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Tagiilima's journey to becoming Samoa's first woman cyber security expert

Monday, 15 June 2020

Tagiilima is currently studying a Master’s degree of Cyber Security in Melbourne. On completion of her degree, she will become the first Samoan woman based in-country to be a cyber-security expert.

Before her studies in Australia, Tagiilima was the Principal Business Data Analyst for Samoa’s Ministry of Finance, a position that she achieved after several career successes in Samoa’s private and public sectors and a position that she will return to once she graduates.

Tagiilima will use her IT skills and experience of working within a male-dominated environment to inspire Samoan women to become IT-literate and to be bold enough to follow their career aspirations. She would also like to set up information centres and an online platform that empowers Samoan women to access new career opportunities and skills-enrichment programs.

Where in Australia are you studying / did you study ?

Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology – Melbourne, Victoria

What is your current occupation / professional title?

Principal Business Data Analyst for Ministry of Finance, Samoa

Tell us a little about your life and career background before you started your Australian studies?

I was born into a big family - six brothers and four sisters - so altogether 11 children. Now I am a proud single mother of two beautiful children.

Education was important in our lives as we were growing up. Our parents instilled in us the importance of having an education and setting goals, to give us directions to work towards. ‘’Education is the key to success’’ is one important phrase that spoke to me and has fuelled my passion for learning.

One important figure in my life was my mother. Growing up, I noticed that my mother was always studying. Through the years I’ve lost track of her many degrees and achievements, and her example and achievements inspired me to keep looking for opportunities to further my own education.

A year before I graduated from the University of South Pacific in Fiji, my father passed away. Although he is no longer here with me, I still hear his counsel when I am about to give up because he was always the force that pushed us to do better.

Before I started my studies in Australia, I was working for the Government of Samoa’s Ministry of Finance as a Principal Business Data Analyst. I have been working in the IT sector since 2009, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science for USP-Fiji. I worked for two years in the private sector for a telecommunications company, Bluesky, and the other years have been under the Samoan government umbrella.

Tell us about an achievement you are most proud of?

As an individual, my proudest achievement was becoming a mother to my two beautiful children. Being a single mother in Samoa came with a lot of challenges but it instilled in me the strength to aspire to be a role model for my children.

I am also very proud of securing the opportunity to pursue my Master’s degree in Australia through Australia Awards. Getting here wasn’t easy but I’m grateful to my Heavenly Father and the unwavering support from family, friends and work. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

And I am grateful for the wonderful opportunities offered by Australia Awards, such as the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI), because it’s an experience that I am proud to be part of.

What inspired your choice of study / your choice of career in cyber security? Was it a memorable event, an experience, or a person that motivated you?

Samoa recently launched its submarine cable, with the prime goal to provide fast and affordable internet services. I saw this not only as an opportunity for my country but also as a threat. Having a better and a fast internet connection allows my people better connections with the outside world, but it also opens up a portal that makes Samoa a target of cybercrimes.

I chose a Master’s degree in Cyber Security instead of a Master’s degree in IT because cyber security is the current trend in the tech world.

Finding out during my Australia Awards interview that there were no cyber security experts in my country confirmed my decision.

An issue that I see affecting my country and community is technology illiteracy. Technology is a trend in the world today. However, my country has a lot of catching up to do in regards to technology and its development. I believe with stronger leadership, technology can be used to improve the way of life and also the career avenues of women in my country and community. There are not many women in the field of IT. However, I hope with stronger leadership, the numbers will increase and more women will pursue qualifications in cyber security and Information Technology. There is no cyber security expert in Samoa and if I successfully complete my Master's degree I may be the first woman cyber security graduate for Samoa. I hope to take advantage of this success, to share my knowledge and experiences and empower women in my community to take up education in any chosen field, as education is a pathway to a better and brighter future for them and their families.

What has been your biggest career challenge and how did you overcome it?

I think for me, the biggest challenge in my career is communication. Most of the times we IT experts are too technical with our terms when communicating with other people. They tend to be confused or they misunderstand what we are trying to relay to them. There are numerous ways to overcome this but three ways I now use are:

1. Use a common language and simple words to explain what I mean

2. If possible, demonstrate

3. Add a glossary of technical terms in a document

You will become the first Samoan woman based in Samoa to be a cyber-security expert – how do you feel about this? What are your thoughts on this?

I think being one of the first Samoan women based in Samoa to be a cyber-security expert is both scary and exciting. It’s scary knowing I will again be faced with reality as it can be challenging to put forward an idea to a male dominant sector. However, it is exciting because I hope to utilise the knowledge and skills that I have acquired through my degree to make a difference, not only in the IT sector but for the benefit of my country.

I want to be a leader who can empower Samoan women to use IT to access and take advantage of new opportunities and information.

What does being part of the Australia Awards Women’s Leadership Initiative mean to you?

The Australia Awards Women’s Leadership Initiative means a lot to me. I am proud and honoured to be a part of its 2019 Leadership and Mentoring program because it has helped me re-evaluate myself and my goals in life. It is building my confidence as a leader and helping me persevere to the end.

I see this opportunity as a blessing, because it has not only challenged me mentally but also physically. During the February intensive, I was able to do things that I never thought I could, like camping and sleeping in an open bivvy, and the most memorable and scary experience for me was abseiling.

The outdoor activities got us to build on team work and also helped us realise our potentials and weaknesses. We were able to utilise the strength of other team members to overcome our weakness. Relying on others and delegating is a sign of good leadership because these actions build your team’s capacity.

What’s something significant you have learnt already from your WLI experience?

A significant take-away from my WLI experience is the importance of all of us knowing our values, to identify who we are and what we are capable of. I have learnt that to make a change and become a leader that can empower other women, I must first be true and honest to my own values.

Everyone has different values and principles that are either taught to us by our parents or learned along our life journey. When faced with hardship or difficulties, we sometimes forget these values and who we are.

Being part of WLI, I have been able to evaluate and reflect of myself. I have identified self-discipline as a value barrier that I needed to overcome. Sometimes my surroundings and the people around me may influence my decision and choices, but from WLI, I’ve learned that my values make me who I am. Associating myself with people who share the same values will not only uplift me but will also push me to be a better leader.

Leadership is not just about you, it’s about the journey to achieving your goal and being supported by the people around you that share the same values.

How do you think you will be able to use the knowledge, skills or networks gained from WLI back home?

From this leadership experience, I have had the privilege to form a network with other Pacific sisters. We may have different disciplines but we share the same interest of becoming women leaders. This will not only assist our countries with their development but also empower other women in the Pacific to take a stand and become the leaders they also can be.

I hope that this friendship and network built through WLI will continue and one day we may collaborate with each other to serve our Pacific people.

It has also been a great experience to meet a high and respected woman who is already making a difference in my country as a leader, the Honourable Alofa.

Have your experiences with the WLI program changed your understanding of women’s leadership? How and in what way?

WLI has greatly changed my understanding of women in leadership roles. It has encouraged me to be courageous, to have a voice and to step out of the shadows and share whatever knowledge that I have to influence young minds and aspiring women, not only in my community but in the vast Pacific.

Women in leadership is a great platform to inspire positive changes in the development of women in the Pacific and in the world. It is a platform that women need to take advantage of to help strengthen each other, so that together we are effective and can enforce great change.

What are your thoughts on leadership generally and women’s leadership?

From my experiences as a mother, a Pacific scholar and a public servant I have come to understand that being a leader does not require you to do everything. A leader needs to delegate, to trust others, and be open minded.

As a mother of two and a supervisor to a number of employees, there have been many challenges but I have learnt that leadership is about being approachable, not being judgemental and to always lead by example.

I always analyse the issue, identify the possible solutions and evaluate costs. This is one of my strengths as a leader and decision-maker. I don't rush in decision making as I always want to see all possible actions before finalising a decision.

My daughter, who is nine years old, now makes life decisions on her own. A few months ago I was asked by my daughter which education system is better in our region. I told her to do an analysis by listing out the pros and cons and to decide for herself. She has now decided where she would like to be educated as a result of her findings.

This may seem like a simple example but teaching my children how they can face challenges by first identifying their options, and analysing the pros and cons of each decision before they decide what is best for themselves is not about being a parent but also being a leader. I believe if we start with leading in our families and with the people we love, we will have greater impacts as leaders within our communities and the country, because we will bring compassion and love to our communities and countries as we do in our families.

Women in the Pacific are still struggling to voice their opinions and pursue careers due to a long history of male domination and cultural aspects that prevents women from being independent, seek higher education, and enter the workforce and positions in the government. Women are still considered to be more effective at home and in the villages. As a single mother of two children, I aspire to change the stigma towards women and to be a role model for my children, sisters and women in the wider community, to ensure that their voices are heard and to show them that there is life outside of your family, home, kitchen, village and your country.

In Samoa, there is a saying based on a legendary story that goes "E au le inailau a tamaitai", meaning that whatever task women set out to do is completed. I believe women have great potential and when given the opportunity they can do wonders. With strong leadership, the men and leaders of Samoa and the surrounding communities will be able to see women as their equal, hence the need to fight for gender equality.

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This story was originally published on Australia Global Alumni