I have done a lot of self-reflection over the past few months. From finishing my bachelor’s degree, to now looking for my first job in infosec, I have been looking back at the path that brought me to where I am today.
In a world where more and more people seem to be getting their degree from a four-year institution, it can be tempting to fall into the standard line of thinking that a college degree is the only means of obtaining success. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Where it all started
Growing up in a family that struggled financially, I didn’t have the opportunity to attend private school. My family was unable to provide the things we often look at as traditional indicators of future success. What I did have is a mother that pushed me to be more than I thought I could be.
When I was sixteen, I moved out of my parent’s house. I had made the decision that my home life was not conducive to my success, so I dropped out of school and moved to Bangor, Maine to attended Job Corp. In my time at Job Corp, I met new friends and I learned new skills. I even completed my GED while I was there.
After Job Corp, there was a period of time where I was lost. I didn’t work and I didn’t know how to apply the skills I learned in Job Corp to get a job that would make use of them. I wanted to attend college, so I applied to the Art Institute of San Francisco with one of my friends from Job Corp.
Venturing off the beaten path
I remember getting the acceptance letter. I was so excited that I was going to go to college. However, it was not meant to be. I had no means to pay for college, and at the time my parents were not in a position to co-sign for me to get loans. I was devastated.
It was soon after this that I decided my path forward was to join the military. At the age of 20, working a dead-end job and seeing no positive future for myself, I contacted the Navy recruiter.
It was May of 2005 when the recruiter came to my house to speak with me and have me take the practice ASVAB. I scored decently, and the recruiter pointed me towards going into the Advanced Electronics Computer Field, which consisted of Fire Controlman and Electronics Technicians.
That July I entered boot camp and graduated near the end of September. I was assigned to the Electronics Technician “A” school and completed my classes the next May. In June I was sent to my “C” school to learn how to repair surface search radars.
Taking the reins
It was from this point forward that my journey really began. When I reported to my first command, the USS Normandy, I learned that the radar I had gone to school to work on, was just removed from the ship. My new Master Chief decided that I needed another school.
Over the next seven and a half years, I would attend multiple schools including two different Identification Friend or Foe schools and Electronic Test Equipment Calibration. Each school adding valuable skills to my skill set.
During my time in the Navy, I met my wife, got married, and had a child. It was finally time for me to get out of the military and move on. It was time to take the skills I had accrued over the last seven years and utilize them for something else.
The Navy had taught me some important lessons. From classes designed specifically to help find a job to information about what to look for in reputable colleges. Although these might seem like common knowledge to some, these are things that I would learn at the age of 28.
Out of my comfort zone
Taking this new knowledge, I quickly applied it to finding a job. After a few interviews at Job Fairs, I was offered a position at a CNC manufacturing company. I quickly jumped on this opportunity, even though I had little in the way of mechanical troubleshooting skills.
My first six months at my new job were rough. I had to learn a whole new set of mechanical troubleshooting skills on equipment that I had never heard of before. I was not a technician for a CNC router manufacturer.
I was not great at mechanical troubleshooting, but I wasn’t terrible at it either. But there were other things that I was good at. I was good at troubleshooting the control systems for the CNC routers. I was also teaching myself to program in C++ in my hotel room at night.
Utilizing my strengths
I began using my new programming skills to create programs that would help me. My first program was one that automated the updating of a text file that one of the machine controls needed to function.
Eventually my employer took notice. It was about two years after I had started that they approached me and asked me if I would be willing to take on a programming project that they had in mind. It would be a simple project that would allow people to see what their CNC routers were doing from their computer.
I agreed and spent my nights in the hotel rooms and many weekends working on the project. As time went on, the requirements for the project grew. I was spending more and more of my off time working on the project. After a year and a half, they decided to bring me in house and stop my traveling.
I was now in the controls department and spending much more of my time working on the project. While my main job had changed, I was still responsible to assisting the tech staff troubleshoot problems with customers over the phone. I was also one of only two people in the building that had a firm grasp on networking.
I began taking on more programming projects. Most of them revolving around various machine functions and many of them were required to work over the network. Each project inevitably had bugs and problems working on various customer’s network configurations. Each of these incidents increased my knowledge of programming and networking.
As time went on I began conducting network training for the tech staff and I began fixing problems with the existing internal networking of the machines. I took on projects that required me to have knowledge of various protocols such as Modbus, Ethernet/IP, as well as legacy protocols such as NetBEUI.
The small software project that I had started, had turned into a suite of products that won a first place award at a woodworking trade show in Las Vegas and was now one of the main marketing tools the company used to sell routers.
Looking for something new
While my work kept me challenged, I felt as if something was missing. I had received raises during my time there, almost doubling what I started at, but I couldn’t help but feel as if I could do better. I decided that it was time to go back to school.
I applied for the cybersecurity program at Bellevue University in Nebraska. I was accepted, only this time I had the GI Bill to pay for my school. There would be no problems with finances this time.
It would take me just over two years to complete my degree. During that time, I got involved with various groups and began to find new paths and set new goals. I joined VetSec and a local cybersecurity meetup in my area.
It is now that I am sitting here reflecting on my journey that I realize that success is not an overnight thing. There are no quick easy shortcuts. It is a process. It is a mentality. It is something that you need to work at and it is something that is different for each person.
I was able to find success with only a GED and a refusal to fail. Each person needs to find their own way forward, but there is way. A college degree is not a requirement. I did eventually get my degree, but I got my degree did so for my own personal satisfaction. I did so because I am the first person in my family to get a degree.
I understand and I am thankful for all the opportunities that I have been given. Without the support of the people around me and a good amount of luck I may not be where I am today. But it is important to understand that luck is just one factor in the calculation. Some of those factors you have control over and other you do not.
In the end, I hope that by taking you along with me as I reminisce, you have seen that you too can be successful. You may not have been dealt a great hand, but with the right attitude and the proper support, you too can break away from the pack.