42. Dena Haritos Tsamitis (she/her) – Director, Information Networking Institute at Carnegie Mellon University; Barbara Lazarus Professor in Information Networking; Founding Director, Education, Training and Outreach, CyLab

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“Don’t try to change who you are to fit in. Your differences are your strengths, and you’ve got to use them!”

Tell us a little bit about what a typical day looks like for you.

I head an academic unit at Carnegie Mellon University: the Information Networking Institute or INI, as we call it. As director of the INI, I oversee our master’s degree programs in information networking, security and mobility in Pittsburgh, Silicon Valley and Kobe, Japan. This includes leading a team of 28 faculty and staff members and directing all functional areas, including academic affairs, recruitment, admissions, marketing, business operations, partnership development, alumni relations and facilities management.

Every day is different, but some of my daily activities include meeting with students and faculty, attending research talks, reviewing applications for INI’s degree programs, teaching an ethics course for security students, engaging with Women@INI, the student organization I founded in 2005, and ongoing strategic planning.

At home, I love to cook and spend time with my 22-year-old daughter Zoe, who is studying cinema at Point Park University, and my “six million dollar pup,” Romi. He’s an eleven-year-old Shih Tzu with a strong personality – my very own loveable curmudgeon! We’re looking forward to moving into our new home in the Strip District next month.

How do you stay passionate in your career?

It’s truly my students and alumni who keep me inspired and passionate about what I do. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing my students thrive personally while achieving their professional goals. I love when my alums come back to visit INI, or when I can connect with them while on the road at conferences, because they’re like family to me. It’s the best part of my job.

I believe community-building is where I have the greatest impact in the information technology field. I’m committed to empowering women and underrepresented minorities through mentoring, coaching and facilitating opportunities for their advancement and support.

Did you have a traditional path into tech (i.e.: CS/IT degree transitioned into tech job)?

Not at all. My journey to becoming a Carnegie Mellon faculty member and department head has been very non-traditional. I grew up working in my family’s restaurant – Harris Grill in Shadyside – rolling dolmades, making spanakopita and attending Greek school. (Yeah, just like in the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.) I missed the start of the technology revolution because my school district didn’t introduce computer classes until the year after I graduated.

I ended up moving to Greece, where I founded an English language institute. When I returned to Pittsburgh, I reinvented myself. I studied information science at the University of Pittsburgh, and that’s when my journey in tech officially began! I worked for several years as a systems analyst at a pharmaceutical company in the Midwest and designed the information architecture for one the first intranets before the term had even been coined. Then I returned to Pittsburgh to be closer to my parents and, while in graduate school, I stumbled upon the job posting at Carnegie Mellon.

It’s more than just being “in the right place, at the right time,” my non-traditional path also afforded me the right skills, work ethic and passion to succeed. I’ve always been an educator at heart, and over the past few decades I’ve found a way to combine my skills and use technology to innovate the teaching and learning environment at Carnegie Mellon.

Are there any apps, software, or tools you cannot live without?

Twitter and LinkedIn are my go-to apps for keeping up with the infosec and women in tech communities.

Instagram is my guilty pleasure. It’s a nice break in my day, to take my mind off of my busy life and enjoy images of food, dogs, fashion – you name it!

It’s common knowledge that women and femmes often face obstacles in the tech industry based on their gender. Have you ever had to deal with this type of experience and if so how did you handle it?

Absolutely. Often it wasn’t just unconscious bias, it was blatant bias.

Many times, I’ve been the only woman in the room, especially in the engineering field and in academic leadership. I don’t quite fit the mold. In the beginning, I thought I had to fit in but I quickly realized that my differences are my strengths.

My non-traditional path provided me with unique attributes and skills that have helped me excel in my role. Business savvy, work ethic, community-building – I learned all of these skills growing up in the restaurant business and running an English language institute abroad. These experiences set me apart.

Like generations before, my generation has had to overcome significant obstacles and inequities in the workplace, not just in infosec. I suffered battle scars along the way, but these experiences have made me stronger and more passionate about affecting change. Nothing is more gratifying than pulling up women and minorities and creating opportunities for future generations. I am committed to being a strong voice when it comes to inclusivity and I’m certainly not afraid to call people out when they are not!

What’s your favorite thing about being a part of the #womenintech community?

The #womenintech community brings together so many different people with different perspectives, who are all passionate about solving the world’s problems. We’re a diverse, tight-knit community and we really do support each other.

I also love seeing the brilliant younger generation come into their own in this community and forge the path ahead for future generations. I learn so much from my students!

If applicable, how have you given back to the WIT community?

Supporting the women in tech community is second nature to me and touches every aspect of my life and career. At the INI, I invest in student professional development by sponsoring participation in conferences and events like the Women in Cybersecurity Conference and Grace Hopper Celebration. In the Pittsburgh community, I’m proud to be a partner of Strong Women Strong Girls (SWSG).

I’m a Pittsburgh native, yet much of my work at Carnegie Mellon has been globally focused. Looking ahead, I’m committed to find ways to engage with the Pittsburgh tech community, both as an individual and with my department.

What is a piece of advice you would give to others wanting to or currently pursuing a career in tech?

To people who are new to the field: Be authentic and create your own path. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

To my past self: Don’t try to change who you are to fit in. Your differences are your strengths, and you’ve got to use them!

Tell us about a time you felt extremely accomplished in the past year.

I recently attended the ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. The conference draws hundreds of diverse students, faculty, researchers, and professionals from all backgrounds and ethnicities to celebrate and promote diversity in the computer science fields.

It was fulfilling to give back to this community through my workshop, called “Snap Out of It: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome and Leveraging Your Value Proposition.” It’s a very personal talk, where I lay down my protective shield and share my personal journey managing impostor syndrome. I offered students actionable strategies that I’ve personalized, one of them is power posing and powerful walking.

Several Penn State students in the audience described it as their favorite talk of the entire conference, saying: “When I came back from the conference, I felt like I was even walking differently. I felt more confident and more like I belonged – more like I deserved to be here.”

I recently documented these strategies on my LinkedIn blog, and I encourage you to try them out and customize them to meet your needs: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/i-am-strong-invincible-woman-dena-haritos-tsamitis/

How readers can support you:

Connect with me! I’m eager to find ways to engage meaningfully with my city. I’m open to anything and everything – please contact me!

Favorite quote if you have one?

“Comfort zones are where dreams go to die.”

– Regina King


Twitter: @INIDena

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