed. I felt like an imposter.
[00:22:56] Chris: That makes total sense. What do you do with those feelings of being an imposter? Or how did you deal with those in those situations specifically?
[00:23:03] Niel: You know, I think part of it is speaking to someone as well, you know? I went home and I, I said to my wife, yeah, I'm, I've not done Jack. Like, all these people are really in incredible.
[00:23:16] Niel: And I was here to thinking I was, was really hot stuff and I'm, yeah. So it's in, in, no, it's really talking to people around you and getting a different perspective, but it's also to kind of take a, a step back, you know, and look at what you've done and what, what's been. The impact. And I think particularly for me, I, I said to myself, um, Hey, I was working at the Internet Society.
[00:23:41] Niel: We had really developed a, a program, the Next Generation Leaders program at the Internet Society. We, we were really, you know, we, we ended up, uh, training around 70,000 persons in a hundred countries. And, you know, we help people. Develop skills in internet governance. We help people build wireless community, net net networks.
[00:24:06] Niel: We help people build internet exchange points. And a number of the people that we've trained have, they're now ministers in their governments. Right? Executives at Facebook, you know, so many of the people that that we did train many of the people that. The programs I led, trained and to develop are now people who are contributing on a day-to-day basis to the, the, the growth of the internet.
[00:24:33] Niel: So, I mean, I did make an impact. I just, it kind of took a step back to recognize that, yeah, I, you know, I have done a lot for my field. I have done a lot in terms of impact, especially across the developing countries, and it's something I should, I should feel, um, proud about. I should not feel as though I'm an imposter.
[00:24:55] Chris: Yeah, I like that a lot. It almost, to me sounds kinda like, almost like a gratitude practice, right? I mean that, at least that's how I approach it, is I try to be grateful for these things and it, it gives me a lens to be able to kind. Almost humble brag to myself by saying, you know, I'm grateful that this thing happened.
[00:25:08] Chris: I'm grateful I've had this impact, and it allows me to kind of see the impact I've had without feeling like I'm patting myself on the back. And it sounds like you kind of do some of the same things.
[00:25:16] Niel: Yeah, and I think what's important too is as I, I traveled around to a number of meetings. The Internet Governance Forum, the Internet Engineering Task Force, African Internet Summit.
[00:25:31] Niel: As I travel around to these meetings, people. Would come up to, to me, like, Hey, um, hey man, I'm really grateful the, the program that you, you led and you know, you, you gave me this opportunity to take, get involved in, in this organization or that organization, or you helped. Prepare me for your job at Facebook in public policy.
[00:25:54] Niel: So I'm a, people would actually come up to me and say, Hey, I really would not have been involved in, in this field, or I wouldn't be in my present job if it were not for you and your program. So, you know, it's kind of getting that validation from, from people as opposed to me validating myself. You know, we getting up validation from people who actually participated in the programs and seeing.
[00:26:18] Niel: Just a wide number. I mean, like hundreds and thousands of people that we, we, we identified and, and trained are now being successful.
[00:26:28] Chris: Yeah. That's fantastic. Well, that is about all the time we have for today. Nile, thank you so much for sharing your story with the Imposter syndrome network and, and being here with us today.
[00:26:39] Chris: And thank you to all the imposters tuning in. We really appreciate you spending your time and attention with us every week. If you enjoyed the show, please think about sharing it with a friend, a family member, or a colleague who you think it might inform or inspire.
[00:26:53] Chris: Before we shut off the lights. Nile, I do want to know, you know, you, you've been doing this for 20 years. You've kind of risen all the way up to, you know, the CISO level, the board director level. I mean, I think that's kind of the pinnacle of a career for, for most folks, for many folks anyway. What's the most valuable lesson you've learned in your career?
[00:27:11] Niel: Ah, so the most valuable lesson I've, I've learned is I don't believe that you're truly a leader, or that you've, you've truly achieved unless you've developed more leaders.
[00:27:26] Niel: So I think for me, it's about that multiplier effect. I don't think I would've been successful. I, um, help others to find their path and, and to find their inspiration and, and to help them to succeed.
[00:27:43] Chris: I love it. That makes total sense to me. Do you have any projects that you'd like, um, folks to know about?
[00:27:50] Chris: Or if not, you know, is there ways we people can reach out if they wanna ask you a question or something?
[00:27:54] Niel: In terms of, of projects ? Well, right now I sit on the board of ISACA and you know, we're really focused on our, our strategy, our new strategy, and our vision, which is, uh, Digital, uh, trust. And we are really looking to get more people volunteering in, you know, really in, in our different communities, on our engage, uh, platform in terms of mentoring and in terms of, of sharing their, their experience and their ideas.
[00:28:27] Niel: We, we we're always looking for volunteers to. To write exam, um, items. We are always looking for volunteers to, to help us with the improvement of our actual exams and our testing banks. You know, there are a number of volunteer opportunities for people working in cyber and working in the technology, risk management and, and privacy.
[00:28:50] Niel: So really I would love for people to go and visit isaca.org and really, um, help us in terms of really building out our community of practicioners.
[00:29:03] Chris: Fantastic. We'll definitely put a link in the show notes so folks can go kind of ping at that and we will be back next week.