Cybersecurity Program Manager
Qivliq Federal Group
Mary HorseChief is a cyber security program manager at Qivliq Federal Group. She has been with the Akima family of companies for seven years.
In the early days of the dot-com era, Mary HorseChief, then a student at Old Dominion University (ODU), decided to switch majors. Goodbye engineering; hello information systems and technology. That move, it turns out, was the stepping stone to a meteoric rise in information technology — and 18 years later, Mary is determined to get more women to follow in her footsteps.
Not long after changing majors, Mary got the opportunity to delve deeper into the IT world. She began interning with the Indian Health Service, the federal agency headquartered in Rockville, Maryland, responsible for administering health care to federally recognized Native American tribes. Her first project? Building a website, which she did — in a week. “They asked, ‘What are we going to do with you for the rest of the summer?’” Mary recalls.
In addition to expanding her tech skills, the internship provided insight into how federal government worked – which later came in handy. After graduating from ODU, Mary first landed at the airline, Independence Air. She worked her way up from the help desk to desktop support to systems administration. When the company went belly-up in 2006, she took a job as an IT consultant, working in various federal agencies, including the Department of Energy. It was there she first tried her hand at information security. Soon, she found unexpected encouragement.
“I remember the Department of Energy’s security officer mentioning that I was good at it,” Mary says. And so, she began gravitating away from general IT and toward more security-centric work. Mary continued on that path when she left DOE and ended up at the Patent and Trademark Office, where she began taking on leadership roles. “I loved it,” she says. “Even on smaller teams, I was always the person taking control — and it’s been like that ever since high school.”
Eventually, Mary landed at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the federal government’s development finance arm. It didn’t take long for the chief information officer and his deputy to take notice. They asked her to become OPIC’s chief information security officer. It was an offer she couldn’t refuse. “The only thing I didn’t like was that I was kind of a one-person team,” Mary says. “I work best in teams.”
After three years, it was time to move on, and she set her sights on New Mexico. For a while, she was the solo security person working at Qivliq Federal Group, an Alaska Native Corporation. By 2014, she oversaw a 10-person team. Two years later, Mary had been promoted to program manager, and the team had nearly doubled. “I had a lot of really good opportunities come my way,” she says when explaining her rise through the ranks. “I think a lot of people second-guess themselves, and they won’t go for it. When I was younger and people said, ‘You’re not ready for it,’ I just decided I was going to go for it.”
But mentors, whether peers or bosses, also played a key role in Mary’s career — and she now wants to return that favor. “It’s hard getting women into IT. It’s hard to get women into security,” she says. “It’s perceived as a men’s profession. But I really want to work on getting more women into IT and cybersecurity.” For the young women who want to follow in her footsteps, Mary has some sound advice: Don’t give up. “Nobody knows what they’re doing,” she says. “Everybody has impostor syndrome — you can’t know everything. But stick with it — and believe in yourself.”