“I've seen the high school boys shake their heads at the girls to indicate that they should not attend cybersecurity events for girls.”
Tobi West has seen this harsh reality firsthand, and it’s what drives her to work tirelessly at putting together programs and activities that will help young women become engaged in cybersecurity as a career pathway.
Over the course of her own career, West has gone from scanning papers to Department Chair of Computer Information Systems at Coastline Community College and an adjunct instructor at Cal Poly Pomona. Her unusual journey to cybersecurity serves as an inspiration to her students.
And, she’s just getting started. West plans to expand the work she’s done in California to other parts of the country and develop a plan to engage women in technology long after they leave college.
‘No one had an answer for me’
West worked at the same company for nearly a decade before obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Management. She became interested in IT after getting involved in a few projects at work and becoming more interested in computers and gaming at home.
Despite those interests, she struggled to find a master’s degree program that would allow her to pursue them. Her own struggles would later inspire her to become a mentor for others who are looking to pursue a career in cybersecurity.
“I went to my IT director, and I really asked a lot of people where should I go and what should I do. No one really had an answer for me,” West said. “I didn’t know what programs were out there and there was really no mentorship. What I deliver now to my students is what I couldn’t find.”
That mentorship comes in the form of Coastline’s Cybersecurity Apprenticeship Program, which West runs in conjunction with Steve Linthicum, Deputy Sector Navigator for Information Communication Technologies and Digital Media in the Orange County Region.
Linthicum said West is the perfect person to lead the apprenticeship program and help recruit more women into it. He is committed to improving diversity in the field but realizes that he is not the best person to lead those efforts.
“If you’re looking for a mentor, you want someone who is like you and I don’t fit that role very well for recruiting women into the field,” Linthicum said. “Tobi demonstrates that this is a profession that women can do and do a very good job at. She’s someone who investigates and tries to figure things out and look under the covers to see what’s really going on.”
One of those students described her experience finding the program and interacting with West, who helped her prepare for a Cyber Expo event and prepare to find a job in the cybersecurity field.
“I searched for ‘him’ Professor Tobi West and was shocked to see a beautiful stunning lady instead,” the student said. “Professor West has been an inspiration to me from day one.”
Teacher, mentor, organizer
West began teaching at Cal Poly Pomona after completing her master’s degree. She’d always wanted to teach but thought she needed a Ph.D. to do it. She was pleasantly surprised to learn that she could use her professional experience to help others find the same passion for cybersecurity and have a broader impact on the community.
“My job at that time didn’t do anything with the community; it was all about the company’s bottomline,” West said. “I knew I had a lot of good stories to tell about what happened at work, with encouragement from Dr. Dan Manson, I applied at Cal Poly and got the position.”
That desire to serve the community lead to volunteering at CyberPatriot events at Cal Poly for students of Los Angeles Unified School District. She knew that Coastline wanted to host CyberPatriot events as well and thought she could devote some time to making that happen.
Thanks to West’s leadership, Coastline is a Center of Academic Excellence for Cyber Defense Education and part of the Southern California Cybersecurity Community College Consortium, which is the second largest CyberPatriot Center of Excellence in the U.S.
This past October, West organized the second annual CyberTech Girls OC event at Coastline. The event brought over 100 middle and high school-aged girls together for hands-on activities like a computer forensics crime scene, building a website about personal cyber wellness, and disassembling a computer. Girls also had the opportunity to meet with representatives from Crowdstrike, Kaiser, NASA, Northrop Grumman, and several other organizations.
“The idea behind CyberTech Girls is that engagement in cybersecurity education has to start early, in middle school,” West said. “If we don’t have that diversity of thinking in boardrooms and product design, we aren’t going to beat the problem.”
Though West has done a lot of work organizing cybersecurity events for girls, she realizes that events alone are not enough to translate into careers. Moving forward, she plans to add
additional mentoring opportunities to foster deeper connections that will withstand the peer pressure that young women in the technology field face.
“I want to have that wrap-around so girls have something after the program,” she said. “Right now, they just come to the event and it’s over, unless they join our CyberPatriot program.”
Breaking the glass ceiling
Professor West and California Cyberhub Community Manager Donna Woods collaborate on efforts to bring more young women into cybersecurity. They also share a bond because they’ve both had to overcome some of those same obstacles that they see their students face.
“We had that higher glass ceiling we had to break through as women in this field,” Woods said. “I look up to her as an educator. It’s not often that we get to see women of her caliber and her knowledge. She has a great vision for promoting females in STEM and cyberscience.”
Woods also appreciates how transparent and accessible West is when working with students. She’s able to translate information in a way that students can easily understand without watering down concepts so much that the meaning of them is lost.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then West is in for a lot of flattery with the program she’s created. She’s working with Woods to expand the CyberTech Girls model to other parts of California. She also hopes to expand to other parts of the country, through her business CyberTech West.
“Tobi has created an incredible program at Coastline and we hope to emulate what she’s done in Orange County,” Woods said.
West is already starting to think beyond the high school and college pathways about how to retain women in cybersecurity jobs once they enter the workforce. She would like to begin tracking young women who compete in CyberPatriot and other cyber competitions to keep an eye on where they go after the competition ends.
“Let’s say that we are successful in getting women into this field, how do we make sure we keep them there? Right now we don’t have any tracking, so there’s no evidence that this event is meaningful,” West said. “I would love to enter a doctoral program to develop a tracking system for cybersecurity competition data to understand how these competitions impact future careers.”