Why I chose an empathetic approach to cybersecurity

26th Oct, 2021#1

Cybersecurity is not just about big companies being hacked and data stolen. No. It’s also about you and the safety of your data. 

There are many people who are committed to ensuring that your rights are protected as you interact with technology. Yet you rarely get to meet these people because you hardly ever see them talking about other topics than security upgrades for your new smartphone or laptop. But they are there - committed warriors who have dedicated their lives to your safety on and offline.

Today, I’ll share with you how I ended up in the field of cybersecurity and how I am trying to bridge the gap between the general perception and what it really feels like to work in it. I feel privileged to be sharing my experience with you as well as showing the role empathy plays to this important discipline.

Tune in and listen to the first episode of Cyber Empathy. You’re in for an exciting and informative experience! I hope you will get a new perspective on cybersecurity as you navigate today’s complex tech-dominated world.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • The common trait of the people who have worked in cybersecurity for years (06:44)

  • Why this podcast exists and why it’s happening now (13:53)

  • Why I chose empathy as the main topic of the podcast (15:07)

  • How you can use this podcast to make progress on your chosen path (18:34)


Photography of Andra Zaharia.

Andra Zaharia

Helping cybersecurity companies crush clichés with content that breeds loyal customers and fuels growth with over a decade of digital marketing expertise. Bridge between technical pros and business leaders.


[00:01:30.16] Andra Zaharia: Hi, and welcome to Cyber Empathy. My name is Andra Zaharia and I’m delighted to welcome you to the first episode of my new podcast, which focuses on telling the stories of people who focus on empathy and make their contribution to cybersecurity and online privacy through their work and personal values and principles. In this solo episode, I plan to tell you what’s in it for you if you choose to listen to and follow this podcast and the guests that I’m going to have over for conversations. I’m also going to tell you why I decided to do this podcast and how I got to this point, and how this is going to make things more practical for you if you’re looking to cultivate your understanding of cybersecurity, and obviously, hopefully, improve your habits as well.

[00:02:27.25] So, to give you a little bit of context, I’m an outsider if you would look at my background, in terms of my relation to information security, which is a very broad and abstract field. My background is in communication and public relations and I ended up working in cybersecurity in 2015 when I started creating content for a cybersecurity startup. And that moment for me was an inflection point because it just was the experience that felt most rewarding to me, it gave me a sense of purpose because as a communication specialist in the cybersecurity industry, you get to work on a lot of educational content that actually, you know, helps people change their perspective and improve their habits and it makes a real difference in their lives. So that was one thing. The other thing is that I discovered that cybersecurity sits at the intersection of psychology and technology, and actually helped me improve my own self-awareness. So, the more I worked to develop my understanding of cybersecurity concepts and practices and what things actually look like in real life, the more I actually improved my critical thinking. So, that was a huge win for me. So, as an outsider, it gave me this privileged perspective of, you know, seeing the field with fresh eyes. And since I’ve always been a big fan of understanding how systems work, this was a chance for me to demystify things for other people as well as I progressed through my own learning career.

[00:04:12.27] So, how I ended up doing this podcast is that for the past four years I’ve been studying decision-making and then trying to understand what makes people change their minds and their habits and also what keeps them in, let’s say, a state of inaction, in a state of passive decision-making because not making decisions is also a choice. So, after doing the podcast for four years, I realized that I wanted to bring that knowledge and that experience into a new podcast that would help highlight the human value of cybersecurity and the people working in it. Every time that I talk to industry outsiders about cybersecurity, they’re usually very put off by the abstract perception of it and its very complex nature. But when I tell them that what attracted me the most to this field and what I think is the most valuable component in it, which is people, they’re very surprised. And I thought that that deserves more attention. And those people who have a different kind of conversation with the community, the people around them, their colleagues, their entire list of followers, I thought that they deserved a lot more attention.

[00:05:43.04] So while the How Do You Know podcast that I used to do focusing on decision-making helped me re-examine my own choices, which led me to start freelancing, which led me to give empathy a lot more focus, it actually also led me to this very podcast. So, as I built, let’s say, my career and my work in the realm of information security, I started interacting with a lot more people and I started following their conversations, whether they’re CEOs, or product developers, or software developers, or people in HR and operations — in all sorts of roles — and I discovered a great deal of humans that truly practice empathy and that put it at the core of their work, even sometimes without realizing it, simply because it speaks to their values and their principles. In this field, they do incredibly complex and demanding work that has to fix technical issues but also get business decision-makers on board, create a shared vocabulary, they have to train teams — there is a lot going on. And people who have been in this field for 20 or 30 years, they’ve seen the same issues come up over and over again in different contexts. But it’s also led them to be very persistent and to elevate their work, instead of losing faith and hope, and just becoming cynical. So, I was very interested to see how they were able to maintain their optimism and build their resilience in the face of constant adversity because this is what working in cybersecurity is: it’s putting out fires, it’s finding solutions, it is working against an avalanche of security issues and processes and they just keep magnifying and multiplying as technology became the core infrastructure that the world runs on. And one of the things that I found that these people who work across this range of diverse roles have in common is empathy, is their ability to understand what other people need and build solutions for that.

[00:08:12.02] So, I came across this quote that I feel is very fitting for these people and what I’m trying to achieve with this podcast, which is a quote that’s attributed to Theodore Roosevelt — I don’t know if it’s his or not, but the important thing is what it says — and it goes like this: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” I want to have these conversations with these people to show you how much they care about keeping you safe, about building the products that you use, about teaching you how to make safer choices online so you can navigate the complexity of the world that we live in, in a way that doesn’t put you in dangerous situations, in a way that helps you avoid crises, whether they’re at work or in your personal life.

[00:09:05.26] And there are so many issues that cybersecurity is trying to solve, but my particular mission and my particular contribution to this is the following: cybersecurity is just growing as an industry at a pace that’s difficult to understand. It is exploding. The number of companies is growing and the number of issues is growing. It’s always in the news. There’s just a huge focus on it because cybersecurity, with all its processes, technologies, and people is one of the core factors of stability in our society. It helps companies keep doing what they do best, it helps people go on with their lives and be productive, but it also keeps stability, it maintains stability at a global level. And the more we progress as a society, the bigger role that information security will play in keeping our world safe, stable, and hopefully, a bit saner as well.

[00:10:13.27] So, the problems that we have as people right now, which are tied to technology, but also to our just human nature, is obviously an indication that there’s also a lot of money to be made from this industry, which leads to just perpetuating some stereotypes and cliches about cybersecurity that are unproductive, and that keep people disconnected from the role of the industry and from valuable people such as the ones that I’m going to talk to, for this podcast. There are two main problems that make people feel inadequate or incapable of dealing with these things, which are using fear, uncertainty, and doubt to scare people into submission and compliance with cybersecurity rules. And then, there are a bunch of cliches that lead to very generic and superficial communication that is just meant to drive sales, but not make an actual impact in people’s lives. So, I’m trying to demystify and break down those cliches and those uses of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, and talk about alternative solutions that actually help other people care about their own safety, and then see the value of having a more aware, a more mindful, and just a safer behavior online and off.

[00:11:47.05] And what lead me to actually do something about these issues is that I work with them every day. So, I try to shape and improve the way that companies talk to their customers, the way that technical people present their solutions, and generally, the way that they engage with the people they serve. And what led me to this point is that I believe that to elevate this ability of ours to function in the world relies on our capacity to pay attention to others through empathy, and to pay attention to ourselves through self-empathy. And I realized that to be able to change that perception that people have around cybersecurity is supposed to happen through empathy. The alternative to fear, uncertainty, and doubt is empathy that helps cultivate hope, and resilience, and curiosity. The alternative to cliches is empathy and a more natural way of talking to people that is clearer and more empathetic and connected to their needs. The alternative to remaining trapped in the cybersecurity echo chamber is empathy. Echo chamber is this concept where technical people, who know what the issues are, keep talking to one another but their solutions and their conversations never break through this echo chamber to reach the majority of people.

[00:13:19.11] I see online security and privacy as an act of generosity towards yourself and others. I’ve seen it change the way that I behave, the way that I consume information, the way that I talk to people, and just generally conduct myself both online and off. And I hope that these conversations will help you understand how you can use empathy towards yourself and others to cultivate just safer habits and a safer approach to life. My goal is to create a space with this podcast to have ego-free conversations about what truly makes a difference. I want to make these conversations, build these conversations with a stronger focus on human psychology and make them less about technology. My goal is to help you understand the role of kindness, curiosity, and connection and keeping others and ourselves safe and sane, not just online, but generally throughout our lives. To these apparently dry and abstract concepts, I aim to bring context and nuance and help you see examples of what things look like when they’re done with care and the end-user in mind. At the end of the day, I want to raise the level of empathy in the industry so we can bring in more people who can contribute their talents, their vision, and their kindness to making the security conversation more comfortable and less intimidating, more rewarding and fun at the end of the day because we need more of that in our lives.

[00:15:07.11] So why did I choose empathy as the main topic of this podcast? Well, first of all, because there are three main benefits to empathy that I see are worth cultivating. So, first of all, empathy builds a buffer zone and builds a space where we can pause and reflect before we decide what to do next - and that always leads to better decisions. Empathy also makes us less reactive, so we’re less likely to act from our fight or flight state, it makes us less impulsive, it makes us more mindful, and it just gives us room to breathe. Empathy also helps bring down walls, it helps us truly connect to the other person because we get to walk a mile in their shoes and imagine what they feel and what they would do in a certain situation. It helps us empathize with their personal motivations and context - and that always leads to better, more honest conversations that are rewarding and educational for everyone involved.

[00:16:19.20] So, that’s the long-winded way of telling you why I do this podcast and what cyber empathy looks like. I also wanted to kind of bring a little bit of clarity to what empathy really is because I feel that, intuitively, we know what it is but no one tells you exactly how to cultivate it and how to use it in your life. So, I wanted to highlight that there are three types of empathy defined by psychologists who are much more experienced than me in this field. So, there is cognitive empathy, where you can understand what the other person is feeling but this comes from a place of detachment and neutrality. It’s not as warm as the other types of empathy but it puts people in the same boat. A second type of empathy is emotional empathy and that entails feeling what the other person is feeling in a certain situation. But, if you’re not capable enough of actually understanding these emotions and keeping them in check, it might lead you to overreact or take on the burden of the other person’s emotions, which doesn’t make for a very helpful conversation. And I noticed from my own experience of truly internalizing other people’s problems to the point where they depleted me, so I’ve educated myself quite a bit on that. And if you’re interested, I could maybe dedicate an episode to that, specifically. And then, there is compassionate empathy, which is a mix of cognitive and emotional empathy, which also packs, let’s say, the reflex to help, to care about the other person. And kind of that’s the level where we would want to get to, ideally, both you and me; we would hopefully build our empathy muscle throughout this podcast and through these conversations, so we can experience and practice all these three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.

[00:18:34.27] So, what’s in it for you in this podcast is that my goal is to help you understand how exactly you can use cybersecurity as a lens to improve your thinking, to improve your decisions, and to navigate the complexity of the informational world that we live in, in the long-term to develop a set of skills, habits, and reflexes that keep you away from bad experiences as much as possible and that help you navigate them if you should get hacked at some point, or go through a situation where you’re defrauded or anything else bad that happens to you. Knowing how to prevent those situations and do what’s in your power and in your control to prevent them and then knowing what to do if it ever happens and navigate that critical situation to the best of your ability — those two things I know are possible. I’ve seen them happen, I’ve seen them happen in my own behavior, and I hope I can create that space where you can listen to these conversations, take what you need from them, and then go apply them in your own life.

[00:19:59.11] Besides having conversations with specialists in this field from a variety of roles — from design to technical roles, to business and leadership roles — I also plan to do other solo episodes where I talk to you about specific topics in terms of staying safe online and how to cultivate specific habits and improve your life, hopefully, in general. It is very difficult for me to do these solo episodes; talking by myself feels very unnatural. But also, you know, I’m trying to not just get out of my comfort zone, but also give you an unedited perspective into my motivation behind this podcast and what I’m trying to achieve, and how I’m trying to contribute what I’ve learned until now and what I keep learning from everyone around me, whether it’s my clients, my friends, my family, the communities that I’m part of, and try to bring that together in a way that makes sense for you and that helps you on your path to wherever you’re going.

[00:21:16.01] So, thank you so much for listening. I’m excited to bring you some very interesting conversations that just made my mind light up like a Christmas tree and see what you take from them. I would love to get your thoughts on this. If anything helps you from these conversations and from the solo episodes that I do, please reach out, let me know. You can find me on LinkedIn, on Twitter, and on my website as well. I would love to have a conversation with you about this, I’d love to answer your questions, and maybe even transform them into dedicated episodes that answer your question in depth. So, thank you for listening to Cyber Empathy. I’m looking forward to being partners in this new adventure and in this new project. I’m excited to bring it to you. And let me know what you think. I’ll be here, waiting to hear from you and take these conversations forward. Thanks again. I’ll be back soon.