My Story

How I started in InfoSec

Posted by Jessica Wilson on 2017-02-09

I want to dedicate this blog post to all the other women in information security, new or veteran. I think it is so important to share our stories so others canknow it is okay if you do not find information security, or even technology related careers in a tradition, been doing this your whole life, kind of path.

Early On

To be honest, if you would have asked me at a young age if I was going to have something to do with computer security when I grew up, I would have given you a very strange look, and probably told you that I was going to be president, I didn't have time for computers. Computers were cool, I enjoyed going online, or playing games on them. However, girls didn't do that for a living, girls weren't encouraged to take a major interest in information technology. Sure, we all had to take a typing class in middle school. However that was as much as my school required me to take. In high school, I became interested in math and sciences, mostly due to a few phenomenal teachers I had that made it fun for me. It was a fun challenging puzzle. My school also required us to take math and science courses, while computer courses were an elective.

Fast forward to community college

By the time I graduated in 2007, I knew what I wanted to be. I wanted to be an engineer and use physics on a daily basis. I loved taking AP Calculus and AP Physics in high school, so I figured, sure, why not make a career out of this? I chose to go to community college because I came from a lower income family and to me, community college made more financial sense. Washtenaw Community College was as fine a school as any to me. They had a pre-engineering focus I could transfer to many different schools. I enjoyed it, until I hit the dreaded Differential Equations. At that point, math no longer made sense to me. I also found a lack of faith in what job I could get after graduation. Sure, I would be an engineer, but what did that really mean? What would I do day to day? Where would I apply for jobs? Would I be needed by the time I graduated? I began to despair.

Between Differential Equations and my loss of faith in my career choice, I slowed down on the number of classes I was taking. I was trying to find my place in this world. What did I really want to be when I grew up? Then life started catching up with me. Car payment, phone payment, rent, insurance, utilities, just so many bills. I decided to take only a few classes if I could, and ensure I worked 40 hours a week. I bounced from retail job to retail job, trying to tell myself I would be happy being a manager at a retail store. I got a different job, and tried to tell myself I could settle here. However, I was never happy where I was. I knew I couldn't do this for the rest of my life. I decided to try another major - first as a healthcare professional. I figured I could take a few classes and see if I liked it. I didn't, I'm completely terrified of needles and hate sick people. So that was out. Next I decided business. So many people get their bachelors in Business. That makes sense right?However, I ran into the same issue I had in engineering - What job would I have if I had a degree in Business? Did I really want to do something like accounting, or marketing? Not really... Maybe HR! Oh wait, I have a lot of social anxiety and I hate confrontation if I can avoid it.

While working as an office manager for a landscape company I finally got an idea. In the first couple months of when I started, the company was upgrading their entire network, of 5 computers. However this gave me an idea - What is never going away and could be fun? The guy installing our new network seemed to really enjoy the challenge. Maybe I could too? I had enjoyed the internet for most of my life, why not work with the machines that brought it? It took me over a year to gather the courage to start. It was something I had never considered before. I had no idea if I was going to be any good. I had a general education class in community college that had to do with computers, but it had been years since I had taken that class. I decided to meet with an advisor at Washtenaw Community College, and see what my options were. They referred me to Eastern Michigan University's Information Assurance program. I met with an advisor there, and he told me tales of riches and fortune. He told IA was one of the most flourishing fields, and women had a ton of opportunities, such as scholarships and grants. I decided to take the risk.

My first semester in IA

In the Fall of 2014, I finally started going back to school. I enrolled at EMU, taking 3 intro classes, Introduction to Information Security, Risk and Vulnerability Analysis, and Concepts of Network and Business Technology. It was possibly the most intimidating semester I've ever had. Here I was at 24, trying a new major where I had no real experience. While my Introduction to Information Security class was helpful in learning the very basics, it was online, so it had a minimal effect on my career. However, in both Risk and Vulnerability Analysis, and Concepts of Network and Business Technology, I was one of maybe 4 women. Otherwise, I was surrounded by men. Men who seemed to know all of the concepts we were being taught. Men who had built their own computers, or who had set up entire networks at their homes. I sat there wondering what in the world a "cmd" was. What in the world was an IP address? I thought the internet just happened through magic. All of this was brand new to me.

In my Risk class, we at least looked at risk as a whole, not just strictly from a technological aspect. We were assigned a class project of performing a risk assessment on a local business. We broke the project into People, Process and Technology risks. I was terrified to join the Technology group and instead decided to lead the the People group because People were what I knew. I had worked a number of odd jobs in customer service, so I figured I could handle that. I was also quite fortunate to have a great professor in this class who taught to all levels. He understood this was the first class many of us had taken in the major, and introduced new concepts in a way that allowed everyone in the class to learn. He also made it a point to reach out to every student to help them any way he could. I can never say thank you enough to him for doing this. This was one of the classes that helped give me confidence in myself in this major.

Things were a bit different in my Network class. This was much more tech focused. It covered concepts such as basic networking, IPs, what a Windows server was, all the topics necessary to go further into our major. However, for me, a woman who had never thought about spelling IT before I decided to go into this major, it was incredibly overwhelming. I sat in a room full of men who seemed to almost be bored, while I was struggling to keep up. While the teacher was a great person, he tended to jump around to different concepts very quickly. I had an extremely hard time keeping up. I read each chapter twice every week trying to make sure I understood the concepts we were learning. So much of this class was brand new to me. However, being a room full of people who seemed to understand what was going on, I was scared out of my mind to raise my hand and ask a question I was sure was dumb. I didn't want to be looked down on. It was hard enough being one of the few women in class, I was afraid I didn't belong, I clearly didn't know as much as my peers.

One more thing happened to me that really made a difference in my life, I joined our Information Assurance Student Association. The professor I had for my Risk class told me about it, and I decided this was the best path for me. Getting a chance to meet other people in the major that had been in the same classes as me gave me hope I might find someone to help explain classes to me. I hoped it could give me some of the support structure I needed to give me some confidence in myself. This was probably the single best thing I decided to do for my career. I made friends in this major. I got to learn from so many different people who seemed to love being there. The club helped inspire me to do better. They helped me feel like I really belonged in this major. I can honestly say I would never have accomplished what I have without being in the club. Later, I was elected to lead the club, which was such a great honor to me.

Finding where I belong

After succeeding in my first semester, I continued to study hard and dedicate all my free time to learning this craft. There have definitely been a few times where I have struggled, particularly in trying to find my first internship in the field. It can be quite demoralizing having a tough time getting a job, being turned down from company after company, just trying to get your first break. However, because I not only reached out within the club, I also reached out within the infosec community in Michigan and attended every meet up and gathering I could, I started to gain more confidence that I would find a job. I finally found my first summer internship from a friend and fellow classmate that allowed me to test the waters of this field, and love it even more. I've been very lucky to find a great support system that allows me to learn from my peers and help them learn as well. If it wasn't for the patience of people in my first semester in this major, I would never have succeeded in the way I did.

Wrapping up

Thank you to everyone who read all the above. I hope this helps inspire some women who feel they may not belong in the field to realize they do, and they need to find a group to help them gain confidence in who you are. Every person who wants to learn tech belongs, no matter how you started out. I also want to thank every one ofthe people I've met in the community. Every person has helped me in some way to become a contributing member to this field. I also hope all of you who have read this will take some time and think about how you can give back to a community that gave so much to you. Volunteer for outreach programs for people of minorities to join the field. Reach out to student organizations and inspire the next generation of security professionals by giving a talk about what you do. It truly can make the difference of someone believing in themselves and aspiring to greater things.