This Sunday, March 8 is International Women’s Day – an important day at Thales. Not only are we celebrating all the hard-working women in our company, but we are taking this opportunity to recognize the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the world. This year’s theme, #EachforEqual, is about promoting the concept that an equal world is an enabled world, and we applaud all those that are working hard to forge gender equality.
To help commemorate International Women’s Day this year, following is a Q&A with our very own Heather Johnston, VP of Legal Affairs for cloud protection and licensing activity at Thales.
Q1: Can you provide us with a little background about yourself. How did you end up in a career in the legal profession within the cybersecurity industry?
I have been with what is now Thales for almost 11 years. Growing up, my grandmother used to tell me that she knew that I would either be a lawyer or President of the United States. I thought she was crazy – I would never be a lawyer … President on the other hand, well maybe. Actually, my plan was to work for a few years and go back to school to become a child psychologist. It was not until my first job after university did I realize that I was interested in the law. My interest in the type of law has evolved over the years. I started out in litigation and quickly realized that was not where I wanted to my career to be headed. Luckily, the law firm for which I worked allowed me to transition into the real estate practice where I also did some bankruptcy work as well. When I switched law firms, I moved into a group where the type of work was broader, doing public finance, mergers and acquisitions, general corporate matters and acting as in-house counsel for some clients who did not have in-house attorneys. In essence, I became a jack of all trades, which is a perfect skill set to work in-house at a corporation. My switch into the tech industry was a result to coming to Gemalto, which was acquired by Thales last year. I am fortunate that my path ended up in a job I have very much enjoyed.
Q2: Did you have any women role models that helped shape your career path?
Yes. At my first job, I worked for a woman who changed the course of my life. She is largely responsible for me becoming an attorney. She also taught me valuable life lessons, including the ins and outs of working in an organization. My first job was at a trade association in Washington, DC doing executive admin duties. To keep me engaged, my boss would include me in her top level meetings and had me monitor potential litigation facing our industry. That was my first exposure to the law and I found it fascinating. It is what lead me to go to law school and choose a career I have truly enjoyed. My boss was smart, hardworking, fearless and bold. She challenged people to bring their best to work each day. She championed the women who worked for her. She provided opportunities for growth assignments and would often do a de-brief of situations where she would tell me from an organizational view point how things should work. She would often say, “Heather, did you see what that person did in the meeting? Well, here is why that should have been done another way and the expectation should have been ….” When you are first starting out, this level of coaching is invaluable. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to work with her and I have made a point to pay it forward as I have moved into more senior roles within our organization.
Q3: What has been the most exciting aspects of your career so far? How about the most challenging?
The most exciting aspects of my career have happened at what during my time at Gemalto and now Thales. I started with the company right as it was pivoting to be a software and solutions business. Many of the new technologies were deployed in the US first, where we had to come up with contracts to match the new offerings. This required a lot time with operations, business, finance and sales. Then there were the numerous acquisitions, where I had to dive in and learn a new business and its legal needs very quickly. The company also let me challenge myself by taking the lead in new legal areas and mastering them in the context of the needs of the business. Ultimately though, it is the great people I have worked with at all levels in the company that has made the experience so rewarding.
The most challenging part of my career has been “balancing” work and family. Having a child and balancing the demands of working in a law firm was incredibly intense. You could control when you went into the office, but not when you got to leave. Moving in-house provided more balance in the hours in the office, but not necessarily the work that had to be done. For much of my time at the company, I was a single mom, which added an additional element of less flexibility to my schedule. I learned pretty quickly that “work-life balance” is not something that can be measured day to day. There are ebbs and flows to the entire process. After a while, I started to look at the “balance” like you would an annual performance review, taking the annual average – was I a good employee, was I a good mom. It was a much healthier approach for me and lessened the emotional challenge of the situation.
Q4: How have you seen the legal and tech industry change over the years to be more inclusive of women?
I have seen many initiatives in both fields to be more inclusive to women. While these strides are a great start, I hope both industries continue to develop and refine the ways they attract and retain talented women.
Q5: What advice would you give to young women starting out in legal? In technology?
- Think broader. When you are starting out, try to gain a broad base of skills in the area where you are interested. For me, I became a jack of all trades in law because I did not find the one thing that was captivating. This opened up opportunities when I wanted to go in-house. If you are passionate about a particular area of law or technology, still try to build a broader base of skills within that area. Flexibility is key when you are first starting out.
- Find a supporter and/or mentor. A supporter is someone who works with you directly or indirectly that can help you navigate the ins and outs of the job, your role, the organization, or any combination thereof. A mentor is someone outside that scope that can give you broader advice on your career. When considering a mentor, it doesn’t have to be someone who is in the senior ranks of a company. It should be someone with whom you connect. One of my best mentors is someone who is at my level at another company and we co-mentor each other. Both roles are important.
- Be yourself. Embrace who you are and be confident in that. I have seen people first starting out undervalue themselves and not show the confidence they should. You want to navigate your career journey in an authentic way so that you find the best fit for you and your goals. To do this, you have to be who you are and not a version you think the industry or your company wants you to be. Sounds simple, but I have seen many people struggle with this when they are starting out.