Magda Chelly has made it in the world of tech as a renowned cybersecurity consultant, and now she wants to uplift other women in the industry. In this edition of our Women in Tech series, we chat with her about her career, why she feels women need a role model in tech and her thoughts on the cybersecurity scene.
14 January 2021 / By SGN
Cybersecurity specialist Magda Chelly is a force to be reckoned with, armed with her expert knowledge in the area coupled with her vast experience in leading industry roles.
However, as a woman in the male-dominated tech industry, she finds herself subject to bullying and trolling, online and even offline. “I regularly experience comments that might be abusive or negative,” says Magda, who is currently the Head of Cyber Risk Consulting for the Singapore office of a global professional services firm which provides insurance broking services and risk management solutions.
She is not alone. Other women in tech, too, have been targets of abuse ranging from cyber stalking to abrasive comments. Some examples of negativity that female tech professionals encounter, she says, are comments like “we expected a grey hair middle-aged man”, to “you should do modelling, and not be talking business”.
Acts like these can affect women’s confidence, self-esteem and feelings of personal safety and even lead to what is known as “impostor syndrome”, which deepens the feeling of women feeling like they do not belong or are not deserving, she points out.
Magda understands that this situation will not change overnight, which is not to say that she accepts the status quo. Rather than be defeated by those trolls, she turned their negative energy into the strength to pursue her goal of helping to shape the future, one where men and women are offered equal opportunities.
“I decided to speak up and pave the path for other women in the industry, ensuring that we can support one another, and bring more female role models to the community,” she says.
Giving Wings to Her Sisters in Tech
One avenue through which she is helping her sisters in tech is by founding the Singapore chapter of Women of Security (WoSEC), a non-profit group supporting and mentoring women in security. Through its workshops, talks and monthly meetups, it aims to build a trusted environment for female cybersecurity professionals to share their concerns, expand their career opportunities, find mentors and build role models for future talents.
WoSEC has 400 members to date, is free to join and all women are welcome.
“We support all women of security,” says Magda. “We believe that confident and strong women build one another up; we believe in shining a light on one another’s accomplishments.”
She also firmly supports the idea of female role models, which she says are one way to empower women. She adds: “Female role models inspire women to think bigger.”
“It is harder for young girls to visualise a future if they have not seen anyone succeeding in it previously. On the other hand, when young girls can see and observe women rising on their own terms, it grows their ambitions. They believe it is possible, it makes them dream further,” she says.
As for Magda herself, her role model is General Motors CEO Mary Barra, who broke the mould by becoming the first female CEO of a major automaker. “She is an inspiring and strong leader who managed to drive the company towards success, even though a crisis like a pandemic,” she shares.
Soaring to Great Heights Professionally
Apart from wanting to help to shape the future, Magda has another goal – to scale up businesses and fortifying them on the cybersecurity front. After all, cybersecurity is a business risk, and not an IT problem, she says.
As someone who has held titles such as Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) for medium and large organisations internationally, and helped build cyber security strategies for companies, she is succeeding in that area.
Magda did not reach where she is today through a traditional route, which, she says is the strongest aspect of her career. She holds a doctorate in telecommunication engineering and started working in a range of roles from customer-facing ones and technical support to business development, strategy and marketing. She eventually moved into her field of interest, cybersecurity, a passion that was sparked off while researching her doctoral thesis.
Her varied experience in business and cybersecurity roles has given her the unique advantage of being able to understand both business and technical perspectives and to bring both views together into a cohesive strategy.
When she was a CISO, she learnt, for example, that it can be challenging to get business stakeholders’ support for cybersecurity plans because of the use of technical jargon coupled with a lack of alignment of cyber risks to business needs.
“I needed to learn to adapt my discussions to fit the audience,” she says.
In her current role, she draws upon her broad perspectives to offer the service of cyber risk quantification. This means she is able to put a financial value to the losses an organisation will face should a cybersecurity breach take place. “This brings a lot of useful insights, including ROI, prioritisation of cyber initiatives and simplification of reporting,” she says.
Growing A Cyber-Resilient Ecosystem in Singapore
Magda says that while the cybersecurity playing field in Singapore is mature, she is still seeing a lower rate of adoption from small and medium-sized enterprises (SME). There is also a lack of cyber awareness among the public, which resulted in millions of dollars lost to scams like e-commerce scams, social media impersonations and loan and banking-related phishing scams.
However, a strong regulatory landscape, accompanied by diversified and robust cyber initiatives brought across to the public and private sector are definitely supporting Singapore’s cyber readiness.
“In order to grow a cyber-resilient ecosystem, we need to enforce some regulatory requirements for start-ups and technology innovators,” she says.
More importantly, as more multi-nationals require third parties to align with their security requirements, businesses and start-ups need to start increasing their capacities today because catching up later might be costly and difficult.
“Discussing global cyber maturity is a multi-faceted exchange,” she says. Magda adds that it’s a challenge because different countries have varying levels of cyber-maturity. To compound the issue, each country has its own regulations and privacy and cybersecurity laws and different public awareness. Therefore, to address cyber-maturity across the world, those differences need to be considered, in addition to the local culture.
About Magda Chelly
Magda Chelly was born in Poland, then moved with her family to Tunisia. She received her doctorate in telecommunication engineering in France, where she also took on her first job. She has since worked in Qatar and volunteered with Volunteer Programs Bali in Indonesia, before settling in Singapore in 2015.
She has built cybersecurity strategies for companies and provided guidance from governance and security architecture to security operations. She has hands-on experience with penetration testing and technical cloud security across main cloud platforms (Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure).
She has many accolades to her name, including being named a Top 50 International cyber security influencer, and is among the Top 20 Cyber Security Experts.
Magda is also a serial entrepreneur, and a recent company she co-founded is the Singapore-based Responsible Cyber, which provides cybersecurity services to organisations.
She speaks five languages — Arabic, English, French, Italian and Polish.