Reflections on hackers and graduate education

This isn’t going to be a long post on how to become a hacker. This is to long didn’t read and in not reading make silly comments that have nothing to do with the content long. Chances are if you are a hacker it is just going to piss you off so stop reading here. If you are not  hacker and you are an educator you are going to be REALLY pissed off so definitely stop reading. If you ride motorcycles definitely stop reading. If you are still reading  close you computer, go drink a beer or glass of water, get out of the office/house/classroom and go play. Definitely do not get pissed off but definitely have fun. Still here? Do not say I did not warn you.

You can read my CV, you can read my resume, but you can’t really get a feel for me from those. I reflect on who I am and where I have been to get a handle on the validity of advice I give others. Considering I have been in the Army National Guard, the United States Marine Corps, an indian tribal police officer, a corrections officer in two different Sheriffs departments, and all over the information technology industry doing networking and security. Well like a bad Johnny Cash song I’ve been everywhere man. I did my first law enforcement digital forensics case in 1986, got my bachelors degree in 1996, taught my first forensics course in 2006. I have no idea what I am doing I am pretty sure people are going to find out.

“Hi I’m an information security professional working at XYZ corporation should I get a graduate degree?” That is a conversation I have fairly often. Let me tell you a thing or two about being in industry and what happens when you stay to long in school. The answer is absolutely not. You should never get a graduate degree. Mind the simple fact I teach pretty much nothing but graduate school and proverbially I am cutting my nose off to spite my face. Are you going to spend 2 years of your life slaving for some jerk wad professor who says to your wild scribbling and incoherent thoughts, “Not good enough no thesis for you!.” If you think damn it, “I want a freaking masters degree and you’re an ass hole.” Well the rest of this discusses the pro’s and con’s of walking the dark path of education with me.

When I got out of the Marine Corps a broken shell of my former self. Having shattered C5, C6 in my neck, and various other bones of my body I was shall we put it mildly. Screwed. Since most of the participants are now dead or incarcerated for life I can fully admit to using the system to my advantage. The Marine Corps League got me a job working in a hospital and those same contacts got me a job working as a part time tribal officer. I was a former enlisted Marine with little to no prospects in a time when veterans were a dime a dozen and wars were long forgotten. Having moved from wheels, to walkers, to crutches to curmudgeon I was  partially paralyzed messed up former life taker and heart breaker. The key to my life long if short law enforcement career was the wonderful concept of nepotism.

I passed the civil service exams in the highest percentages, passed the physical agility tests like a boss, got over myself and made it through the interview process. I got the job, and the fact that I’d grown up with, knew, or was related to a bunch of the people on the panels had nothing to do with it. In the old days they did things like x-ray your spine. It wouldn’t keep you from being a police officer it was just a way to insure you didn’t game the system later on. I was getting healthier and working my way towards an earlier divorce. The one thing I was not and in now way was interested in was getting educated.

I got out of high school the old fashioned way. They gave me a choice of join the Marines or the chain gang. Not really that drastic to be honest but they would rather me be in the Marines than repeat high school. I was up and down and around the high school scene so bad it was a tortured affair. I kicked butt on exams, hated going to classes, and skipped most of my senior year of high school. I had scholarships waiting for me, and a full ride military scholarship waiting if I wanted it. I pissed that away in an alcohol fueled bend on self destruction and late teenager angst that can only be considered awesome in the potential wasted. Mind you I had a lot fun and between the Army National Guard and the Marine Corps and went through both basic training and boot camp within a year of each other. A few years later I would slide through police academy like a Taco Bell Burrito on a beer rage night.

The twisted mass of desensitized and paralyzed muscle and bone were only equaled by the rage filled mind of the uneducated near thug I became working in a correction bureau. As my body healed, my mind festered in an ooze of self recrimination, doubts and terror induced insanity of dealing with the worst society had to offer. In the despicable evil of the war on drugs, the gang wars of the Tacoma hill top, and the death and destruction society heaped on us I reveled in the pain. I hid from my equally rage filled spouse who with red hair and evil intent spurred me on to even more heinous things like working for her father where work as in compensation was more fantasy than reality. In 1993 having the amused and most harmless intent of being an ass wipe I wrote “I quit!” on a piece of paper and handed it to my desk sergeant. The glint of glee was well hidden behind a pale mask until he realized he’d need somebody to cover the Christmas shift that year. Thus I entered my academic career.

I had numerous offers to go work for various groups, but I had decided somewhere in the pea sized carbonized nodule I called a brain that I wanted to go to college. Now, I will be honest and admit I chose a college that allowed for more latitude than other opportunities. I went to Southwest Florida and Edison Community College, sat on a beach, rode motorcycles, and in general grew my hair long. So there I am sitting in classes at the ripe age of 28, sitting next to 15 year old smarty pants girls, and looking at professors my age spouting that they know all the answers. I can’t see them field stripping an M16 or doing a barricaded entry into a meth lab. Running the meth lab? Perhaps.

All throughout law enforcement I had done just about anything legal for extra money. I had built computers, ran servers, connected networks, and just about said “Why yes I am an expert at that” to any query where they paid up front. The Marines had taught me a lot about analog circuits, but in that rage fueled haze called high school I had taken programming, networking, and operating system management courses. Along side metal shop, wood shop, and production printing. I was not supposed to be in college. So, school never prepared my for half naked college co-eds and Hooters girls asking me to be their math tutor. I think that perhaps the Marines prepared me for those tasks.

All through college I did pretty much anything legal for money. I did odd jobs for networking companies, installed hardware for Apple, made my first corporate contacts, installed RADAR, SONAR, did micro soldering, programmed early web pages, did incident response on downed systems, helped law enforcement, helped the media, worked as a photographer, and a bunch of other things. When asked, “Why yes I am an expert at that” sufficed to get the job. With each success came a word of mouth reputation for making things happened. I pushed projects, played hammer on projects, go more educated and squeezed my professors like rocks to get blood from their knowledge soaked brains. They never provided context just information that I applied to my environment.

I went to Westmar University and had the damn school close before I could graduate. Yes my university closed while I was attending it with all of the emotion, pain, misery, and absolute fear that such a failed investment would mean. In the middle of nowhere Iowa this little school gave me a great scholarship which I think is why they didn’t have enough money to keep the lights on. I transferred to Huron University while still chasing the elusive bachelors degree. It would later close too which says more about my college selection mechanism than the horror of having me as a student. After getting to Huron they applied my credits as dual credit back to Westmar so I got two bachelors degrees with only half the extra credits required from Huron. I even got the regional accrediting board “North Central” to stamp it with approval. In the suckage cesspool even a rose smells of the suck. Go ahead and tell me how awful your college experience was for you. I was student body president at Westmar when it closed. The last student body president. I put every students needs ahead of mine and made sure as few people were hurt as possible. What does your sacrifice for an education look like?

I get these little knob kneed hackers squeaking at me how they are so freaking awesome, but they can’t get their ass out of Cartman mode to get to school. It’s too hard they say. While doing this whole dance of college I soaked out the pain of military and law enforcement hate and discontent, filed bankruptcy, got divorced, moved three times, and supported myself by living in a box half the time. So, Mr. 20 something saying “But, it’s too hard.” kiss my ass. College is not easy, it is not supposed to be easy, and if it is easy you are likely doing it wrong. Go ahead and take the easy route and get the easy lessons and in that you will learn how to survive when it is easy. I’m not wired for easy. I’ve grown into that fat troll with half a clue and half gnawed grad student grasped in my greasy paw because I don’t give up. I’m not a bad ass. I just don’t give up when the going gets hard. I’m no celebrity. I’m not important. I’m just grasping at the will-o-the-wisp of dreams like everybody else trying not to screw up.

So you want to go to graduate school and are all worried about the return on investment. College is so expensive and all those professors are mean with no clue what you are about do in your fit of awesomeness? Asking students what college should be like is like asking users how to model the security architecture of a multi-national corporation using basic principles and aggregating the information flows across a heterogeneous technical solution. What the hell kind of stupidity is that? I did graduate school and got my masters degree in 9 months. I did a course only option, did nothing but my masters degree, closed out a divorce, got married, and kicked ass. If it was easy anybody could do it. What is the return on investment of kicking academic ass and garnering the respect of numerous information technology guru types in major corporations as they SEE you being bad ass. The result is all kinds of great companies offering you jobs.

I did industry and I did industry good. I brought the rain. I learned from awesome leaders in companies and I found the profit. I pushed projects, I pushed people, I learned to be a toxic leader and be unrepentant. I garnered equal fame and hate, and in the end I brought profit. People who worked with and for me took lessons in pain and suffering and turned them into profit and hope. I get Christmas cards from people chastising me for being a jerk and regaling me of how some lesson served them well. Between 1993 and 2003 I pushed hard and I made dough. I did what everybody would expect. I burned out.

What good is a graduate school education when you burn out? It provides career flexibility and options not available to others. I am not a sophisticated guy. I am not suave, sexy, and I’m bald as a billiard ball. You don’t call me to wine and dine the CEO you call me when the CEO is screaming for scalps. My resume belongs behind a pane of glass marked in red with, “Break here when you have lost all hope.” When people refer to you as the Director of the Department of Intractable Problems where are you going to go?

Why you apply to four universities and get a job as a professor with only a masters degree. You are a completely jerk wad and go up for tenure early and you get it. Meanwhile you start getting a PhD at a major research university that happens to be your regional university main campus. It takes 7 years to get a PhD on my clock. In the process if you are me you will be involved in law suits, tenure suits, students will die, professors will die, an all stop will happen, change advisors, and will tell your advisor to “fuck off” in the most gentle way multiple times. You will also learn that college is not easy and sometimes the bull shit is the most instructive. Most other people who study with me now get their PhD in 3 or 4 years. Don’t whine about how hard that is, and for gods sake get it done.

What is the pay off for getting a PhD? This is pretty instructive. Now I am no longer a viable candidate in industry. When I entered academia as a job I had no reason to think i would stay? Somebody who had quadrupled his yearly bogey in a recession and the explosion of the dot bomb? In academia for life? How freaking ludicrous. Every year I look around and see how I will do in industry. I went from being vice president material in major corporations and holding a director level slot in the LARGEST TELECOMMUNICATIONS PROVIDER ON THE PLANET to being entry level material. I have actually walked away from academia and gave up tenure. People talk about “Tenure is like a life long…. blah… blah… blah” and I gave it up. I traded that for a $60K cash pay out, almost all of my tuition, and doubling my yearly salary. The NSA paid me, but they won’t hire me because I wanted more than a GS12 position and better than a contingent offer. Thank you NDU.EDU and my GS15 equivalent pay. As an academic.

You know that comment about break glass if the shit hits the fan? I get these phone calls from people I have worked with, people who have heard of me, and people in serious trouble. They don’t want to hire me. For gods sake I am a professor at a land grant university and I should provide all of my services for free, damn it. Even though I get paid absolutely zero during the summer and I see sunshine outside my window. So, actually paying me for those services when they have nobody else to turn to is completely foreign to them. What does it mean when you get a PhD? Nobody will give you any fucking respect, nobody will give you the time of day, and when the shit hits the fan you will be the third person they call. The first person they call costs to much, the second person has no clue, and then they call you. My students can go to work for a company and make six digit salaries and I can’t even get an interview.

Oh, I do get job offers. I get job offers that are laughable low wages. I get job offers in sales. I get funny offers that seem great on the outside, but reflect a distinct misunderstanding. One job offer I recently got was pretty nice running a digital forensics laboratory. With mandatory overtime in excess of a 60 hour work week. They were very happy to inform me that they actually do pay over time. There is an age gap issue too. I am older than some executives. Remember I was a director level employee in 2000. If I had stayed in the pocket working my way up I would be a vice president or higher at this point. Or, I could have died from alcohol poisoning after a despondent period of time maybe I would have swallowed a bullet. It is pretty stupid to play coulda, shoulda, woulda and other nefarious games of idiocy.

A PhD teaches you how to think. It doesn’t make you magic. It isn’t some wizards incantation as they hood you and say doctor. You learn how to organize knowledge and know the difference between research and stupid geek tricks. I get lots of students who say they want to study some technical phenomenon and I ask, “For what purpose?” If they can discuss the why, and then the how, we can discuss the when. Most of what they want to look at falls into the trivial pile. There is a whole discussion on empirics and science and how it translates to technology that should be inserted here. Most people in the “hard sciences” have zero clue about technology as a study of tools. They like to define it as vocational, but would never allow anybody to define their discipline as a teaching activity rather than research activity. Getting students over the hump of technology as a science is step one. Getting them to be able to discuss their research as effecting work, and as in effort of activity is the next piece. This is non-trivial.

Not all PhD’s are the same. I have a PhD from an R1 research university with one of the oldest information security programs on the planet. My education is so freaking elite in information security I sometimes wonder if my feet hover over the ground. Traditional students from this program almost instantly have multiple job offers. Several of the students get very high salaries. When companies look at my resume and see professor as a job they close down and no offer for me. Even though one of my fellow traditional students with less experience, less publications, less knowledge, and much less understanding of the hiring entities environment does get a job. A PhD can open an entire vast unexplored territory in industrial research. If you are a professor those avenues may not be open to you.

So, yes going to college is hard. You know those colleges with almost a resort feel to them are just so demanding. Those new land grant universities with their nice dorms, great food, and near free for students sports activities every weekend expect you to learn too. That is so hard to get over. The costs are to high? You know why the costs are so much? You can afford it if you actually work during college, don’t spend rancho big bucks on partying every Saturday, and actually pay attention to funding opportunities. The 20 or 25 credit hours a semester of applied work to get through college is to much for the little student? You can’t fit in actually attending classes between Xbox and Playstation marathons? The college EXPERIENCE is to much and having 60 or 80 hours of work ahead of you is to much to muster? I reflect back to that job offer where 60 to 80 hour work weeks is a requirement. Reality after college play time is going to suck for you.

So you are a hacker, a cracker, a TCPIP smacker. You’ve got game and you know it. You can talk about some technological phenomenon and blow away your peers. You are a breaker and a shaker of technology. Did you write Microsoft Word the most used word processing software on the planet, or did you find some arcane mistake in the bazillion lines of code somebody created? Are you fuzzing some software and smashing the stack or creating the fundamental tools of regression testing? I put it this way. Exploitation is easy and defense is hard. Speaking through your pie hole about shit is easy going to graduate school is hard. It is easy to meet some self determined level of effort and declare it success and it is infinitely harder to meet the external requirements of some entity or agent who really doesn’t give a fuck about what you think. Lots of people talk shit about graduate school but few of them really have a clue or a degree to say they know it all. Hackers wouldn’t take that kind of garbage in one of their drinking marathons masquerading as a security conference. I am not exactly sure why they soak up all kinds of anti-intellectualism which is pretty much the same garbage.

You want some reality? Get your ass off the playground and back in school. You want to work with me? I’m not sure you can handle it. I get these whiny assed complaints about how I’m not this or that when I never said I’d be any where near those targets. You work with me you will become the best YOU can be and that is all I’m going to offer. You will work hundreds and hundreds of extra hours. That or you will quit. I am not the expert at your favorite technology. This is graduate school. YOU are supposed to be the expert at that technology. All I got to say is if you think ROI on graduate school you don’t belong in graduate school. We do critical thinking here. We do REAL science where we look at intangibles as well as metrics and understand how to get the freaking job done. We aren’t about salary we are about YOU. Silly to think about it really. Graduate school is the most selfish thing you can do in your life. Take the easy road. Go ahead. Do the easy stuff. It is easy to break shit. It is much harder to solve the hard problems and if you go down the easy path? You can’t even see the hard problems for what they are.

Finally you say, “You dirty fat bastard I am not going to be as stupid as you were.” I say to you then, “What will you do with all that extra time? How much more awesome than me can you be? What will you do with that opportunity? How are you going to get off the couch and out of the comfy situation you may find yourself?” If your life is totally in the suck and your treading in the shit quit diving for pearls and get your ass out of the cesspool. I don’t know who you are. I can’t give you advice. Don’t take my word for anything. Use that nugget between your ears and figure it out for yourself. For the sake of all that is holy in the operating system stack quit busting my balls over whether graduate school is worth it. Once you’ve done it we can commiserate but until you’ve done it hacker rules prevail. You got no game till you’ve been there.

If you’ve read this far you are either giggling, hating, or worrying up a case of rage. It is very easy to get upset and pick out the details that offend you or incite your own feelings of inadequacy. Some will read this and be incensed that I used the word “fuck”. I earned that right by service to my nation and duty in the United States Marine Corps as an enlisted marine. You have it to. Some will read this and discredit the entire writing as intellectually devoid of merit because it uses curse words. To them I say fuck off and die. Regardless of your reaction there are few professions that have so many people without credentials telling them to do so much. Whether it be student ratings on teacher effectiveness (can you imagine doctors rated that way?) or if it is standardized testing (can you say gender, racial, income biased?) the professor and teacher profession is treated poorly. No wonder most K-12 teachers quit before 5 years. No wonder so many academics are fleeing. I am not politically correct. I have no ill will against students. I take the my rage and apply it in protection of my students. I’m not invited to many parties. If you hate on this I won’t be all upset. I just won’t be paying attention. This blog is not paid for by my employer, existed before my employer hired me, and is subject to all of the normal freedom of expression rules in the United States. The sad thing is I had to add these disclaimers. 


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