Kathy Liu (BA’15) on How Her Arts Degree Led to a Career in Cybersecurity

In February 2024, McGill Arts alumni Kathy Liu (BA’15 Political Science) was selected as part of a 50-person delegation to represent the world Economic Forum Global Shapers Community and the voice of young people at Davos, in which she was among the panelists at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting (#WSF2024). In their panel discussion ‘Cracking the Code’, she spoke about fostering cybersecurity innovation and cooperation against increasingly sophisticated cyber threats caused by emerging technologies like AI.

Kathy is the Digital Sovereignty - Global Senior Technology Business Development Manager at Amazon Web Services (AWS), building this emerging technology space in cloud computing. As a Global Shaper, she founded the award-winning Inclusive Cyber in 2018, directly impacting 1350+ underrepresented and atypical individuals in their cyber career pivots across Montréal, Kigali and London. In addition to being a leading voice in tech, she also writes about sports and society, and has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Chatham House Journal of Cyber Policy, World Economic Forum Agenda and Canadian Security Magazine.

We spoke to Kathy Liu on her post-McGill journey and she provided some insight on how various aspects of her McGill Arts background shaped her into the person she is today.

Would you mind telling us a bit about your experience at McGill? Why did you choose to pursue your BA at McGill?

KL: I chose McGill for the diverse and urban campus life; and Montréal is a vibrant bilingual city that truly matched the energy levels of my late teens. Having moved around growing up, I always knew I wanted to go to a university with an international curriculum, student body and recognition. I loved that the McGill Arts Faculty gives its students the flexibility to be undecided in their major during the first year (I was only 17 afterall!), and experiment around.

I definitely took advantage of this and eventually settled on a BA in Sociology and Political Sciences because I wanted to understand the dynamics that shape different communities. However, studying a BA wasn’t without its stigma, and I was often on the receiving end of jokes about my future employability. That’s why opinion pieces like this Montreal Gazette article from McGill Professor Maggie Kilgour are more important than ever - illustrating that “the evidence shows that humanities graduates go on to all kinds of interesting careers.” And I certainly did, as did my classmates!

What compelled you to pursue a Master in Public Administration (MPA) after your BA?

KL: After my BA, I gained work experience in International Organizations like the United Nations, but I wanted to further bridge the academic knowledge with practical implementation. I subsequently completed my MPA at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), specializing in financial and economic policy. It was there that I accidentally discovered cybersecurity. I took a cyber class as a Pass/Fail elective in the final semester of my two-year degree — admittedly to do something different than corporate finance — but it surprisingly became a pivot for my career! Looking back, careers are not meant to be the linear Sharpie lines I once imagined but are often dramatically squiggly. My MPA was one of the sharp corners in the squiggle!

What skills and interests did you develop during your Arts degree, and how have they played out in your career pathway, specifically in leadership?

KL: Whilst I used to complain about the hundreds of pages of reading per night — fuelled only by late night runs to the Timmies beneath McLennan — it taught me how to digest large volumes of information to see the big picture. All the essays I wrote, whether argumentative or comparative, helped me develop effective communication and problem-solving skills. Moreover, Sociology and Political Sciences were subjects that inherently imbued one with cultural literacy and the ability to interpret information from diverse perspectives. I believe these skills make BA graduates well-rounded leaders who become life-long learners, and who have the interpersonal skills to be a translator between different teams.

As the founder of Inclusive Cyber, can you tell us why you founded Inclusive Cyber and a bit about its mission?

KL: When I noticed that cybersecurity roles were not hiring from non-traditional backgrounds, like BA students, I realized that we are not building a diverse cyber talent pipeline that reflects the society we live in. That’s why in 2018, I founded Inclusive Cyber through the World Economic Forum Global Shapers Community. We help students from atypical backgrounds (e.g., Fine Arts, English Literature, Political Science) reframe their existing skills to best fit cyber roles, leveraging the NIST Cyber Education framework. Throughout 2021, I ran a series of McGill workshops titled ‘Mapping the Possibilities’, working with students across the entire Arts faculty to reimagine their transferable skills. In Canada, we have additionally delivered these workshops at Concordia University, Université de Sherbrooke, UQAM and University of Toronto, and we do a lot more in London and Kigali. We represent the youth voice in cyber workforce policymaking, working with ecosystem stakeholders like CyberEco in Québec and the UK Cyber Security Council; I also sit on the World Economic Forum Working Group on this topic.

Why is it important to you to actively work towards cybersecurity?

KL: I really credit it to my BA and MPA in shaping how I see cybersecurity, not just in terms of the technology, but very much in terms of the people and organizations involved. Cybersecurity is a deeply purposeful field because it safeguards our very digital future. I recently wrote an article for the World Economic Agenda on why cybersecurity is an enabler for so many causes that young people care about: climate change, gender equality and mental health. For example, “integrating cybersecurity into new green technologies, their supply chains and environmental data-sharing can help achieve sustainability in both senses of the word: reducing environmental harms and ensuring that these technologies are themselves built to last and carry out their purpose.”

Reflecting on your time at McGill, what advice would you give to current Arts students (both undergraduate and graduate level) as they look for future careers in Tech industries specifically or programs to apply to?

KL: The future of work is changing rapidly and the jobs of tomorrow will be more interdisciplinary than ever. The job I currently have didn’t exist 3 years ago. This is the moment to embrace being an Arts student and appreciate the well-rounded skills you acquire. Start by reflecting what your purpose is in tech, whether it’s to build responsible new technologies or make technologies more accessible to a wide population. Then learn and unlearn, again and again, demonstrating how you can supplement your existing skills with new evolving knowledge in tech. On a more practical side, take advantage of McGill’s Career Office and the very powerful McGill alumni network to be inspired by all the possibilities!

What makes you proud to be an Arts graduate and what was your favorite part of studying Arts at McGill in particular?

KL: Short and sweet answer - I am so proud to see all my classmates thrive despite all the stereotypes and stigma about Arts students, and each go on to embrace wonderfully surprising career paths. My favourite part about studying Arts in McGill itself was exploring identity and humanity while being rooted in a scientific approach - I can’t imagine a more topical discipline in today’s AI discourse!


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