Ann Williamson, chief privacy officer and deputy general of UnitedHealth Group, caught the tech-bug during Microsoft’s kickoff of Windows, despite having planned to go to law school since she was 12-years-old.
Her first real job out of college was with Egghead Software as a customer service rep. Williamson later became a sales account rep with the company, during her four years at law school; both roles highly involved software and technology.
“I work with a couple of other chief privacy officers within our company, and we joke that we were all in this privacy and cyber business before it was cool,” said Williamson.
It was at Egghead that she fell in love with the industry because it was always changing, and “it felt like being part of something that was going to change the world.” Williamson used her time in law school to determine how she could remain in tech, while pursuing a legal career, which led to a focus around intellectual property.
After joining UnitedHealth Group, where she’s led for more than 26 years, she was able to continue her focus on technology by negotiating technology agreements — the same type of agreements she was selling at the start of her career in tech. The role transitioned into vice president positions of IT audit and compliance, then into risk management.
After a range of security roles, she became the CPO at the company, merging her focus on privacy and security. Williamson “lumps those together because you can't have a privacy program without a good security program.”
“There's a lot of overlap,” said Williamson. “We rely on each other and communication is key in keeping those two groups aligned.” In fact, she keeps in touch with the company’s security officers on a regular basis “because it's truly important that we’re not operating in silos.”
Her security background has provided strong context around the company’s privacy program to maintain its strength.
In short, “You have to learn security because that's where our risks lie these days,” she explained. “When you're seeing so much happen in cyberspace and when your biggest threat is cybercriminals, if you don't know anything about security, how are you effectively filling the role?”
But every step of Williamson’s journey has been colored by her passion for helping other women succeed in the industry. When she started out in tech and sales, both were male-dominated industries despite technology feeling “like something anybody could do.”
To Williamson, women can inevitably help with the ongoing cyber staff shortages faced in all industries. If the security and tech fields want to boost participation that better reflects the real-world balance of men and women, companies should look to train successful women from other fields.
Women with substantial careers can learn the needed skills and fold it into their past experiences to readily become cyber professionals, explained Williamson. As part of her personal mission, she’s been a mentor through many programs, including Menttium and the inaugural Black Girls in Cyber cohort.
These mentorship opportunities can support women transitioning into new cybersecurity careers, where the women learn from the mentor and build on their own set of experiences, both from diversity and inclusion perspectives with the overall goal of women recognizing the myriad of career options for those with cyber experience.
“My goal is to be a humble leader. I'm just there to make sure that we're supporting other women,” said Williamson. “I always want to support my team and my peers.”