How to begin navigating a career in technology
Recently I have been getting a ton of questions about my career in the Technology / Information Security space. Rather than trying to give 50 different answers of the same story I thought it would be easier to do a one stop shop article of my journey and some helpful tips.
If you would have asked me 10 years ago where did I think my 28-year-old self would be career wise, I would have said a top-notch International Lawyer (LOL). I was convinced that Law & Order was going to be my reality and I would be running the streets of the world as a prosecutor. It took only one internship with the Brooklyn's DA's office to dash that dream (law is not for me) and I switched gears into the Computer Science program at my Alma Mater, Baruch College. From that undergraduate program to now, as a Security Engineer, I mapped out how I was going to try and navigate the field. Here are some tips that helped me on my journey:
Map out a plan. When I was first navigating my career I was confused about the different avenues I could pursue in the field. I knew eventually I wanted to become a CTO, whether of a company of my own or else-wise, and researched the skillsets and credentials one would need to get there. For example, for entry-level positions I noticed they wanted individuals with an entry-level technology certifications, xyz amount of experience and proficiency in one coding language. Okay, I can't speed up time but I can get the certification and learn a language. Boom, I already have 2/3 skills lets apply. I would, and still do this, in order to keep up with the skillset of whatever role I am looking to do next. It not only puts me in a great position to qualify for the job, it helps me know what kind of skillset companies are looking for these days.
Internships or shadow studying. This was by far one of the biggest factors that helped me land my first full-time position. During my undergraduate career I did internships during the day and took classes in the evening. I applied to every organization that was looking in the city to help me get a wide variety of experience in various industries. I was a database intern for a nonprofit, help-desk for a financial firm, anything that gave me the ability to learn about how technology plays a part in the day to day. Some universities actually have their own internship programs in tech and that would be a great place to start. Already currently working a job? Go talk to your internal IT department and see if you can shadow or pick their brains regarding their career or technology. The main purpose of this is to try and get as much hands-on experience as you can. As great as it seems regarding the job market in technology, companies still look to see which candidates have some skills for entry-level jobs. This will definitely help you stand out in the list of candidates.
Certifications. I plan to do an article on the various certifications in the industry and how they map out to roles, but in the mean-time studying for certifications can also help lower the barrier to entry for positions in the field. Especially for those who do not have a degree in Computer Science, certifications help shows companies that you have achieved a proficient understanding in that subject. Entry level certifications such as the CompTIA A+, Network+ exams are great to get started with. The CompTIA A+ exam was the first exam I achieved before jumping to their Security + exam. CompTIA has vendor neutral exams, meaning they are not specific to any platform or vendor, and are widely accepted as proficient exams for entry level positions. Note: certifications do not substitute experience but they can help give you a great introduction to pass an interview.
Online Resources. When I didn't know something, or was too afraid to ask out-loud, Google became my best friend. If I needed practice on how to learn a new coding language, or maybe just didn't understand a concept being taught in school, I would Google and find resources and examples that resonated with me. I will always recommend to never be afraid to ask questions but just in case, research, research. research. There are a ton of free resources to help learn, practice and build your experience for a career in Information Security or Technology in general. Coursera, in my opinion has some of the best online courses for learning a variety of subjects. They even offer degrees, in partnership with accredited universities, for those interested in a more formal higher education experience. Code Academy is also a great resource for learning new languages such as Python, Ruby, and Go.
Understanding that it is difficult to jump straight into a Security role. This was by far one of the hardest lessons but once I understood this I was able to overcome a lot of the defeat I was feeling when I was being rejected for roles. Instead of staying in that defeat, I just put in the time and work necessary until I could get my foot in the door. I have spoken to many people who state that they want to jump into penetration testing roles as their first job. Trust me, I too, wanted this. The reality of the situation is that more often than not getting Security roles require time and patience as organizations are looking for experienced individuals, not ones that require up-skill to learn how to protect their data. Luckily, security is multifaceted and you can gain security experience in many other roles. For example, System Administrative roles deal with IAM (Identity and Access Management), which is a huge topic in Security. Network analysts deal with traffic and packets - that is network security. Just because you do not have the word "security" in your title does not mean you can't be involved in security.
It’s okay if you have a degree in another subject. These days you do not have to have an undergraduate degree in Computer Science to land a job. It is helpful, but not everyone has the time or resources to pursue another degree. Many individuals I have come across in the field have come from a variety of backgrounds - finance, law, healthcare - and all share a common interest in learning more about technology and how it can enhance their careers. The tips above can apply to anyone no matter where they are in their technology journey.