Career reflections and advice to my students

I have been reflecting on my career and how I got to where I am in my professional life as the last year winds down and the new year begins. Part of the reflection is due to the on going feeling of risk from the transition of the Purdue College of Technology into the Purdue Polytechnic Institute. Part of the reflection is due to the issues I see with returning veterans and my students seeking employment. Part of the reflection is that it is just good to do as part of living a life with intention and purpose. I always try to live up to goals and achieve what I think of as my mission in life.

My career has always been about security. Not information security, not physical security, but the big security. The kind of security that is I’ve got stuff, and I want to keep my stuff, and I’m willing to tell you no to taking my stuff in vigorous ways. I did a year in the Washington National Guard, and two years in the United States Marine Corps. I call that security with a gun. I did a year working patrol for a small city police force. I was a part time officer on a contract. A different way than most think of it. I did 7 years working in the jails, transporting prisoners, doing court room security and keeping bad people away from the supposedly good people. I transitioned in 1993 to working on information security. I took contracts from dozens of people in dozens of places from pulling wire (not security) to installing firewalls (supposed security) to doing risk assessments in a pre-regulation era (real security).

In 1999 I jumped to the big leagues and took on a huge job involving nearly a $100 million project of global scope. Some of this job was managing people who pulled wire, but a big part of the job was in creating the processes that people would use to secure customer networks. It seemed that my job at the time was to scale my expertise. I did similar jobs from 1999 to 2003 where I had direct and substantial impact across a wide variety of industries. Working 16 hours a day and traveling almost every day to new jobs had me doing the mental shuffle. I burned out in industry like so many of my student have done. I was kind of surprised. I’d made it ten years when my friends were only making it 5 or maybe 6 years. White collar salaried positions were absurdly abused by companies.

I then went into academia. Consider that I only had a masters degree and I actually made tenure you might laugh. How in the heck could somebody do that? I worked 16 hours a day and 7 days a week. I taught 4 and sometimes 5 classes a semester. Since nobody had a core curriculum I created it all along side the teaching duties. Plus I did original and substantial research. My publication record was enough I got tenure. Early. I served the university and was ready to be promoted to full professor when I left to work for a short time at another university.

I had also gone on to get a PhD in a “grow our own” program from the main campus of my university system. Fun, difficult, and a 100 mile commute each way to classes 3 days a week. I received no support or consideration from my home department. So I got a fellowship and had to pay back a year of service to the federal agency that sponsored me. The Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency wanted their pound of flesh. So, I moved to Washington DC and gave up tenure.

That would be interesting enough but the powers at the National Defense University and the federal government determined that “cyber” stuff wasn’t a priority and told those of us who did the job to get out. Literally. So, we all left and headed to traditional academia and I’m back at my original university but on the main campus. Yes, I do have a tenure. Which is where we now begin to reflect on a professional, a profession, and a discipline.

My career path does not have focus. Some see this as a significant issue and it is held against me. I have had numerous employers and what appears to be a law enforcement career (became a senior officer and quit), a career in industry (got to a director level and quit), an academic career (got to a point of being promoted to full professor and quit), and finally I’m back to muddling along in academia reflecting on where to next. The academy holds my quitting against me as if I were evil. Senior academics who came along the traditional path say, “You gave up tenure you aren’t serious about academia.”  Industry holds me being in academia against me. Industry types say, “Those who can do, and those who can’t, teach.” Government doesn’t trust anybody who works at a university as obviously we’re a den of evil communists.

Consider that I wasn’t even in college until I was 28 years old. I didn’t get a PhD until my 40s. I’m a non-traditional student with a vast swath of industry and practical experience. Some in academia like that, but the reality is that I’m “not one of them.” I’m an outsider with experiences that have no bearing on the reality of a research university. In industry I think to much for the many of the players. I talk about “evidence” or “past practices” and people say nasty things about “playing doctor.” Of course, some of that is people in industry often conflate a doctorate with under-water basket weaving philosophy courses. My doctorate is in TECHNOLOGY, as in the study of the art and craft of work. I study tools and processes that make my area of expertise, information assurance and security (specifically computer forensics), better.

So why so serious? The human resource systems used by companies simply don’t handle a candidate like me very well. I’m concerned that some of the same issues for my military veteran students are also caught by the trap. A series of divergent roles and duties that lead to a culmination point can be seen as a scattered career and parsed as little to no experience. I tease my military veteran students that they have 2 years of experience 10 times not 20 years of experience. To be sure I’m teasing. They have 2 years in multiple countries, geographies, systems, leadership levels, and verification and validation of those aspects literally under fire. There is no crucible in adventure or business even close to the stress and growth of the military community. Regardless of what business leaders or celebrities have to say. The only thing close might be police officers and fire fighters.

My non-traditional students struggle to define themselves as they move from law-enforcement or rescue type work. My traditional students who are much younger don’t seem to struggle as much. I’m no longer surprised by the youth worship of the high technology employers. I am surprised when I get asked to consult and the work actually is technician level work. You know because I’m in academia. I warn my military-veteran students that even though they were in charge of a billion dollar budget few companies will turn over their books to them without testing them first. One reason is government is a horrible place to use as a reference for skill with budgets.

That brings up another point. The military veteran should realize they aren’t in the military anymore and they must relax into the culture they are assuming. Civilian culture will not change or adapt to them regardless of how many hard core years of military service they gave. They gave that service to support that culture they are getting into, and not to return to the civilian world and remake it into the military. I’m guilty of that sin myself. Every time you say, “At such and such place this is how we did it.” You are wrong. Just accept it. It is much better to just say, “Have you considered doing it this way?” Then forget about the credit to where you learned that task. Just trust me on this.

Reflection is good. Whining is not. I know as an academic my grants and funding writing is abysmal. As an academic you are held accountable for the total funding you’ve sought in the last year ($30 million for me). You are out of that number apportioned some level of credit by percentage of what actually comes in ($1 million for me). Then that last number is parsed by “gifts in kind” and “dollars”. That puts me at less than 5% funding. Not good. My academic CV and publications aren’t up to the standard of some faculty. I realize that and have worked on it. One book never made it past proposal, and I don’t publish in IEEE journals or ACM journals that are closed access. I also choose (all of this is on me no other person) to not publish or review for Elsevier or other punitive publication journals. I’m only a fair teacher. Some student love me and some students hate me. Most are in the middle of the road. I had a student zero me out on my evals this year which hurts kind of like stubbing your toe. These are the areas called opportunities for growth.

For my military veteran students I ask them what are you doing and how do you know you are doing it right? What is the metrics of validation in your new career? Never mind what other people impose on you, but what are your metrics? You should always be aware of what the hiring community looks at when evaluating your capabilities and successes. Otherwise you might find yourself feeling really good about yourself and unemployed. Be aware of the social churn and echo chamber effect of your direct contacts versus the broader industry in general.

An example of the echo chamber is that a community I deal with hates certifications. As a small community they are hateful of the CISSP and various other security certifications. I can reflect and admit to myself that I find certifications to be almost abusive in their assumption of experience. Yet that is what the broader information security community uses as a vetting process for hiring.

A human resource recruiter gives the advice to put education as the last thing on your resume and lead with nouns in your job descriptions. In other words, to her education is the least important thing, and detailing Forensic Tool Kit 4.X instead of forensic tools is more important. This is great if hiring by technology at the technician level but sucks for real world engineering and technologist leadership types. I use on a weekly basis over 80 forensic tools. Most assuredly the human resources hiring process is broke for me. Then again I’m less than interested in being a technician again and more interested in scaling my expertise and capabilities.

Reflection is good, but so is being able to tell the story of your experience. For the military veterans they often talk past themselves. When asked how many people they managed they’ll caveat and say, “I had 12 direct reports” but they were a battalion commander with over a 1000 people reporting in their chain of command. As a professor my management experience is often challenged when consulting to companies. How many of this or that do you have. I have nearly 20 graduate students, but I only claim about 8. I have created out of whole cloth project teams of over 50 students distributed across different geo-locations all working on the same research project for months at a time. I advise randomly dozens of students who belong to other professors which most assuredly is a mentorship role. Yet, when I talk to companies, they often discount me being a manager because I’m a professor until I show them they are wrong.

Creating a narrative that is consistent requires focus and vision. Randomly applying for jobs may work, but is often associated with the quote, “I applied to 500 places and nobody hired me.”  Focusing your career specifically on a segment of the industry or even on an issue the industry has will likely result in much better chances of employment. I know that most of my students have multiple offers before leaving and most of them make more money upon graduation than I do.

As a professor I’ve tried to focus on the bleeding edge of technology and beyond. I fill my classes with lots of “What if?” type questions and discuss the things that nobody is really discussing. In my classes and research I attempt to evaluate the “How do I?” questions that become the headlines years later of “Did you see what they did?” Almost every revelation of what the NSA is currently accused of doing (often from documents in the early 2008 era) I’ve discussed long ago in my classes. This isn’t really visionary as most of the tools are pretty common sense.

More to the point of vision I have one for my career. I want to enhance the capabilities of information assurance and security through cyber forensics and incident response evidence. In other words I want to secure for reality rather than the fantasy of the rainbows and unicorns crowd or the dystopia of the “all the things are borked” crowd. I have a mission. I want to make the world a better place and communicate a vision to others so that they can help make that world better. I know I can’t accomplish my mission regardless of the vision elements without the help of others. I used to think I could perhaps crete the result by teaching and research. It allowed me the life style and apparent goal achievements towards those end states. I’m not so sure now. Looking back on the last decade I have to admit I’ve had some wild successes but many more failures. Being invited to speak some place is nice, but being invited back a second time is evidence of success.

My failures have metrics and I own them. I look at my publication history with all of the time I’ve worked in this field I don’t have a hit book. A kid shows up out of nowhere in 2009, writes a book, and now he is a talking head on network news. Another guy shows up with zero experience and has written two books and gets a named professorship and is a talking head. I have less than 2K followers on Twitter and a grad students sock puppet account has tens of thousands. Obviously on communicating a message I’m failing, but apparently I do it spectacularly. Regardless of external assumptions by others what I see in my career by my own metrics looks like failure. Considering my knowledge of information operations and how to create a narrative this element surprises me the most.

Which is another place to provide a bit of advice to my military veteran students. Outsides are not insides. Each human being has a set of externalities that we all assume deal with their internal debate and points of view. Nothing could be further from the truth. I can’t express it any better than every human is a neurosis, bias, emotion filled stew that peeks out from time to time. Beautiful women think they’re ugly and handsome men worry about their waistline. Then again some of us just are dumpy looking, old, and fat guys. You shouldn’t assume that everybody else isn’t just as nervous and angst ridden as yourself. Admit it. Then get over yourself.

I ask my student all the time who they want to be when they grow up. My traditional students will often say “the next Bill Gates.” My non-traditional and military veteran students who are fairly reflective might say, “The best son/husband/father I can possibly be while securing the homeland and baking an apple pie.” That’s just great. That is the external focus of a society alliterated in a vision of what it means to be good, but it isn’t who you want to be. Who you want to be is a series of focused statements on where you are and where you want to be. If you have to, go ahead and write them down as goals. That way you can reflect back on the career you’ve had and see where you are making it and where you aren’t making it.

Reflection is good for the soul, but it is better for the career.

Leave a Reply