One of the questions I get asked routinely is how I got started in this business of technology. Quite frankly…I was simply venturing into uncharted territory as a brazen young man not at all afraid of what life or the world would throw at me. I wanted to do what people said couldn't be done. Prove that a college dropout could be a game changer. Of course it didn't matter that other college dropouts such as Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Larry Ellison (Oracle) and many others had already proven it. I, Dave Nelson, also needed to prove it. I did eventually return to college and finish my degree, but I had already been very successful to that point. Finishing the degree was more about pride than anything else.
Though my method worked for me, it's not how someone just starting out wants to approach their career. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to all but the craziest risk junkies. Instead I like to point people in the direction of career management. It looks a little different for the college student than a practicing professional so I'll lay out some guidance for the student first. In my next post I'll address the steps existing IT pros should take to break into security.
Step one for students is to pick your career field wisely. Information technology for the most part isn't glamorous or sexy. (Think datacenter in a basement with no natural light…). InfoSec is even worse. You're known as the "NO" people. Even within the IT ranks we're not appreciated or even liked at times. You've got to have thick skin and broad shoulders in this field. You know how TV cops always hate Internal Affairs? Yep…same deal here.
So if you're still reading you must have some interest in this field. That's a good start. Traditionally people moved into a security role from some other technical field such as server and network administration or application development. They knew a specific area really well and are able to find the holes or weaknesses. Up until a few years ago you really couldn't find any mainstream colleges or universities which offered InfoSec or IA programs. That has changed. If you are planning for, are now in or will be returning to college you have many options to choose from. There are bachelors and masters level degrees available which will help you get your foot in the door. The Information Assurance Center at Iowa State University, which is an NSA Center of Academic Excellence, offers a masters certificate and Master of Science degree in Information Assurance.
The federal government is also offering scholarships and fellowships for students in this arena. You go to school on their dime, get a stipend while in school then agree to work for a federal agency for a certain number of years. If that deal had been available to me I'd have jumped at it. It's a crazy to go into debt to the tune of $40,000 or more just for an education when there are plenty of people who are willing to pick up the tab. While working for the US government might not be your first choice you might actually like it. You get to see technology which lots of smaller companies don't use or can't afford. There are lots of promotional opportunities and the pay is very competitive due to some recent changes in the compensation structure for had to fill career fields. You might also get a security clearance which is VERY valuable to government contractors should you ever decide to move into the private sector.
Don't expect to come out of college as an InfoSec Ninja Master though. It will still take you years of on the job experience to develop a fully rounded skill set. What it will do for you is better prepare you to view technology and business integration from a risk perspective. This typically isn't taught in Computer Science or MIS course work. In order to be successful you'll need a broad understanding of different technology components. Take course work in various disciplines such as application development, network infrastructure, communication protocols, cryptography and computer architecture. It won't all make sense to you at first. As you mature in the profession things will begin to click. You need to be able to see the larger portrait that's being painted, not just the individual brush strokes immediately in front of you.
InfoSec is still a maturing field. As we move forward we're finding better ways to recruit and retain talented individuals. We're also learning that just because someone understands security, they might not be really good and understanding and working with the business to reduce risk. You have to be technical but also have some business acumen to truly succeed in this field today.
One last bit of advice as I close. Never, ever get involved with any activity which could be considered illegal, unethical or immoral either online or in the physical world. Remember, the standard you're judged against may not be your own. This career is based on trust. Without trust you have no future. Pick your friends and acquaintances wisely. (Sorry…the father in me just jumps out sometimes…can't help it.)
Next time I'll speak to those already in the IT field who want to break into InfoSec. Stay tuned…