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Code, girl! Setting my own bar prepared me for an unexpected Silicon Valley career.

Becoming an expert in the male-dominated fields of virtualization and cloud was a surprise even to me.

Hemma Prafullchandra is the chief technology officer at HyTrust.

Accomplishing success in a male-dominated field like computing was nothing short of a challenge. Yet while this was the case for many women in the 1970s and ’80s, I learned early on that when the bar isn't set for you to accomplish something, you should take it as an opportunity to set one for yourself.

I was born in Zambia and grew up in the U.K. as the youngest in a family of five children — three brothers and one sister. Already, I found myself outnumbered in a family dominated by men. And while my parents held my three older brothers to a very high standard to become educated and succeed, my sister and I were never expected to reach the same level.

Still, my mother never discounted my ability to do whatever I set my mind to. She was supportive of my curiosity in science and instrumental in helping me develop inner strength and a passion for continuous learning, without compromising my identity and integrity. And she inspired me. In her late 40s, raising five kids, she still found time to learn and work as a machinist in an integrated circuit board factory. This gave me hope.

When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to participate in a week-long educational program at the Imperial College London where I was exposed to all available science-related curriculums. Most of these were, as you could have guessed, male-dominated. But if it hadn’t been for this program and my exposure to technical sciences, I may not be where I am today.

After sitting through a week of classes, including hands-on experiments, I found myself drawn to computer science, a field I hadn’t previously thought would be a fit for me because of the small number of women involved. Most importantly, I knew what I was not interested in. When you are figuring out what your passions are, given the vast number of career choices, it is best to quickly identify what you don’t enjoy.

Sure enough, when I later attended the University College London, I was the only woman in my program of Computer Science with Electronic Engineering, making it apparent that I would often find myself as the only woman in this male-dominated space.

Over the course of my career I learned that women are their own harshest critics and, in turn, hold themselves back most of the time. In order to succeed in anything in life, you must always present yourself with the capabilities you see in the future, and believe that you can achieve something beyond what others expect of you.

It has also been my desire to inspire young girls to seek out careers in the sciences, and not be afraid to dive into a path that they feel is only for men. As the current CTO and EVP of Products at HyTrust, I work to encourage women to develop their own personal compass (which I also encourage for male employees, as well). If they can imagine and articulate what they want to do or become, they can develop a plan to achieve those aspirations. It really is every manager’s responsibility to help grow each individual they manage.

Many women focus very narrowly on what they can already do and “the now.” They usually don’t have strong ambitions or plans on what they want to do, say, in five years. Even I’m guilty of this — for example, I’ll be brutally honest about what I know, yet not even mention my ability to learn. When I joined HyTrust, I knew nothing about virtualization or cloud and now I’m considered an expert. So the better question to ask oneself is, “why can I not do something?” You’ll often find there’s nothing preventing you.

All you need is the ability to learn and the discipline to commit and work hard to achieve anything you desire. Just being aware of this can motivate women to do so much more and chase their dreams, just as I did. As the number of female top executives at technical companies continues to grow, I have no doubt that women are becoming more comfortable in fields historically dominated by men. By asking more questions, developing strong opinions and fostering relationships, women are setting a new bar for themselves to succeed like never before.

With more than 26 years of industry experience in the field of security, Hemma Prafullchandra is CTO and EVP of Products at HyTrust, where she is responsible for HyTrust strategy and its security and compliance innovations. Prior to HyTrust, she held senior management and technical roles at FuGen Solutions, VeriSign, Critical Path, Sun Microsystems and The Wollongong Group. Reach her @HyTrust.

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