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“Do not compete with the people you’re trying to empower” with Penny Bauder & Michel Huffaker

Do not compete with the people you’re trying to empower. Cliche as it is, rising tides do lift all ships. I’ve been in situations where the women feel they have to compete with each other for a seat at the table. Once I started competing with “the most qualified person”, I got better and I got […]

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Do not compete with the people you’re trying to empower. Cliche as it is, rising tides do lift all ships. I’ve been in situations where the women feel they have to compete with each other for a seat at the table. Once I started competing with “the most qualified person”, I got better and I got the job.


I had the pleasure to interview Michel Huffaker. Michel began her career as a Chinese Cryptologic Language Analyst in the US Air Force before moving on to become an Intelligence Analyst for the US Departments of Defense and State. She has worked on many sides of the cybersecurity industry — from government, to end user, to vendor. She previously worked with iSIGHT Partners/FireEye, then MGM Resorts International before joining ThreatQuotient as Director of Threat Intelligence.


Thank you for joining us Michel! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Iwas always interested in learning a foreign language, so I looked for opportunities to do so immediately after high school. My brother had already joined the Air Force, so I researched its linguistics career field and decided it was a good fit. A few really weird tests and a rather unpleasant stint in Basic Military Training later, I was in. That decision, which was completely unexpected and 50/50 decision/chance, ended up being a phenomenal launchpad for the career I have now.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Cyber threat intelligence is a dynamic field and something interesting happens every day. Running into old acquaintances isn’t all that strange, but the bonds formed in the “trenches” of start-up work are ever-lasting. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with so many of my former coworkers it almost feels Twilight Zone-esque. Right now I’m traveling to train someone I worked with at iSIGHT Partners on the ThreatQ platform while simultaneously developing business partnerships with three others. It’s not just about not burning bridges; there is real value in keeping in touch with your professional network and getting to know your coworkers as friends.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I worked for a start-up that had a really cool bar that served as a lunchroom in the office. I knew it was there because people in the industry always talked about it, but it was behind badge-access doors. When I first started I was too shy to talk with my new coworkers and would eat at my desk in my office. It took me a week to realize all the laughter coming out of what I thought was a server room was actually people enjoying lunch in the bar. My badge worked on the door — I wasn’t being excluded; everyone just thought I was working through lunch. I definitely learned it’s better to put myself out there even if it’s uncomfortable. Some of those people are still my close friends today.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Wow do we work hard. I think a lot of people think their teams work hard, but the ThreatQuotient team is truly on another level. Amazing things are happening every day but the pace is relentless. We’re lean, efficient, aggressive, and humble. It’s a great team to be a part of. One thing we’ve done that is really refreshing is use our powers for good. In an industry where trade shows are chock full of bric-a-brac, we actually choose to donate to a rhino preservation society in lieu of handing out a ton of random junk. Conducting business with a conscience is important, and ThreatQ really embodies that ideal.

How do you think that will help people?

Everytime we onboard a new customer, it’s an exciting new project. Our platform is geared towards taking organizations with great security programs and helping them make them even better. I love the challenges of learning new teams and what makes them tick. They have everything they need, they just need to align it.

I hope it helps the industry as a whole. We work with giant firms that impact the daily lives of a huge swath of the population. The more secure their systems are, the better off we all are.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I don’t know that there is a status quo with women in STEM. Everyday things are changing, and it feels a little like two steps forward and one step back. I do; however, acknowledge that we women remain grossly underrepresented in the tech field, and especially as you look at senior and board positions. In the short term, maybe it seems too simple, but removing names from resumes during the initial screening process is a great place to start. Beyond that, society has made great strides in encouraging young girls to follow their inherent desires to be in the STEM fields, but we haven’t done much to retain women already in them. Many of my extraordinarily qualified female peers plateau right below the executive level while their male colleagues continue to climb the ladder. If we can all acknowledge that the diversity of thought women bring to the field is valuable — and it would be reckless not to — then we should also decide to pay attention to what draws them in and keeps them here.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

We’re still the minority, plain and simple. Until representation across all levels reaches parity, there will be a skewed perspective about what’s important to a workforce.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

The biggest myth, and the one that irks me the most, is that promoting women in STEM is the same thing as discouraging men or ignoring the other minorities in the field. I do not, and I know no one who does, support the idea that a woman should be given a job because she’s a woman. But, I demand that a woman be given an equal shot at a job irrespective of her gender.

The other myth that’s been proven false time and time again is that women are not interested in — or are not as good at — STEM work as men. It’s not true, and the more we allow these falsehoods to propagate, the more likely we are to discourage the girl destined to cure the common cold or put people on Mars.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Don’t be afraid to be a woman at work. If it’s who you are, don’t be ashamed of it. I’m not recommending starting every sentence with “As a woman..” (please don’t), but don’t shy away from the differences. Emotions are not bad, nor are they irrational. Passion is good. Having kids is hard and not having them is fine. It’s ok to talk about it at the appropriate times.
  2. Do not compete with the people you’re trying to empower. Cliche as it is, rising tides do lift all ships. I’ve been in situations where the women feel they have to compete with each other for a seat at the table. Once I started competing with “the most qualified person”, I got better and I got the job.
  3. Your mentor does not have to be a woman. My most valuable mentors have been people with integrity who see things differently than I do and aren’t afraid to challenge me. Two out of three have been men, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
  4. Advocate for yourself. Nobody cares more about your career than you. I have a hard time taking credit for my accomplishments, but I’m finally learning to be proud of what I’ve done and expect to be trusted with more and more because of it.
  5. Stop admiring the problem. This advice came from one of my most challenging bosses, but it couldn’t be more appropriate. Identify the problem then solve it!

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Listen and trust. I learned by working for great bosses that when teams have a voice and an opportunity, they are usually motivated to work on anything. The more motivated they are, the happier they are, and the happier they are, the more productive the team is.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Manage teams with empathy. If you think of your teammates as people rather than “resources” or “headcount”, you’re much more likely to consider their diverse ideas and perspectives. Be the humble expert in the room, but be decisive. You aren’t leading teams by accident, so embrace your role and execute it with purpose.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am grateful to so many people, who challenged me to do things far outside my comfort zone and discover interesting things about myself. But, as important as it is to acknowledge those who support you, I’m actually quite grateful for those who didn’t. I appreciate the bad bosses, back-stabbing coworkers, and competitive peers who taught me what I don’t want to be and forced me to develop beyond what I thought was possible. Adversity is good. I’m happy I’ve had it.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I hope so! I haven’t done anything with a global impact (yet!), but I try to support the people in the communities around me. I take a great deal of pride in helping young people learn about protecting their privacy online and ushering as many people into the tech field as possible.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

It’s not a novel idea, but I would like to inspire people to just be kind to each other. The divisiveness in this country is toxic, and I know we’re not the only ones experiencing it. It’s amazing how quickly a bad day can change when someone is nice — it’s free and we can all do it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” — Judy Garland

One of the hardest things about transitioning from the military to my first civilian job, then into parenthood was keeping sight of who I was. When I was younger, I think I looked to others to figure out who I was supposed to be. At some point, I got too busy to worry about finding someone to be like and finally just decided to like me.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Malala Yousafzai is such an inspirational young woman. I am amazed at her courage and strength. In a world with “hashtag activism”, I can’t think of anyone more brave.

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