When Emma Garrison-Alexander was a senior executive at the National Security Agency (NSA), she had an assistant who was an older white man. “When people came in, they almost always assumed that he was the boss,” she said. “He would have to turn to them and say, here is Ms. Garrison-Alexander.”

“There were assumptions that I was a secretary,” Garrison-Alexander said. “But I don’t really want to call those obstacles–those were just things that happened in an environment where people were just not accustomed to women being in certain positions.”

SEE: How CXOs can develop a diverse workforce (Tech Pro Research)

Garrison-Alexander, now the vice dean of the Cyber Security & Information Assurance department at The Graduate School at the University of Maryland-University College, has had a long career holding executive roles in IT and cybersecurity–a rarity for a woman, and even more so for a woman of color.

First encouraged to pursue science and math by teachers in junior high and high school, Garrison-Alexander now holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, as well as a master’s degree in telecommunications management and a doctoral degree in management, technology, and information systems.

Her first job? The NSA. She was recruited out of college as an electronics engineer working in assembly language programming and hardware design around microprocessors.

“I went from doing that lower level design to working in systems engineering, and then networking–all of which helped to prepare me to understand the cybersecurity domain,” Garrison-Alexander said. She moved her way up to senior operations officer, and counter-terrorism work.

Eventually, Garrison-Alexander moved on to become CIO and assistant administrator for IT of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). In that role, she was responsible for the cybersecurity posture for all of the TSA, and supported 60,000 employees across 450 sites in the US and 23 international locations. She also served on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) CIO Council, which oversaw cybersecurity for the entire DHS. She controlled a $450 million budget, and another $278 million for spending outside the CIO’s office.

SEE: How to build a successful career in cybersecurity (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Breaking into cyber

Cyberthreats “have expanded tremendously” over the course of her career, Garrison-Alexander said. “It really impacts everyone within our society, and that has evolved over time with the proliferation of personal devices, social media, and the interconnected work environment,” she said. “Organizations can’t keep everything contained, because they have so many entities they have to engage and interface with in order to get business done.”

An estimated 3.5 million cybersecurity jobs will be unfilled by 2021, according to a report from Cybersecurity Ventures.

SEE: Cybersecurity spotlight: The critical labor shortage (Tech Pro Research)

“There is a huge demand, not just for cybersecurity professionals, but for cybersecurity professionals with the right skills and backgrounds that can really impact an organization and help to put them in a better position from a cybersecurity posture,” Garrison-Alexander said. “There’s a huge effort to get more women and minorities involved in the field.”

Garrison-Alexander recommends looking into education programs, particularly those that support career changes, as well as seeking out a mentor in the field. Many schools, including UMUC, have pathways for non-cybersecurity pros to enter the field from other areas.

“People have a lot of transferable skills, and often with cybersecurity we just think about the technical side,” Garrison-Alexander said. “But you have the management and policy side, the legal side, the acquisition and procurement side. Almost every type of business needs a cybersecurity professional.”

Women interested in cyber should not be discouraged because they are few in number, Garrison-Alexander said. “Women have so much they can bring to the field–and when they get into it, they are greatly appreciated for their contributions and what they bring to the table,” she added. “I reached the senior executive service ranks, and very few people period ever get to that level, and even fewer women and fewer minority women. I’m encouraged that there are more people coming behind me that will make those numbers better.”