I had a compelling “why”

Karen Worstell, Senior Cyber Security Strategist, VMware, Denver, Colorado

Feature | Denver, Colorado | 16 March 2022
Karen Worstell, a Denver based senior cybersecurity strategist with VMware and a published author, says that she ended up getting into cybersecurity accidentally. Thanks to her brother she realized she was good at coding and really liked it, which lead her to pursue a master’s degree in computer science. 2vmware photo
“I actually got into cybersecurity by accident!,” exclaims Karen Worstell, a published author and Denver, Colorado based senior cybersecurity strategist at VMware, a major Silicon Valley software company.

“I was very fortunate to have a college degree but for a variety of choices of my own making, I found myself in a situation where I literally had thirteen dollars in my pocket to last me for two weeks. I was at the market and wanted to buy apples for my two kids who were toddlers at the time and I couldn’t afford to,” she soberly recalls.

“I had to ask the produce manager if he had any apples that he’d already pulled from the shelves that I could buy from him at a discount. And that was the moment that I told myself I had to do something and make a change.”

After experiencing desperate situations, and with some encouragement from her older brother, Worstell was motivated to make that change and improve the quality of her and her children’s lives.

“My older brother who was actually a hacker came over with his TRS-80 Radio Shack computer, this was in the early 1980’s, put it on my kitchen table and said, ‘Sister you need to learn to code’ and that was the most intimidating thing for me as I had no computer background. But with his help and support, I learned to code and find out I was really good at it and I really, really liked it,” Worstell emphasizes with a big grin.

Her newly discovered passion and proclivity for coding prompted Karen to pursue a degree in computer science at her local university, and despite voices of doubt in her head, she went ahead and applied. Two years later she graduated with a master’s degree in Computer Science.

Her strong work ethic, passion for technology and her desire to better provide for her children and secure their future, are what Worstell says motivated her to do well in her career. Although at times she doubted her ability to succeed in technology, she persevered and eventually become the CEO of a Silicon Valley company. @vmware photo
“Ten years later I was the CEO of a Silicon Valley company and from there I went on to become a chief information officer for companies like AT&T Wireless, Microsoft, and Russell Investments, so it truly was for me an unfolding of opportunity,” Worstell reveals of her journey and impressive roster of company affiliations.

“Meaningful work is the greatest gift that we can be given,” Worstell declares. “And there is this moment where you get the whisper in your heart that says, ‘do this thing,’ and your head will say ‘this makes no sense.’ I just want to say do it because you never know where it’s going to lead to, and I definitely think there’s a reason why we get those whispers of the heart,” Karen claims with profound conviction.

In discussing the importance of work and what it means to her, Karen highlights the importance of connection, contribution and community. “I’ve been both a chaplain and a cybersecurity strategist and for me work is about connecting people, about contributing to other people’s lives, about what I receive as a result of my labor and then turning it back to my community, and making something matter in my community,” she insists.

“It’s something that contributes to society, another person and creates a positive change,” Karen underscores.

While her work in cybersecurity is very technical, Karen stresses that it is also centered around people, which she says is the most important part, in addition to the technology and process components. “We talk about cybersecurity like a three-legged stool. It has a people component, a technology component and a process component,” she notes. “While technology is the tool, it’s all about people which is the most important part of it all.

Work for Karen means being able to connect with people, making contributions to their lives and making things matter in her community. She describes technology as being an enabler for people helping in many areas including job creation. @vmware photo
Technology, Worstell says, is “an enabler” for people citing that it helps companies create jobs and better lives for people, decision-making systems, smart cities, better healthcare and how to run government more efficiently.

As far as the characteristics and skills needed to do well in her line of work, Karen says people who possess “a strong sense of service, and a strong sense of wanting to make a difference,” prevail. “People who are mavericks, who look at things differently and have a natural curiosity and conviction about using their gifts and talents to make the world a better place are what I look for in people,” she points out.

Bringing attention to the jobs and people who work in technology, Karen, who also mentors’ people especially girls and women looking to get into cybersecurity, states that there are an estimated 800,000 open positions for cybersecurity in the U.S. and close to 3.5million worldwide, highlighting the immense opportunities in this field.

When asked about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on her work, Karen replies, “I was already working remotely and already had many of the technology tools to help me work from anywhere at my disposal. We have a saying at VMware that we can work from anywhere on any device on any application in any cloud. It’s just ultimate flexibility.”

In discussing her success and how she has arrived at where she is, Karen attributes her strong work ethic which she says she inherited from her father and her children. “There were many moments where I should have probably failed,” she admits. “But I had a compelling why. My compelling why was that I wanted to raise my children and prepare them for the future, which I am grateful I was able to do with hard work. I think that’s been the biggest gift from my job for me,” she says beaming with pride and a sparkle in her eyes.