“The day they declared martial law in Iran there had been some protests in the street and some clashes between police and protesters – a lot of people died, and they suspended school. My father decided that it wasn’t safe for his young children to be there, and he didn't want us to miss out on school. I believe it was a Thursday night. Friday and Saturday we packed and said goodbye to everyone we knew. Sunday we were out of the country.”
Niloofar Razi Howe’s early life was a whirlwind. Fleeing Iran as a child, as the voices against the Shah grew from a murmur to a shout, she moved to America, which she still calls home today. In fact, she jokes – jetsetter that she is – “when people ask ‘where’s home base?’ I say ‘American Airlines.’ I travel an awful lot.”
We’re sat in a hotel lobby near King’s Cross for a quick coffee before she flies Stateside. We start with Iran, and whether she has ever been back. “I’ve not and it’s very hard. I’ve flown over the country, I’ve stood on the shores of Abu Dhabi staring across and knowing ‘that’s Iran’ but especially given the work I do and the space I’m in, it would not be the wisest thing.”
Today, the space she is in is cyber. Razi Howe is chief strategy officer at RSA, one of the world’s leading information security firms. But her journey into cyberspace has been unorthodox, to say the least. Some follow well-trodden paths in their careers, but hers is still thick with long grass.
Due to her outstanding academic profile, she was accepted into UCLA two years early – while still finishing high school. “It was a fantastic programme from an education perspective, but it also allowed me to go on some... other adventures,” she giggles, a mischievous grin on her face. “Such as?”
“Well no one knew exactly where I was at at any given time of day, and so while I was in high school, and enrolled at UCLA, I was working full-time for Steven Spielberg, casting for one of his TV shows, Amazing Stories.”
How, I ponder, does one go from casting for Spielberg, to working in the tech sphere? “That’s a good question,” she says, and pauses.
“I think having been forced as a child to leave my home and adapt to a completely different culture, I got very used to change – I love context shifting, it’s part of why I think I’m decent at strategy.
“Having said that,” she says, “I used to code as a kid, and when I first moved to the States at my all girls’ school, the computer room was safe. The great thing about programming was that you told the computer to do something and it actually did it. It listened to you. And the rest of life doesn’t always work out that way.”
Was the computer suite a sanctuary? “It was, yes. And if you want to know what a complete nerd I was, I played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. The programme I wrote was a D&D game called The Tomb of St Crucifer. Computers were fun and safe and new – and there was no one else there.”
After a brief career as an entertainment lawyer, followed by a spell as a business consultant at McKinsey, Razi Howe started a tech enabled consumer firm, then moved into venture capital.
“The path wasn’t straightforward or purposeful, but I like to pursue things that I find fascinating, and I like to work with people who I find intriguing – so I chose tech.”
From tech, her journey into cyber was borne from a pivotal moment in modern history. “Like many people on the morning of 9/11, I woke up and I said ‘what am I going to do, what’s my bit to make sure the world is safe for my children, and the people I care about?’ It was a pivotal point on so many dimensions, because it made you realise that the target was no longer the government, it was no longer the military, we were all targets. That’s what 9/11 made clear: that it wasn’t going to be just the government’s job to make us safe, everyone has the opportunity to do something.”
Now well-established in the industry, Razi Howe is concerned about the shortage of female talent attracted to it. She thinks information security has an image problem. “It’s very mission driven, it’s something that should appeal to women, and yet, it’s such a regressive industry when it comes to women.”
She says that estimates for the number of women in cyber, at their most generous, are around 11 per cent, but sink as low as 8 per cent. Either way, the numbers are declining relative to the broad growth of the industry.
“And I think there’s a couple of things – first the public portrayal of our industry. ‘Mr Robot’ does not inspire middle school girls to want to get into information security – by the way I don’t think it inspires middle school boys to get into the security industry either. But that sort of ‘hacker in the hoodie’ who’s misanthropic and likely a heroin addict is not a compelling role model. The industry was a dark art, but today it’s not, it’s a business problem and we need lots of people to come into that industry.”
The second thing, she says, is an unhelpful insistence on exclusively hiring experienced people from technical backgrounds. Really, she says, “we think about the jobs in our industry in the wrong way – we need people with technical aptitude, not necessarily technical degrees.
“And the example I’d like to use is Hedy Lamarr. Now she was an actress in the Golden Age of Hollywood, who wrote the core pattern for CDMA technology with a music composer. They basically came up with the idea of frequency hopping, that underpins our secure mobile communications. Neither one of them had any technical training, but they understood what the problem was, and they came up with the idea, based on a piece of music that the composer had written for 16 synchronised pianos.”
Razi Howe continues reeling off examples: “Elizabeth Friedman, who was one of the most prolific codebreakers in US history, she had no technical background. She was alternatively a seamstress, a hairdresser, and a school principal. She went to a US lab where they were codebreaking – what she wanted to do was prove that Sir Francis Bacon had written Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets using a cypher. She was never able to prove that, but she looked at what the codebreakers were doing and said ‘wait I want to try that’. And with no language training, no math training, she became one of the world’s greatest codebreakers.”
I agree. In the current climate, in which cyber security grows ever-more pertinent, it seems absurd to pre-disqualify someone who might be the next Friedman or Lamarr.
Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.