C-Suite Career Advice: Johanna Baum, Strategic Security Solutions (S3) Consulting

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? “From my perspective, any way you can land the knowledge, exposure, practice, and experience is worthwhile.”

Strategic Security Solutions (S3) Consulting

Name: Johanna Baum

Company: Strategic Security Solutions (S3) Consulting

Job Title: CEO and Founder

Location: Georgia, USA

Johanna Baum, CPA, CISA has over 25 years of advisory experience in IGA, Security, and eGRC. She is the founder and CEO of Strategic Security Solutions (S3) focused on providing professional services expertise related to programmatic Cyber initiatives. Baum is a recognised expert and is an active influencer in the Cyber community. She serves on the Advisory Board for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville Accounting/InfoSys Department, several technology vendor advisory boards, Ambassador/Mentor for SPJ Capital, and a mentor for multiple Entrepreneur and Women in Leadership Organizations. 

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Trust your instincts. By nature, I overanalyse everything. Every. Little. Thing. Learning to truly understand my own patterns and trust my gut was an extremely valuable lesson. It’s not always a quick trigger - it might involve a lot of detailed analysis or require a trusted advisor to walk through scenarios to truly solidify my position. Setting boundaries and trusting my instincts has proven to guide me through many tough times where others didn’t fare so well.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? “Quit.”  “Women don’t belong in technology.”  “A safer or more family-oriented career might suit me because of my gender.”  Sadly, I have heard it all but I’m stubborn. I used these pieces of bad advice to fuel the start of an organisation that is the antithesis of standard industry Tech Consulting.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Take every opportunity to learn and grow from experiences presented to you.  Each experience can and will serve a purpose.  Find mentors - those relationships will be critical to your overall success.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? No! Working in IT was not even on my radar when I initially joined the working world.I was fascinated with computers but wasn’t quite sure how to parlay that into a career. I began my career in public accounting, however, I was constantly told that I didn’t fit the traditional accountant mould. I was a boundary pusher then and I still am.

What was your first job in IT/tech? I started my career in the IS audit group for a public accounting firm.  I was one of the first employees in the group and the firm didn’t have much expertise in the space yet so I was able to expand quickly.  I truly wanted to move into strategic technical consulting, so I started building relationships in other areas of the business to exit quickly. At the time, consulting firms didn’t recruit accountants, although our skills are prime for the career, so my first consulting role was selling myself and it took some strong convincing!

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? You must be highly technical to be successful.  There are many paths to success in technology and not all of them start or end in coding!  You can still make a profound impact in IT even when your hands aren’t writing the code.  Non-techies, rejoice!  There’s still vast space for you to thrive.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Watch, listen, learn, and find mentors!  Throughout my career, I sought out those that were high performers or executing at a level I wanted to emulate.  I found them at every step of the journey so I could see how to make the transition and level up.  As I climbed, I continued to seek out new mentors or amazing individuals to learn from.  If you’re chasing a goal without visualising what success looks like at every pit-stop, it’s really hard to get to the end successfully, or have the tools to operate once you get there.

Every single step on the journey hones the skills necessary to execute. Pay respect to the journey, the mentors, and the lessons as you make the climb. You’ll also have an army of advocates cheering you on your way.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I wouldn't say I have reached them yet because my career ambitions are always evolving! Through my years in accounting, then consulting, to finally founding S3, my ambitions have always focused on strategy. I love to solve problems and reframe business issues to develop solutions that combine technology and operations. Because the digital age is constantly evolving, with more consumers prioritising speed over security, there will always be new problems and opportunities to create solutions. Within cybersecurity you can never be content with your current defenses, and I think that mentality translates to my personal and career ambitions. Aside from business and technology, I will always be passionate about women mentorship, especially in STEM, and it will always be a driving force in my life.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I don’t think anyone has found the perfect work-life balance, but if they have found nirvana, they can call me!

All things considered; I do have reasonable harmony. While I can continuously be found working “off hours” early or very late in the evening, I am able to take a step back frequently. I prioritise my children and focus our quality time on the activities that are meaningful to us. I also take time to incorporate exercise into my daily routine, taking care of my health is vital in taking care of everything else. That might sound rosy, but it’s a constant internal battle of the single working parent. It’s extremely difficult.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? Hindsight is always 20:20. If I had a mulligan, I might have more fun along the way!  I was extremely driven and while I enjoyed the journey, I could have certainly taken more opportunities to play.  Otherwise...nothing!  Even the setbacks have contributed to where I am today.  We would all love to change something, but the butterfly effect changes the entire outcome.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I’ve seen amazing candidates that are self-taught and those that have prestigious university degrees. From my perspective, any way you can land the knowledge, exposure, practice, and experience is worthwhile. The experience may be different but serves the candidate, nonetheless.

How important are specific certifications? I may have multiple degrees, certifications, and licenses, but that is the path my education and diversions took me on.  Based on your specific goals and position, certifications may be extremely beneficial.  Review the industry expectation for your desired position and goals.  Is it mandatory? Does it provide extra monetary potential? Promotion potential? Credibility within the community? 

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Intellectual curiosity, attention to detail, and collaborative spirit.  They are so critical to us, they are our core values and we ask questions to attempt to determine if each candidate embodies them or will end up as a resume in the circular file.

What would put you off a candidate? Lack of respect, failure to research the position/organisation/interviewer, and apathy or lack of interest in the opportunity. All of which seem logical but are consistent failure points with many candidates!  If you don’t have interest in the opportunity, don’t apply!  Neither party should waste their time.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Similar to the comment above, many candidates have no idea about the interviewer or the organisation where they are applying.  Research your interviewer and the company.  If you don’t have the ambition to know who you’re talking to, I have little faith you’ll be ambitious in your role.  A little research goes a long way to revealing your interest and showcasing your skills alignment with the organisation.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? Both! There are many successful individuals with extremely strong skills on one side of the coin or the other, but the ability to navigate and effectively communicate through both technical and business terrain is where many leaders emerge.  It will become increasingly important to understand the drivers and value behind each set of skills as you advance, and both are critical to success.  Where you have weaknesses, make sure you have trusted team members and leaders to supplement your skills.