Cyber Empathy

Attaining a fulfilling life in the cybersecurity industry

Episode Summary

When you take time to replenish, you can serve from the overflow and avoid burnout. Cybersecurity is a stressful industry that demands a lot of commitment from professionals in it. Sometimes, people in this industry focus so much on the task at hand that they forget to replenish themselves.

Episode Notes

When you take time to replenish, you can serve from the overflow and avoid burnout.

Cybersecurity is a stressful industry that demands a lot of commitment from professionals in it. Sometimes, people in this industry focus so much on the task at hand that they forget to replenish themselves.

This, in most cases, results in burnout or a significant reduction in the quality of their work. That’s why practicing self-care, self-empathy, and assertiveness are essential parts of personal and professional development. 

Our guest today is Cristina Magro, a personal development coach for cybersecurity professionals. She’s passionate about teaching those who keep digital infrastructure and information safe how to take care of themselves. Today, she’ll share with us the role that empathy plays in her work.

In this episode, you’ll hear about the reality of what it’s like to work in the cybersecurity industry. You’ll also learn about the challenges that people in this industry face and some tips on how to overcome them. Additionally, you’ll discover the importance of practicing self-empathy and self-care.

In this episode, you will learn:


Connect with Cristina:

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Episode Transcription

[00:42] Andra Zaharia: When I first discovered Cristina Magro and saw what she specializes in, I immediately knew I had to talk to her. Her work as a career and personal development coach for cybersecurity professionals fascinates me. By combining two skills that are rarely found together — coaching for personal development and cybersecurity knowledge — Cristina creates positive change that travels throughout the industry. She teaches those who take care of technology in their teams to also take care of themselves, so their essential work becomes sustainable and less of a burden. In this enthusiastic conversation, you'll hear from Cristina about how to practice self-empathy and how working on yourself makes you a more skillful professional, a better manager, a stronger mentor, and a healthier human. It was wonderful to see Cristina light up when talking about her work. Witnessing her vulnerability and insights, I was once again reminded of the immense power of example that so many great people in cybersecurity practice. I'm delighted to share this conversation with you and to be back with a new episode of the Cyber Empathy podcast.

[02:08] Andra Zaharia: Cristina, it's so wonderful to finally be able to talk to you, to finally find out even more behind-the-scenes stuff about the work that you do. So, let me start with this. How did you end up specializing in this excellent combination of personal development through coaching and cybersecurity? How did you end up doing this particular kind of work?

[02:35] Cristina Magro: First of all, thank you so much for having me on this podcast. I think the work you're doing is fantastic, and I'm just honored to be part of it. So, thank you so much, Andra. As you said, I am a coach for cybersecurity professionals, and this means that my work is completely focused and dedicated to the humans behind the machines, that's how I like to think about it. Working in cybersecurity sometimes can have a big emotional impact on people. And something that I think is not emphasized enough is that if the humans that are working to keep us safe are not provided with inner and outer resources to protect their own well-being, then none of us is safe. And this is the message of empathy that I try to spread in my work: if the security people are there to take care of us, who's taking care of the security people? And that's what inspires my work. Saying this, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not a psychologist by any stretch of the imagination, that is not the work that I do. In a way, I am a trained Mental Health First Aider so I can recognize signs of possible crisis and help people access support, but nothing beyond that. 

[03:49] Cristina Magro: I chose this career because I want to support cyber people in their journey to a happier and balanced career. Doing my work with empathy means that, as a coach, I see and I cherish people's potential. And I try to do that, not from a place of “You're doing this wrong. Here is what you should do instead,” but rather from a place of “I get where you are right now, let's see where you would like to be instead,” and get there together. So, I think that's empathy in the sense that I have nothing to teach. I'm here to help people access their own inner resources and strengths to throw our way forward for themselves that make sense to them.

[04:36] Andra Zaharia: I was just very, very impressed and touched by the way that you phrase things, by the way, that you create this mental picture of being supported, feeling seen and recognized, and having someone to create that space where you can deal with all of these things, which is not necessarily something that most people get in their organization, especially when they are in such high pressure, high responsibility roles, which involves so many things at once, which go far beyond the technical responsibilities of the job. So, I wanted to ask you what is the most common source of stress for people that you work with, for the specialist that you work with?

[05:25] Cristina Magro: I would say that these professionals are under a lot of stress for the nature of their jobs most of the time. And sometimes it's a matter of how the job is structured and organized or not organized, sometimes it's the organization itself. We are all humans, we are prone to stress, and we all have complicated personal lives, so sometimes our personal lives have an impact on our work life, that is just normal. And when this happens, some people are more supported and some other people are less supported by their work and their organization. So, yes, stress can come and attack from very different places. And then it all changes whenever you find ways to deal with it or whenever you find the right support system to deal with it. 

[06:23] Andra Zaharia: That is so absolutely true. And the way that you're describing these experiences, I feel that first of all, yes, it definitely applies to cybersecurity and I think that all of the people who are going to listen to this episode will feel that they have gone through this kind of experience, no matter their role, simply because there's such a focus and necessity for this kind of job and this kind of role. But it also applies to any other job that people might have. These experiences, I feel, are very common, and I feel that it's important to talk about them to destigmatize the entire conversation. Although conversations about mental health in the cybersecurity industry are very prominent, they're very out there, they're very transparent. But that doesn't mean that people in their own spaces, in their own cultures, in their own countries and companies aren’t still suffering from preconceptions that are tied to mental health in this space. And I was wondering how did things click for you? Is there a particular experience that triggered you to look at how to apply your experience, skills, and expertise, particularly to helping cybersecurity professionals?

[07:37] Cristina Magro: Yes. Stress is a big player in this because the reasons why I ended up specializing in this space; reason number one is definitely stress and burnout because I know what it means, firsthand, to work in cybersecurity, burnout, and develop mental health issues because I've been there myself, unfortunately. And this is something very close to my heart. And if you've seen other talks that I've done, I talk a lot about burnout and I talk a lot about psychological safety. The second reason stems from me really observing the industry from my place, which was inside the industry but still enough on the sidelines to not get too involved in a way. Because when I was working in cybersecurity, I was working in cybersecurity business development, and I had several clients who ended up trusting me enough, becoming my friends, and they were telling me all about the challenges and the uncertainty surrounding their careers. And I was thinking at that time, “I wish I could help these people without then having to sell them a particular course or certification” because that's what was the scope of my job. So, in a way, I could see their potential, I was enjoying those sorts of conversations, but I had to restrain myself, I couldn't really help them to the full extent with which I wanted to help them. I could see how much more balanced and happy they could have been. But to be honest with you, I also didn't have the skills at the time for that kind of work. So, that's why I decided to go back to uni. And at the tender age of 36 years old, I did a two-year master's in coaching and mentoring. So, that's when I grew the competence and the confidence to quit my job and become a full-time coach. So, I joined together my interest in personal development and psychology while still operating within the industry that I loved and within the challenges that I felt called to help with.

[09:45] Andra Zaharia: Thank you for sharing that. I feel that is a wonderful example of pursuing something that really aligns with your interests and developing the life experience that you gain into something that is so helpful and so important for others, especially because I feel like the entire industry is at an inflection point where we cannot progress as a body of professionals, no matter the role, unless we ensure that these things are there in place — the psychological safety, the support, the guidance — so that people can do this in a way that is truly sustainable because otherwise, burnout will result in just unsafer technology in general, and we can see that with developers as well, and so on and so forth. And it's basically going to crumble [10:37 inaudible] and we cannot afford this given that I know that not many people notice, but for people who aren't in this industry who are listening, just wanted to mention how important of societal role cybersecurity has for stability in general, in the geopolitical sense but also in other senses. I think that your example is such a powerful one and you're leading the work in a space that needs to grow alongside the industry so it can support it. So, I wanted to understand if there are specific traits that you feel cybersecurity professionals have, the ones who are more inclined to work on themselves to work with you, to help their colleagues, to mentor others. Are there any particular sets of traits that help them? And what are the negative consequences of those traits when you put too much of yourself out there? 

[11:45] Cristina Magro: I'm glad that you are highlighting both faces of this because, first, I'd like to say that these people are more than we think in this industry, and they should give themselves more credit sometimes, and we should definitely all learn a thing or two from them. But I find that the trait of these people is mainly people that are not afraid to know themselves, be themselves, but also ask themselves the hard questions. Definitely, people with high emotional intelligence, meaning that they not only understand their own emotions, but they're also able to understand and care about how other people feel. And that's where the other face of the metal comes in because this can be a double-edged sword that, when you feel too much and you care too much about other people, that can have a very negative impact on yourself. So, having that balance is very, very important. And you achieve that balance by working on yourself, and by developing that self-awareness, growing in your assertiveness as well. 

[12:51] Cristina Magro: I would say that these people also have learned how to listen before deciding whether they are right. This is a tricky one in this industry, I feel. And I think that because they have these kinds of understanding, they are able to then choose an empathetic approach towards others. And these are tools that allow you to manage stress and conflict much more effectively. As a result of these behaviors and tools, you're then left with more energy and patience to cultivate this mindset and these skills. So, it's like a circle. If you don't start working on yourself, you will not reach that balance, you won't reach that point where you have that necessary mental space to handle situations with empathy. And of course, these goals then impact the wider industry and the wider community. And as you mentioned, both sides of things, we also need to remember that we're all humans and sometimes we need to turn that empathetic eye towards ourselves as well. Even these people I'm talking about, they're humans, they make mistakes, it's human to be overcome with emotions and to show behaviors that we would prefer to keep hidden sometimes. It's human and it's expected. So, it's a bit like being hacked, not a matter of if but of when. So, it's best to accept that, mitigate what you can, and then move on. 

[14:24] Andra Zaharia: The way that you express yourself and the way that you talk about these things really shows how well you understand the people that you're working with and how well you understand their needs and their pain points, and it shows that you know how to guide them and support them from point A to point B, and what success looks like in terms of overall progress looks like in terms of developing these abilities and this understanding of empathy applied to others and to yourself in a way that sticks with you. Because I feel that on a theoretical level, we understand all of these things, but internalizing them is a whole different ballgame. It's something that's really, truly important. I wanted to ask about a particular thing that you mentioned, you mentioned about assertiveness. Could you tell us a little bit about what that looks like in practice? What does it look like when people make their point without being aggressive, which is something that we see in the industry, and that creates a lot of tension, conflict, and resentment? So, what does that look like when assertiveness is expressed in a way that's calm and constructive?

[15:46] Cristina Magro: Assertiveness is one of those things that when I talk about it, people are like, “Yeah, that's easier said than done.” So, I'm glad that you raised that point earlier because it's true, it's easier said than done, and I always say, “Until you do it, until you start working on it.” And the truth is, in cybersecurity, we encounter countless situations full of tensions or stress, decisions need to be made, and maybe fingers get pointed. And I find that in these situations, often the outcome we need is on the other side of the chaos, on the other side of the stress. Because actually what we need to do is to persuade others to make recommendations, to ask for some urgent actions to be taken, and sometimes to say no. That's when assertiveness comes in. And luckily, for us humans, assertiveness is a skill, which means that it can be learned. So, it's very important, I think, for cybersecurity professionals to take that time to do this work, take time to practice this ability to stay calm and communicate clearly using positive nonviolent language under this kind of pressure. I feel it can really make a difference in a team and can really make a difference in how you leave and progress your cybersecurity career. I think it's a bit like a superpower sometimes. 

[17:10] Cristina Magro: And I like to think about assertiveness, if you could picture it in your mind, as calm, conscious confidence. So, you can get your point across without upsetting others — so, using the right words, the right phrasing, the right language, and the right tone, but also without becoming upset yourself. So, having that self-assurance that you're putting your point across, your rights and the other person's rights are being respected, then this is a win-win situation for everyone. Don't get me wrong, as I said, being assertive is really hard, it's probably the pursuit of a lifetime sometimes. And it's impossible to be assertive at all times. We are humans after all. I say to my clients, “Aim to be assertive like 20% of the time and it will be on to a win.” And I feel like, as you mentioned, there can be a lot of aggression in the industry. But just like any other industry, really, whenever there is stress, that aggression can bubble up somehow. And we always need to keep in mind that the source of aggression is almost always insecurity and fear. And we are insecure and fearful when we feel unsafe. And here we go back to the famous psychological safety. So, in the working world, we tend to feel unsafe when, for example, our sense of self-image, our sense of status, or our career are being threatened; that's when we feel that way, and that's when aggression tends to show up, tends to bubble up. 

[18:45] Cristina Magro: And I feel that once you're aware of this mechanism, in yourself first and in others second. When you are able to look at the situation and say, “Okay, this person is being aggressive because they are insecure, they are scared, they are fearful. Something important to them is at stake here. Let's see what it is. Let's see how I can make them feel more comfortable and less afraid.” And even towards yourself; so, “Okay, I feel this aggression bubbling up, which ones of my needs are not being met at the moment? Why am I feeling this unsafe, insecure, and fearful right now?” Once you are able to have this analysis of yourself and others, then it becomes slightly easier to practice assertiveness rather than aggression or passive behavior. I think it's really the start and it's really something that we could start practicing.

[19:43] Andra Zaharia: That is such a powerful example, and thank you for sharing this in so much vivid detail because I feel that you’ve just offered kind of a blueprint to truly practice empathy towards others. And just like you mentioned, it just kept coming up for me — like, yes, when you do it for yourself, you can finally see it in others, and it makes you a lot more understanding and patient, and it unlocks this world of realizations, which truly changes relationships. Obviously, when you're on high responsibility roles, that impact really spreads to more people than you realize, whether you're talking to business decision-makers, to the people on the team, or people on other teams who, for example, lead developers and need to fix all kinds of security issues to, basically, just carry the company through what can be riskier in challenging times. So, thank you for giving such a powerful and specific example that I feel like many, many people can relate to. That was really, really helpful. What did that look like for you? I'm curious. Speaking of practicing for yourself and then being able to do that for others. What did becoming more assertive look like for you? And how did that change things in how you relate to others?

[21:08] Cristina Magro: First of all, I don't think I'm there yet, I'm human. Thanks for thinking that I'm an assertive person, but it's still something I'm working on myself. But I think it looked like for me, and I realized that I had to start looking at my own emotions, looking at my own needs, and start saying what I needed exactly when I burnt out when I suffered that moment of anxiety and stress in my previous roles. And at that moment, I think, when you're in that place, you realize, “I need to do something,” at least that's my personality, I'm a person of action, so whenever something is wrong, I'm like, “Okay, what do I need to do here?” And I thought, “Why am I feeling this way? Why am I feeling this unsafe, this insecure? Where is this all coming from?” And I think by analyzing those emotions and by starting to say, “Okay, this is my reality, but it doesn't need to be this way. This is what I want and need instead.” And starting to take positive actions toward what I really wanted. That's where my assertiveness grew, and that's when I was able to say, even though some people might think this is a very bad idea because when I started telling people, “I think I want to go into coaching.” “All the coaches have a very bad reputation.” “I think I want to do master’s.” “You're 36 years old, you don't want to go back to university. Are you going to invest 12,000 pounds in a master’s at your age? I don't know. You know, you've never finished anything lately in your life, maybe it's not a good idea.”

[22:53] Andra Zaharia: Self-doubt can be a huge challenge, whether it's our limiting beliefs or other people's projected limited beliefs on us.

[23:02] Cristina Magro: Exactly. So, I think assertiveness then comes in when you're shutting all of these negative opinions down and just going with your vision and going with what you believe in. At the end of the day, it was me in that industry, at that moment in time, looking at that gap, and feeling that desire to feel that gap, and feeling that desire to do that work. So, I had to trust that, I had to trust myself. And I think that was my most assertive mode. Well, it's been a couple of assertive years.

[23:33] Andra Zaharia: That's what I wanted to mention. You started by telling me that you're not there yet, but I feel that the progress you're telling me about and the way that you're talking about it really shows that there's been a huge transformation there in a very positive way that helped you gain the confidence, that what you wanted and how you decided to pursue it actually works. And that's such a powerful example for other people.

[23:58] Cristina Magro: Yes, definitely. Thank you so much for pointing that out.

[24:02] Andra Zaharia: I appreciate it, and I appreciate you being so open and vulnerable about this because I feel that while we may choose as examples people who do this constantly because we tend to look towards these kinds of people, I don't think that that's a general example and I keep forgetting that outside my bubble, where people talk about this and do these things, are vulnerable as a constant practice. Outside this bubble, things are not that way and there's still a lot of work to be done, and there's a huge need for people like you who choose to do this very difficult work with themselves and with others as well. So, again, I really appreciate that. To capture a bit more of all of these great experiences that you've gone through and that you help people go through, I wanted to ask how do you take care of yourself because, obviously, you hear all of these problems, and you manage them, and I feel like that can take a really big toll on you unless you take care of yourself. And that applies to people who mentor people on their teams or mentor other people who are not necessarily the employees that they take care of. And it all comes back to how do we help others while not burning out.

[25:22] Cristina Magro: Yes, and that is so important for me, and that's something that I had to prioritize over the years, because I realized that part of my burnout and part of my stress was that the way my life was designed was not in line with my values and was not in line with my personality and myself as a person. So, I had to redesign a life that works for me. And that was the first act of self-care I could think of. And this is not easy by any means. It's funny because now that I look back, it's funny how much I was dreaming and I was thinking about the sorts of life that I've now designed for myself, and how far it seemed to be. So, for example, I now have set really strong boundaries with my time. For instance, I am both employed and self-employed. I only work employed four days a week, and then I have one morning and one afternoon for my own private clients. And I try to keep that absolutely ironclad, I try not to make any exceptions to that. I'm supported as a coach, I have a supervisor. So, my supervisor helps me with any challenges that I find in my coaching. It's really important because as you said, I get to hear everybody's problems and everybody’s successes as well, which is the best part. But yeah, everybody's problem, and I had to learn to leave them on the paper, I had to learn to leave them in my notes, I had to learn to close my computer and leave the problems and the clients in there, rather than taking them with me. I tried to take care of myself as much as possible. I do therapy every week — no stigma around that. I think everyone should go to therapy.

[27:15] Andra Zaharia: Yes, I concur. I am a big, big advocate of therapy. It has changed my life and so many other people's.

[27:24] Cristina Magro: Absolutely. And I have a morning routine that I love, I exercise regularly. More or less, I try to take care of myself as much as possible. Sometimes I slip. Whenever you feel stressed, the things you need the most are the first ones to go, like my five-minutes meditation in the morning — “Oh, I feel stressed, don't do it.” But the important thing is to get back on that horse, get back on track as soon as you can recognize “This was a bad day, let’s start again tomorrow.”

[27:57] Andra Zaharia: That is just beautiful. It is beautiful. First of all, I love watching you light up when you talk about these things. I wanted to highlight that because I know that people aren't going to be able to see what I can see, and I just wanted to mention how you light up and the energy that you transmit, and just this genuine enthusiasm for the work that you do. And it is wonderful to see that you are one of those people who really walk the talk; you know that these things work because you do them yourself. I'm a huge, huge believer that we cannot effectively try to help other people in any way unless we do these things ourselves, whether you're a marketer trying to sell a product, whether you're a developer building a product. No matter what role you have, you have to do it yourself if you truly want to be persuasive and truly understand the problems that you're trying to solve. So, that alignment that you're talking about that you’re pursuing and you're helping your clients pursue, I can see that in your example and I feel that that is an incredibly powerful one.

[29:11] Cristina Magro: Thank you. I think this is super important. So, I'm glad you asked me that question.

[29:18] Andra Zaharia: And I'm just excited to have this conversation and to be able to talk about these things in such a way that I know it will help others, whether they've heard them before or haven't practiced them yet or haven't gotten around to them, whether they're in a moment in their lives where they're not sure where to start, they can just pick one of your examples, they can just pick an idea, start somewhere because that tiny progress, that tiny step will make a huge, huge difference. And speaking of making a difference, what are some of the examples of really palpable impact that you've seen your work has on other people, or that empathy has in these people's lives, and then again, in their teams and in companies and just the industry overall because that ripple effect can be quite powerful?

[30:12] Cristina Magro: Yes, that's the best part of my work. Whenever I see progress, whenever I see clients changing their lives, whenever I see them going for what they want. Some time ago a client sent me a message saying, “Oh, Cristina, since our conversation, I've started exercising again, I'm eating better, I've given up alcohol, which was my coping mechanism.” And just that message made my day, made my week. So, I just love to see all of that. And now, in the work that I'm doing with the company I'm employed with, I see that even so much more. The company is called CAPSLOCK. I don't want to sound like I'm promoting them in any way. But really, they made me realize how empathy and cybersecurity work and practice in real life because the work we're doing there really delivers life-changing cyber training that helps adults and regular people rescale. And I really feel that a career in cybersecurity should be available to anyone who has the interest, the passion, and is willing to work hard for it regardless of background, gender, orientation, age, whatever. And that's why working with them really makes me, even more, walk the talk, meaning that we are really breaking down barriers to cybersecurity, championing diversity, and genuinely changing the lives of people. So, I think, seeing this example, which I didn't know about before coming across, taught me that you can and you should have a cybersecurity career without having to compromise on your values and without being stopped by societal and financial barriers of any kind. So, it showed me, you're on the right track, keep unapologetically fighting the good fight, keep working for what you believe in because what happens is when you do the work that you feel called doing, you end up finding your crowd, eventually. And I'm sure you've come across the same mantra with this work that you are doing. So, those people that have a mission similar to yours, and at that moment when you find those people, it's absolutely clear that you have to work together and you have to join forces.

[32:31] Andra Zaharia: That is so true. I felt that. I really, really felt that. I'm so happy that this happened for you, and that you did not give up, and that you did not lead those limiting beliefs that we carry with us who are imposed on us, that you did not let them wear you down and take that energy and enthusiasm away from you. Because while you're advocating for this, and I do as well, to not let our work become our entire identity, I feel that it is an incredibly powerful area of our lives that does influence who we become. For me, for example, just to share with others, I realized this in the past year that my work has been the space in which I grew and matured as an adult because I wasn't influenced by what my parents wanted. It was my playground, I made my own mistakes, I made my own choices. I did all that work by myself. And without the space that was entirely mine, I wouldn't have been able to grow into the person that I am today, simply because the other areas of life are a lot more emotional. There's a lot more emotional risk in that work, you can really take on more challenges. So, I feel that that's a beautiful example there you're setting and that you're creating this space for these people to thrive, and that you're truly creating a more inclusive industry in a very, very practical way, and showing that all of these things that may seem nice to have — like empathy and kindness, and then openness and vulnerability — actually have not just a place but they have real, palpable impact on people's lives, on organizations, and then society as a whole. Because if you get to build on that compound effect, I hope that it takes over and becomes the norm instead of the exception.

[34:36] Cristina Magro: That would be amazing.

[34:39] Andra Zaharia: Well, with people like you working on it, I'm truly confident and optimistic that this is happening and this is changing because otherwise, it would be much harder to believe in these things. I know that this is difficult to do, but if you were to choose one thing that you recommend people read, listen to, something like a key resource that people should read that kind of touches on some of the topics that we've talked about here today and that you've told us about. Where would you recommend that people invest a bit of their time and just mind space so they can make progress towards a more empathetic experience for themselves and then for others as well?

[35:25] Cristina Magro: I'm glad you're asking me this because I think I've read so many of these self-help books, and it's really hard that certain messages take more than others. And I find it always hard to go beyond the book and start implementing things in own life. So, if I would have a suggestion for our listeners, would be go with a classic. For example, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People — I love this book, I think it's amazing. But then start from these little seven habits and start implementing the ones that make more sense to you into your life, really go beyond the book and start putting some actions in. I feel like sometimes self-help books and resources, they give us this feel-good feeling, you feel so powerful and unstoppable after you've read a good book, and then that kind of goes away and that fuels a little bit of an addiction. So, start from something that speaks to you, and then start implementing little changes, and just watch your life unfold and change.

[36:35] Andra Zaharia: That is a beautiful way to end this much too short conversation. But hopefully, I've given people a taste of what your work looks like, the kind of work that you do, and the possibilities that are out there for all kinds of people to not just enter the industry, but also progress their careers and just live a more fulfilling life in general, and one that's less marked and scarred by stress and trauma to some extent. So, Cristina, thank you so much from the bottom of my heart for being here today, for sharing so honestly and so openly with us. And I do hope that we get to chat again on these topics because I'm quite certain that I will get a lot of follow-up questions and requests to delve more into these topics. So, thank you so much, again, for making the time.

[37:29] Cristina Magro: Thank you, Andra. It's been such a treat for me to be here. And absolutely, let's continue this anytime.