From helicopter mechanic to head of cybersecurity
Tom’s story starts in the Army, where he served as a helicopter mechanic for 15 years. During that time, he worked with a computerized time tracking system called ULLS-A, which he credits as his first introduction to networks and systems.
After completing his service, Tom returned to the U.S. and pursued a career in IT. “I didn’t want to come home from work greasy and dirty anymore,” he jokes. Soon enough, he landed a position at the Department of the Navy as an IT contractor where he provided network support, managed servers and implemented the department’s first antivirus program. While gaining valuable hands-on experience with routers, networks and switches, he also earned his CCNA certification.
When I get something thrown at me, I want to go full tilt and get done what I can get done.
Tom now works with a small team at the Connecticut State Department of Education supporting over 11,000 students and 1,800 staff members with everything from creating accounts to working remotely to imaging computers. When his boss unexpectedly retired last summer, Tom took on two new titles, each with their own set of responsibilities: VPN admin and security admin.
While he found cybersecurity interesting, it wasn’t exactly familiar to him. But he took the titles in stride and viewed the change as a new opportunity to learn. “When I get something thrown at me, I want to go full tilt and get done what I can get done.”
Aspirations to implement cybersecurity training
As the new cybersecurity go-to, Tom is responsible for keeping networks secure, protecting personal information and making sure users understand possible threats. But as someone with years of experience on the server side, Tom knows education is going to be the hardest — and most important — part. “You can harden servers and secure the network, but if the end user does not understand the basics then that is a direct route inside the network.”
While security awareness hasn’t always been a priority for the district, one of Tom’s first action items is to implement cybersecurity training for all users. That way, students and staff can identify potential attacks and prevent their accounts from being compromised daily. Then, he’ll work on building out an educational program for those who may be interested in pursuing cybersecurity as a career.
“Phishing never stops,” Tom says. “And since we are also a technical school district, I would like to implement cybersecurity into the curriculum for our students to possibly introduce them into this field.”
But at the end of the day, Tom aspires to learn more about cybersecurity because he knows how important it is to protect those in his school district. “Security is often an overlooked program and process,” he admits. “But I want to be able to provide this security, monitor for intrusions, react to them properly and take the correct actions.”
Advice from an experienced IT professional
While Tom’s successful career speaks volumes about his ability to dive in and roll with the punches, he offers three other pieces of advice to up-and-coming professionals:
1. Complete your certifications
While a degree proves you’ve got the foundational knowledge, Tom emphasizes the importance of getting certified — especially if you don’t have a lot of prior training. “Certifications show that you have that specialized knowledge,” he says. “Before my boss retired, he said that the only reason he hired me was for my CCNA.”
2. Keep your skills sharp
While continuous learning is essential to staying relevant, Tom also stresses the importance of perfecting your existing skills. “Technology never stops advancing. You’ve got to keep up on it,” Tom advises. “If you don’t use your skills often, then you forget about them.”
3. Volunteer to get hands-on experience
Breaking into the industry, especially right out of school, can be challenging without hands-on experience. But Tom says to seek out opportunities that will make your resume stand out. “Go to a senior center and start teaching senior citizens how to use computers,” he suggests. “Volunteer to help out the IT team at your school. See if any nonprofit organizations offer volunteer opportunities. Whatever way you can find to get experience.”