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Neurodiversity in Cybersecurity - Rachel Harpley
Episode 1613th March 2021 • NeuroSec • Nathan Chung
00:00:00 00:39:08

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One difficult topic that is not often discussed but affect many people with Neurodiverse conditions is domestic violence. Nathan Chung interviews Rachel Harpley, Technical Recruiter and Founder of Recruit Bit Security. She shares her incredible stories about surviving domestic violence, living with Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD), and recruiting cybersecurity talent. Very emotional and very powerful. Listen and be inspired.

List of resources discussed:

Dr. Temple Grandin, author "Emergence: Labeled Autistic



Autistic Life


The Autistic Life

Marta Rose - Neuroemergent Insurgent

Broken Dolly TV - Living with ASD (Asperger's)

Yo Samdy Sam - Neurodiversity & Autism

Aspergers on the Inside



Hi welcome to the NeuroSec Podcast, where we unite people and organizations to support and advance Neurodiverse people in cybersecurity and beyond to make the world more diverse and inclusive. My name is Nathan Chung. And today my special guest today is Rachel Harpley, Technical Recruiter and Founder of Recruit Bit Security. Welcome, Rachel.


Thank you, Nathan. I'm glad to be here. Thanks for inviting me.


Great to start Kate. Tell me more about yourself.


Yeah, so I've got about nine years in recruiting, about six years in technical recruiting with a full cycle environment. And I've been really dug into and focused on infosec and IT security for about the last four or five years. I also co-founded the Cybersecurity Council of Arizona which is focused on bringing diversity and representation to workforce development initiatives in Arizona and founded Recruit Bit Security with a focus on infosec talent. You're really seeing our clients and our customers both as the candidates and the the hiring managers that we represent. A little bit more personal, I last year was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. And I believe that I'm on the spectrum of Autism with traits of ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Misophonia. I also recently came out as ninebot, non binary and an abolitionist against white supremacy. I think I also suffer from Rejection Sensitive Sensitivity Disorder, and I'm a survivor of domestic violence as well.


Oh, my that's, that's


A lot.


I'm a lot .


A lot. Excuse me Nathan I also have trouble with names, which is probably the hardest part of being a recruiter. I'm terrible with names. I'm, I've been on a date with someone that I've known for years and introducing them to old friends. I've known for decades and then forgotten everyone's name in the process of introducing both people. So yeah, Nathan, thank you. I'm glad to hear.


Absolutely. I do the exact same thing. It really depends on the time of day and how much caffeine I had.


I tried new coffee today, I got some Kimberly coffee, so I'll blame it on that.


Oh, I love it. Okay, so typically, typically, people who are Neurodiverse are cited as being really good candidates for Cybersecurity jobs, but in your job as a recruiter of Cybersecurity talent, has your Neurodiverse conditions helped you or impeded you?


Well, I wasn't I had completely forgotten about it. But the name thing comes up. That's been a hindrance for sure. I think in the ways that it's helped me, you know, being a pattern seeker and a pattern identifier that's helped a lot in the process of understanding people. You know, even as someone who's Neurodiverse and has Autistic and ADHD traits, being able to think about people in patterns and, and make correlations there. Also resumes and identifying patterns in that way. But you know, the names piece is a big challenge. And it's also a major challenge when I'm overstimulated or if I need to mask and have an have been masking. You know that that's can make it very hard as well.


Yep, I know that feeling. Sometimes I can be in meetings, get overstimulated then crash. Okay, so the Cybersecurity skills gap is often estimated at around 3.5 million jobs. People with Neurodiverse conditions bring amazing skills that we discussed like. They can close a gap such as hyper focus, attention, detail, strong creativity, and more. Sometimes it can be simple as finding the needle in the haystack through that mountain of security logs. This is leading to a greater push to embrace Neurodiversity in the workplace. Can you share your insights and trends that you see for recruitment?


Yeah, so, I think that was part of what, you know, my motivation to get into infosec was twofold. It was both my desire for privacy and safety. But also because I, you know, five, six years ago, I was hearing oh we need two and a half million. Now we need three and a half million, right. So you're wanting to help solve for that. And I think that the work from home push has been a significant asset and that way you have. In my experience, and what I've heard from other people, being able to control my environment and enhance my environment in a way that is specific to my needs. Because, you know, we think about diversity, we all there's a variety of needs there. So common factors often, but we have our individual nuances. And some of it is that we just need to be alone. But I think that also presents some of the challenges too, because as Neurodiverse people, you know, we don't always know what other people are talking about, or like, we miss things that are implied or understood in ways that other people, you know, just pick up and in the office, sometimes we can catch it, because we're seeing, we're able to see things that are happening, even if we're not in those conversations, but as a decentralized workforce that can create a greater challenge. And I think it also pulls out systemic challenges of class status and race being bigger problems, to those biases can create a greater play. But I think because companies are very, very much recognizing that need, and it's becoming more clear that they just, you know, that we have to grow more security talent, we can't all just keep fighting over the same talent. companies are starting to open up new channels for that. I see still see a lot of workforce development that focuses primarily on college graduates, and creating a pipeline from from graduate level people. But you know, that's a four year plan, at best, right. And companies need talent today. And so that's why a lot of my work is focused on career pivotors and people that are maybe coming from IT, or insurance or auditing of some kind, where or other fields, but where they have transferable skills, because security has to understand the business in order to really be effective at their role. And in order to really get change to happen, right to have that internal influence. So to try and be an advocate for those career pivotors and help them bridge that gap and help businesses see what they can achieve by selecting someone like that rather than a college graduate. There's, I think, always going to be, quote unquote, always. But there will be jobs for graduates, but working hard to make jobs for career pivoters, as well. And you know, so I think there's some changes coming along those ways. There's changes happening to the recruitment process, you know, companies are starting to understand ways that they can, you know, they're seeing the attrition, and people fall out of the recruiting process. And so becoming more aware of how they can change and adapt in order to keep those professionals engaged, and hopefully hired.


Great. And I see the same. Makes me curious, though, for people who are transitioning into Cybersecurity, can you describe some of the field that that you often see as trends as transitioning from within fields into cyber?


Yeah, so I've seen some teachers, both at the higher education, higher institution level, and as well in K through 12. Some teachers make the switch, you know, that's one that you wouldn't necessarily think, oh, yeah, cyber. But, you know, from the way that they are problem solvers, and the, you know, the way that they construct and are avid learners, you know, that's a core component of being a security professional, there's no arriving, right? You have to have that drive internally. And in insurance quite a few from insurance, whether they're on the underwriting side, or, you know, commercial insurance side audits as well. You know, I think that was really common, especially when the push started, when I started talking to a lot of Sarbanes Oxley auditors that were trying to get into IT auditing and SOC2 auditing what wasn't SOC2 at the time, but you know trying to get into some of these other compliance standards. And then also seeing a trend in legal with some privacy pieces, you know, with the shift there. People moving from other types of law or other types of business law into privacy policy, web developers, right. I've seen quite a few, especially in Phoenix, there's the boot boot camp game is strong. And seeing folks who go into a boot camp thinking they want to be in web development, and in that process, realize they want to be in web security, and then taking it a little bit step, a little step farther from there. And then also, you know, they think this is kind of the the bridge I saw initially when I first moved from technical recruiting into infosec. You know, IT managers, folks who had been in the career for 15-20 years and focused on IT. Realizing they sort of hit the ceiling and ageism was affecting them, and ageism is unfortunately very real in IT, and seeing the opportunity for them to re-career and reskill from a security standpoint and build on that infrastructure knowledge that they have and focus into security and kind of kickstart in a new way for themselves.


Wow, that is very insightful, especially about the teachers. Because with COVID it's really hard to be a teacher now.


Yeah, they have some massive challenges ahead of them for sure.


Yeah, absolutely. Sadly, the world today is still a largely ablest society that often discriminate against people like people like us with Neurodiverse conditions. This leads many people to use masking in order to fit in. But this leads to other struggles. I, myself, have used masking on occasion. How about about yourself? And how has masking affected your life and career?


w, I burned out at the end of:


Yep, absolutely. And you brought with a very good point about workplaces, often not being safe for Neurodiverse people like us. In your view, what can be done to make workplaces more friendly, so that people don't have to wear masks? And they can just be who they are? What, what tips would you have?


Well, the challenge here is that you're with diversity, there isn't a one way, right. But I think that the biggest thing to do is start with listening. You know, the odds are you have Neurodiverse, you know, your company already has Neurodiverse people there, right? And so how can you create a space for them to speak up and to share? You know, share their experiences, share what their needs are? And if you start with that, then you can build from there and you can, you know, build out, you know, it's not their job to be your consultant, right. You know, I think it's important for big companies that you know have budgets and have this capacity to, to pay for this knowledge, you know, just like we need to be paying black people for their expertise. You know, you don't just go to your black friend, and you ask them to teach you how to not be racist, right? You go out to the resources that are available. So you know, starting with listening, like, for example, there's a nonprofit that is called Communication First, and they focus on providing advocacy for Neurodiverse people who, who find it difficult to rely on speech, right. So there are nonprofits in their groups out there that advocate and speak. And I think that's the big thing is to, you know, you don't go to the dentist to get an eye exam, right? So, as an organization, you need to go to people on the spectrum and hear from them, you need to go to black people and hear from them, we need to go to Latino people and hear from them. And then that you can integrate those thoughts together.




And, yeah, and really is a part of that going, going to your team and, and talking to your team. These are hard conversations, but they are valuable, right and creating a space to have those questions about our biases, because we all have bias, right? we all we all live in the access of privilege and oppression, right? So you know, there's many aspects to my identity. And some of those aspects, give me a privilege some of those aspects also, hold me back. Right. And the same for you, Nathan. And by having real conversations about that, we can also then talk about our biases. You know, like, you know we were talking about a candidate today. In the consulting role that I have, and, you know, we're trying to understand if our perspective has to do with our bias, you know, like, are we feeling this way about them as a candidate? Because of their because of our biases? Are we overcoming our bias enough to examine whether this candidate is capable of doing this job and serving our customers? And doing those things? And really having to sit with that and spend some time in those moments and talking to each other and investing that time?


Yep, absolutely. And one tip I often hear is, sometimes it can be just as simple as a manager asking a worker, what do they need to thrive at work?


Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, exactly. That simple question. And it could be things like, okay, so say you're in the workplace still. Like, I've worked with software development managers, where they ensured that the area of cubes right, like the workspace, where their developers were, they took out all the bulbs in overhead lighting, right. Like the rest of the office, you know, they do what they do, but in the area that's for the software developers, you know, there was no overhead lighting. Their cognizant, you know, the entire company was cognizant of being more quiet around in that area, right? Like there's a difference between the sales team and the software development team and little things like that. Right like with my Misophonia. You know, if there's like ticking or bless their heart, but if somebody has, like, oral sounds that they make a lot, it really hard to sit next to their cue, right. Like, little things like that, like where it's, you know, I don't think you I think you asked me what Misophonia was, that's the weird one, but the common one, you know, Neurotypicals don't like nails on chalkboards, right? But you know, but Misophonia has any disproportionate emotional reaction to sounds right? So like, I might enjoy clicking my, my pen, but if somebody else's clicking the pen that might drive me crazy or what have you. But yeah, little accommodations like that can go a long way.


Yep, absolutely. And one of your conditions, which I quite frankly have never heard about before, RSD, Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, is a condition that affects many people who have ADHD, but I'd never heard of it, to be honest. Can you explain what RSD is and how it affects you?


Yeah, so I'm, I'm obligatory, I'm not a doctor, I don't have a PhD. From what I understand there is some debate right now, actually, regarding the DSM and RSD. There is a train of thought where some experts consider it to be a pathology. So it's a meaning that it is uncurable. It's untreatable, you basically need to medicate it. And, and some experts believe that it is a learned condition. And then it has to do tied into with something called complex PTSD, or essentially a part of your, your neurological development as a child. And essentially, Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria is anticipating rejection and operating from a stance that you will be rejected. So, like, for example, with with ADHD or Autism, you just you learn that people don't like that you do X, Y, or Z. And so you're afraid to do that thing, because you know, how people will respond for the people or for the experts who, who speak of RSC as related to complex PTSD is part of your early childhood development. So like, with those on the spectrum that have tics or, or audio triggers, or that kind of thing. You know, they they know that they're going to be rejected for behaving in that way. And then they know that they, they respond in an emotional way and, and it can cause things like Oppositional Defiance Disorder. So in relation to complex PTSD, it's the fight or flight, fawn or freeze. So someone with RSD, their fight response would generate an Oppositional Defiance Disorder, or some of like, women who are on the spectrum. Many of us fawn, and that means we like overly compliment people or act overly nice or you know, do things to be people pleasers. And all of that is that out of fear of rejection. And so, you know, really, for me, in learning to cope with that and navigating it as part of learning about my masking and, and how I, you know, how I've like, trying to understand how I've programmed myself in responding to people and kind of taking back my story along that way.


Yep, absolutely. And how do you cope with RSD day to day?


Um, you know, I think there's little things I think a lot of the work having to do with equality in the workplace and, and making space for women in the workplace, you know, like, not over apologizing. You know, teaching myself how to take certain words out of my emails, you know, like, take just, you know, quick cut, what do they call it, don't cut yourself off at the knees, right? So re-teaching myself how to write emails and then how to navigate certain conversations. I think that's part of why I started working on my my idea called the Hacking Hired. So there just isn't a lot of transparency in the recruiting process. And for me to try and better understand that process both as a job seeker, I've kind of always been intrigued with that process. how I got started at jobbing a long time ago. Like who's posting these jobs. Who's behind this job board. You know wanting to understand the process so that I could like master the process. And I think that's part of me coping with RSD is if I understand the rules of the game, then I can know how to play it. And I know how it can work the game to my favor. And I think that's helped me a lot along the way. And that's why I've wanted to share those kinds of ideas with other people that are trying to figure it out as well.


Wow, that's a very powerful story. Thank you. And next, we transition to one area, which is not often talked about in the community. Domestic Violence and how it affects people who are Neurodiverse. If you're comfortable sharing, can you share your story of domestic violence?


Yeah, so I know, Nathan, I actually brought this up to you and asked to talk about it. And I do think it is really important. But I'm also really anxious about, like, what's the right line of how much do I share? And how much do I hold back and, and all of those questions. And I think that's just part of being a victim of domestic violence, in general. Um, but I know that it's important to talk about because it's something that so easily gets overlooked. And I think as you as you brought up, I think domestic violence often often happens to people who are Neurodiverse, because we don't pick up on little cues, sometimes the way that someone who's Neurotypical might. I'm, I feel like I always have to say this first, my, my parents are wonderful people, my family. I come from a wonderful family. But my, my sister was lured in by a terrible person, my sister's a decade older than me, and I was the tag along on dates, right? You know, I think my parents thought, Oh, she won't get into any trouble if you ever your sister's there and, and he just didn't care. And that was a really hard experience for young people to go through. So that was my first my sister's abusive boyfriend, that was my first experience with domestic violence and the type of control someone can have over your life if they decide that they want to. If they decide that they want to, right, so, um, you know, stalking phone calls, and, you know, Friday Night Lights, getting chased out of the football game. And just stuff that can seem kind of juvenile, but there were some more serious things that happened as well, that can have a lifetime imprint. And, you know, ultimately, both ended up safe and that ended. But I got myself into a situation about a decade ago, my, my mom passed away and I started making, I was really depressed. I started making bad decisions, I ended up in a bad relationship. And that ended up ending very badly as well. And it had so many parallels to what had happened to me and my sister when I was little. And, you know, I always told myself that I was strong, and that I wasn't gonna let it happen to me, and that I was gonna be, you know, that it wouldn't happen to me, but it can happen to any of us. And part of the cycle of abuse is really the abuser separates the person from their safety nets and from their family. And I think, as a Neurodiverse person, it's easy to miss that first. And to think that it, it's not happening the way you think it's happening. And, and so, I was able to get out of that situation, and my friends and family helped me. Helped me and I really, I really was able to turn my life around. But I think there's an aspect to that, where I feel like I have, in some ways dedicated my life to helping others, you know, wanting to wanting to give back and to help prevent others from experiencing similar pain and, and going through those challenges. But yeah, like, there's a, you know, the, there's a, an important reason why we need to talk about these issues, and yes, if there's any way that I can prevent it from happening to anyone else, you know, I'm, I'm open to sharing resources, sharing strategies, you know. It's it's not always easy to just walk away. By the time you realize what's really happening. Or by the time they've escalated to a point of violence. They've the abuser has already, essentially segregated you from resources and safety nets. So if anyone is listening to this and needs to create a plan to find a way out, I'd be happy to help share resources for that.


That's a very powerful story, Rachel, thank you for sharing. I'm sure that was hard.


Yeah. Thanks.


Okay. And, and how did you overcome all these challenges? And what, what what did you do to get from there to get to where you are today?


Well, I think there's a word that goes around in my family, and that's grit. My aunt likes to remind me a lot about that. But another way, my late mom would say is, she called me a tough cookie. You know, I come from. Both my parents are first generation college students, my dad is a first generation. First generation born here immigrant, my grandmother came through Ellis Island. And, and his, his dad came, came in immigrant through Canada, they're both Scottish. You know, it's, it was always the call to work harder. I grew up on 100 acres. And I constantly heard how I had to put more elbow grease into it, and I had to work harder. And I think that really made a big impact on me. I think that's also part of the masking and the RSD, that there's a constant pressure on myself to do more and, and to, you know, it's never enough, right? So there's a little bit of battling that. But I'm also fairly certain my mom was on the spectrum. From what I understand she read the entire local library before she got into high school. And, and it was a large library. And she made an impact on a lot of people. But yeah, I think that's how I've accomplished what I have is that work ethic that my parents instilled in me.


Wow, that is incredible. You are a brave woman and a true overcomer, thank you for sharing your story.


Thank you.


Yeah, it's hard to talk about, you know, like it because there's, I mean, there's things about my story, that, and when I tell people, they're like, oh, like, they don't like it. It's a lot for the average person. And, you know, it's something it's like, yeah, that's just something that happened. And yep. And then that other thing happened. And, you know, so it's, it's hard in this kind of a big forum, right. So to share some of those nitty gritty details, but yeah, yep. I've, I appreciate you acknowledging a lot that I've overcome.


Yep. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. And last, lastly, what resources can you recommend to people who have gone through similar experiences such as yourself?


Also, I mentioned the Community First nonprofit? I yeah, they actually they came out with a documentary called Listen. And it was in response to the movie that Sia recently released, called the Music. Sia released a movie on Autistics, and it causes quite a disruption in the community. Yeah, because basically, no one involved is Autistic. And they really didn't listen to anyone from from the community. And they're really presenting some very problematic and scary, scary situations. So I would recommend that documentary Listen, from Communication First on Instagram and Twitter. I really like the Autistic Cats. The Autisticats is an account managed by I think, four people who have Autism, and they each share their perspectives and speak a lot about what it means to be Autistic. There's also an account called the Autistic Life, which produces some really great content as well, I think it would be valuable to employers too. I also have found that the the work by Marta Rose, called Neurodivergent Insurgent. She's on Instagram and she talks she's helped me quite a bit. She talks about RSD. Complex PTSD, but more specifically with ADHD and Autism. And I really like the way you know, she does very well at articulating how many ADHD and Autistic people have primarily ADHD. But the way we think and the way we think it in process time and experiences, it really valued her insights there. There's also the Neurodivergent Activist who's on Instagram and I think, Twitter as well. And then on YouTube there's some YouTube accounts I wanted to share. One of them is Asperger's on the Inside. And that's a gentleman who shares what it means to be high functioning on the spectrum. There's a woman called Yo Samdy Sam. And she talks about her autism. And it's really a great perspective as a woman with Autism. There's also an account called How to ADHD. And her structure is a little bit more of like talking about the wall of awful, which was another gentleman's idea. But you know, that how hard it can be to get past the wall of awful and get things done with someone with ADHD. There's also a creator on YouTube called broken Dolly TV, she has a playlist and the reason I wanted to speak about her is she is a black woman with ADHD and want to make sure we're giving voices to people from a variety of backgrounds. But she has yeah, and she has a whole playlist on being an adult with Asperger's. And then one of the originals is Dr. Temple Grandin. She is she's one of the first very public women with Autism, and does a lot of speaking and advocacy work as well.


Wow, that's a long list.


I tried to give you everything.


But frankly, frankly, the stories even your story is so important. Because despite how are far you and I have come. The sad truth is there are a lot of people out there who have not come as far. They're still in their dark place, so to speak and suffering alone.




Yeah, it's horrible.


It is. And that's why I feel like you know, as a white woman who functions on the spectrum, and is high functioning and has quite a lot of privilege, I feel like it's like this moral obligation to speak up and to help create pathways for liberations for others who are maybe have less privilege or are still in that dark place, you know. That that aren't as a, I guess, absorbed into this content, right? Like I was one thing we talked about with Autism and ADHD, when we get on a topic we like, go into that topic, right? And that's always been a thing of mine, that if there's something I need to know, or want to learn about, I will try to find out everything right. So if I can share that and make that available to other people and make it easier for them, then that helps me feel a lot better.


Yep. And that's another reason why I started this podcast. Sharing messages of hope to people.


Indeed, yeah, you've really actually, even in this time that I've been focusing on security, you connected with me say fairly early on, it was maybe a year or two into this and but you know, at first I wasn't sure you know who you are and what this what it meant for you as a man reaching out and trying to lift up women and you know. I thought some of my baggage is being skeptical of people right. But you you've just blown me away Nathan, that the your generosity of spirit and action, and the amount that you've given to others and ways that you've created space for others to speak and created space, for others to to shine. It's just it's been very inspiring to me and helps me encouraged encouraged me in ways from afar to keep going. So thank you.


Yep. Thank you. Yeah. And that's all the questions I had. And yeah, thank you, Rachel. That was a very powerful story. So I'm sure it was not easy to share that.


Yeah, that's definitely hard. And then it's, yeah, yeah. So thank you.


Thank you. And thanks again for everything you do. Thank you.


Thank you, Nathan you as well.





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