This week’s theme for National Cyber Security Awareness Month (NCSAM) is based around encouraging ‘students and others to seek highly fulfilling cybersecurity careers’. I thought this would be a great opportunity to talk about my experience here at Digital Shadows (now ReliaQuest) over the past two years as an apprentice.
Why university degrees aren’t always the right target
At 18 years old, I was expected to go to university and told a degree is the most important aspect of your future employment prospects. However, with the recent increase in tuition fees in the UK, I decided to explore alternative options and, in doing so, came across apprenticeships. After some research, these are the reasons I decided to follow this route:
- I didn’t like the prospect of being in debt and the idea of ‘earn while you learn’ appealed to me much more
- I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do and felt as if degrees were only required for certain careers, most of which I wasn’t interested in
- Going to university was seen as the default and only choice for me and my peers. I wanted to be different and explore other options
- If the apprenticeship didn’t work out, it was a good opportunity for me to learn some skills, as well as experience working in a professional environment. I could always go to university following year
After discussing this with my careers advisor, she was unable to offer much support, especially after mentioning my interest in cybersecurity, a “niche” sector. I kept seeing cybersecurity being mentioned more and more in the news. I was fascinated by how individuals or small groups could cause major disruption to millions of people worldwide – I still have memories of the now infamous Lizard Squad taking down gaming servers – as well as the use of social engineering as a method of attack. It dawned on me that these were the issues individuals and businesses would be grappling with in the future, yet careers advisors and schools were still directing people towards conventional jobs in traditional sectors.
I realised how fast the industry was growing with a limited workforce, potentially offering job security and rapid career progression. With that in mind, I decided to contact some companies and offer to work over summer to gain experience in the sector. Luckily, an opportunity arose with Digital Shadows (now ReliaQuest), who were happy for me to start my career path here and ended up offering me an apprenticeship!
Since working here my main role comprises of offering IT support internally to over 150 employees across three continents; however, I have also undertaken projects involving cybersecurity. I am in regular contact with our internal security team as they continue to evolve our security tools and processes, and am involved in the detection of malware on our endpoints. Producing reports and working out how malware ends up on our systems has increased my understanding of the latest social engineering techniques and how important it is to both educate users and have appropriate technical controls in place.
Being involved in a start-up has also greatly improved my social skills and knowledge in other areas of business. I have been able to work closely with other teams and gain insights into their daily tasks – such as assisting with on-boarding projects and learning from the intelligence analysts and security engineers as they perform their roles. This has allowed me to consider career paths that I wouldn’t have experienced in a larger company. As the company grows you feel a sense of accomplishment and quickly become one of the more experienced employees, making it easy to fit in, especially as a young person. Interacting with the entire company has drastically improved my confidence when meeting new people, which will undoubtedly help with my employability in the future.
Over the last two years, I have greatly increased my knowledge of IT systems while providing support to customers on a help desk, which I believe to be a great foundation to my career. There’s no substitute to hands-on experience of how company networks are set-up, how hardware and software are deployed, and how employees interact with IT systems on a daily basis. I would now like to specialise and gain qualifications to now take my career to the next level.
Advice to a younger self
Apprenticeships may not be for everyone, but neither is university. For young people looking for an alternative, I’d highly recommend looking at all the different options available to you, speaking to as many people as possible in your target industry, and getting hands on experience to see if you’d actually like the job. My tips for young people wanting to get into this industry would be:
- Contact companies even if they don’t have jobs advertised. If you like the culture of a company or the goal they are trying to achieve, there is no harm in asking for job roles that are not yet advertised.
- Companies are looking for keen learners who they can train. Don’t be put off from applying because you feel as if you lack knowledge in the area.
- Get your foot in the door. Opportunities will arise for you to change job roles internally. You may even discover careers you hadn’t considered previously.
- For those interested in cybersecurity, there are a number of apprenticeship and education schemes now available to encourage people to join the industry. For those in the UK, check out the government security and Cyber security CNI apprenticeship schemes. In the US, look into the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) strategic plan and the Department of Labour website to see what options are available to you.