By Larry Jaffee
A military maneuver can become literally a matter of life or death. An error in intelligence, planning or execution easily can result in collateral damage.
Similarly, cybersecurity requires precision. A single errant code will leave an enterprise’s vulnerabilities exposed to the enemy, which surely will take advantage or find the open door.
Not surprisingly, veterans are able to tap those same qualities and attributes they developed while in service, making their post-military transitions to welcoming cybersecurity workplaces natural and seamless.
Prof. Ibrahim (Abe) Baggili, the co-director and founder of the Cyber Forensics Research and Education Group (UNHcFREG) at the University of New Haven’s (UNH) Tagliatela College of Engineering, cites what three of his lab’s current top students had in common was a seriousness and maturity missing from the rest of their classmates. Each of the trio recently served in the military.
“The work ethic that they possess compared to most of the other students is really fantastic,” says Dr. Baggili. “One master’s student has already published a research paper that has received wide attention, and an undergrad published a peer-reviewed book chapter on wearable device security,” he adds, noting that another undergrad is working on a paper analyzing cybersecurity datasets.
“All three work to the point that they exceed expectations sometimes because my expectations are too high,” Dr. Baggili laughs. “There’s something to be said about that. They don’t spend time complaining like other students. They just focus, hone in and get the work done. They only question things when they have to. They are more independent learners, and do work well in teams.”
The professor has found such qualities quite constant among his veteran students, who welcome their creative freedom in the lab to solve problems any way they can. Military constraints curbed such urges.
“I’ve had some talk about how they had better way to do things, but they were asked not to because that would change the system,” Dr. Baggili explains. “That would require a lot of bureaucracy,” whereas in the lab they feel empowered to innovating and making things better.
“It was not my initial goal to study cybersecurity and cyber forensics,” explains Chris Meffert, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 2003 to 2009. Majoring in electrical engineering, Meffert was introduced to Dr. Baggili after his junior year. The professor sparked his interest in cybersecurity, and the student chose to pursue a master’s degree in computer science with a focus in cybersecurity/forensics.
Asked for a particular skill developed in the military he’s found useful in his new life, Meffert admits it’s his work ethic. What’s also helped is his training to work on the guidance, control, computer and communication systems that exist on many fighter and heavy-lift aircraft. “
Meffert plans to complete his master’s degree and begin to work in the industry, after he might pursue a Ph.D. at some point.
“Several of my colleagues from the service have either cross trained while in the Air Force into career fields that provide computer security to the Air Force or have left the service and pursued these types of careers in the private sector,” he notes.
Cinthya Grajeda Mendez has twice found herself being one of few women in fields dominated by men (i.e., the military and InfoSec academia).
Mendez dropped out of a community college to join up, figuring she would complete her education after completing her service. She served eight years of active Army duty from 2006-2013, as well as additional time in the IRR (Individual Ready Reserve).
“Information systems was my goal before the Army,” she explains. Her work in the military did not involve IT. “My first major at the University of New Haven was not cybersecurity, but IT and databases. It was not until I spent some time at UNH and learned about their Cyber Systems degree that I decided to switch over.”
In the Army, Mendez worked in logistics and also had to deal with technology such as computers and satellites. The experience helped her stay on track with technology.
Traits developed in the military Mendez found to be applicable to her UNH work is a love for investigation and attention to detail. “I plan on in the short run to get certified on computer forensics and security, and sometime in the future acquire my master’s degree,” she adds.
Her classmate Joseph Ricci joined the Navy in 2007 right after high school. Honorably discharged in 2012, Ricci came from a military family; both of his grandfathers, several uncles, his cousins, and his brother served.
“So as you could imagine, the military is an unspoken sense of tradition in my family,” explains Ricci, who’s pursuing his bachelor’s degree.
Prior to joining the military, he always liked computers and understanding how they worked, “so studying IT in general was always an interest and goal of mine.” IT security was “kind of a mystery” to him until he joined UNHcFREG, where he discovered a passion. “I knew that I wanted to pursue career in IT security,” he says.
A key skill that Ricci developed during his time in the service he found useful in college was also an attention to detail. “It certainly helps in the forensics lab, given that there can be an overwhelming amount of data. Being able to filter through that data with scrutinizing detail and prioritize what is important definitely helps,” Ricci explains.
He plans to start working immediately after graduation.
“While I do enjoy what I am learning, I believe it is important to gain real world experience in this field. I haven’t made up my mind as far as where I would like to go as far as government or private sector, both provide their own pros and cons. After establishing myself in this domain, I will pursue a master’s degree,” Ricci says.
Despite different cultural, educational and family backgrounds, when these three UNH students – Ricci, Mendez and Mefferts – enlisted for military service, none of them knew that their sacrifice and personal risk had set them up with such bright, lucrative futures in cybersecurity.
About Larry Jaffee
Larry Jaffee is the editor of the InfoSec Life column for IT Security Planet magazine. He’s also written numerous feature articles and ebooks focusing on various aspects of data breaches, insider threats and preparation to ward off attacks. Jaffee is also a Ponemon Institute Fellow.