Nothing seems to be more deflating to many IT professionals than dropping resumes and hearing nothing but silence. To be shot down even before an initial conversation with an employer stings, especially if due to their HR filters weeding out ‘unqualified’ individuals before they’ve even garnered a look. There are numerous red flags that corporate recruiters quickly home in on when paring down a stack of resumes such as a lack of time in the industry, little if any directly relevant experience for a position, or that a person seems to frequently jump from job to job. All of those are valid. However, one glaring item usually stands out as a disqualifying issue faster than the rest, and it’s one that seems to affect a large number of senior people in technology – the lack of a college degree. In this article, I’ll highlight a little of my past and present to show where I’ve come from and where I’m going. I’ll look at how I just accomplished what I like to call ‘Education Hacking’.
Until recently, I was one of those senior technology professionals who had successfully navigated a career path without a degree. Coming out of high school, I had narrowly missed an appointment to the United States Naval Academy. I had been so focused on the process of applying there, that I completely neglected applying for scholarships and looking into other schools. Then I met my wife, and things moved quickly from there. So my desire for a formal education took a back seat to providing for a new family. I jumped into both retail and factory work but soon realized that, while I liked the personal interactions, retail employment wouldn’t pay my bills and factory work was too repetitive for my liking.
Like many of my counterparts, I was largely a self-taught ‘computer geek’. After some prodding from my wife to move computers beyond ‘hobby status’, I took the leap. I managed to start early enough in the field that, if I could prove my understanding of technology, I could be hired into smaller companies, earn certifications and move my way up the ladder over time. I began working for a computer and network reseller and earned my stripes. I then used my acquired skills to move into a support role with a fairly large customer, eventually to be recognized for my knowledge of networking and my work ethic and be offered a position with a global software and services company. Having spent twelve years there, I realized the toll it was taking on me and my family (24x7x365 availability requirements, always being needed to bail others out of their issues, multi-day long conference calls, etc.). Therefore, I took a lateral move to another company, whose focus was on a subset of the global company’s market and technology portfolio. I was promised future growth and transition into other realms. The transition was a very easy one, and I quickly settled into a comfort zone.
Today, I’m still with that last company and I’m doing pretty well by most people’s standards. I’m living proof of the concept that a ‘formal education isn’t required to succeed in life’. Admittedly, I’ve always preached that concept, both to my kids and to others. However, I’ve been gradually less and less satisfied with my professional life. I’ve picked up some security knowledge along the way, and I’m drawn to it. However, I really don’t utilize my skillset in security to its potential. So in all honesty, I’m pretty unhappy in my current situation.
A few years ago, I helped my wife, Angela, transition from high school graduate / ‘stay at home Mom’ to a licensed RN with an associate’s degree. I watched her go through her degree program and nursing clinicals while balancing time with our family. I did everything I could to help her in both areas, including taking the lead on many issues with our special needs, adopted son. She has since been working nights at a hospital for two years, loves her job and is happy she did it. Angela has been one of my models of success and has always motivated and supported me in my pursuits and decisions. So when I began looking into options that would allow me to continue to work and support the family while earning a degree of my own, she poked and prodded me to go for it. I personally challenged myself to succeed.
Challenge Accepted – Western Governors University
I did a lot of research trying to find the best fit for my situation. Having known quite a few people who went back to school later in their careers, I checked with them and looked into the schools they attended. I evaluated time commitments and cost-to-benefit relationships for each one. Western Governors University (WGU) came up often. In looking at the details of what they have to offer, WGU’s IT-related programs seemed great. This is obviously my opinion based on my situation, so I highly encourage everyone to go through this exercise and evaluate it for themselves. At the end of it all, I decided to apply to WGU to pursue my Bachelors of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance.
The WGU perks, as I saw them, are as follows:
- Their programs cater to both graduating high school students and transfers who may find traditional classroom learning to be intimidating or who have more success with online training.
- They are quickly opening state branches, so that students who need financial aid may qualify for state-level grants and funding.
- They accept applicable transfer credits for those who have them. Although I had none, they say an average transfer student brings in 37 credits.
- The programs also work well for working professionals, as they are entirely self-paced and can work around their schedules.
- You can study and take most of the exams at any time, day or night.
- Traditional tests, written papers, assignments and certification exams are all scheduled by the student. The only real requirement is to pass them during the same semester for which the course is enrolled.
- You can take as few or as many courses per 6-month semester as you can handle, requiring only that you complete a minimum number of course units during each 6-month semester. This is done to show progression, and that you’ve got the aptitude and desire to succeed and not quit.
- The school has flat semester fees regardless of the number of courses or certifications enrolled or completed in each semester. Currently, the ‘per term’ cost for my degree plan is $3485 per 6-month term.
I applied for enrollment in mid-April of 2018 and was assigned an enrollment counselor. He walked me through the application process and assured me I could start on May 1. He laid out the pre-tests I needed to take (to gauge my readiness for the program), the admissions essay I needed to write (you’re given a topic and need to write an essay on it in a very short amount of time), and the financial requirements. Excitedly, I jumped in head first. Sink or swim, I started knocking them down.
Surprise, though!!! Here’s where my personal challenges began. I WAS DENIED!
At the time I initially looked on the WGU website, there were differing requirements for whether enrollees needed any previous school transfer credits or certifications which applied to the degree program. My enrollment counselor had agreed with me that, based on my career experience and the requirements listed on their one web pages, I should need none of the above. However, when all application items were in place, I received a notification that my admission was denied for lack of any previous college experience. Although both of us were a little shocked, we thought it was an automated process that caught my checkbox indicating no previous college experience. The counselor advised me to write an appeal and pointed me to their admissions appeals process and form.
I guess the first lesson I faced at WGU is that sometimes it’s the way in which you ask and word choice DOES make a difference. In appeal number one, I stated that their own admissions rep had agreed that my 22 years of industry experience and the lack of clearly stated requirement for previous college should’ve been considered as acceptable. Denied again. For appeal number two, I rephrased things and carefully explained why I felt my experience and certification history made me a good program candidate, and that I had a proven propensity for remote learning. Finally accepted! Lesson learned.
Finally enrolled, the enrollment counselor put me in touch with my assigned degree program mentor. He was an awesome dude and helped me immensely throughout my degree program. I have only great things to say about him, but your mileage may vary. I quickly got my first hint that they really want to help you succeed. I was informed that, while I could not officially take any exams or anything until after my welcome kit arrived (contains a webcam for online proctoring of some exams, video presentation recording for some courses, etc.), I WAS allowed to start studying for my courses and accessing the materials. Let the ‘education hacking’ begin!
Finally – The ‘How-To’ on Education Hacking
OK, so now that the boring yet essential stuff is done, we’re down to the real dirt – how, exactly, did I ‘hack’ the program?
Well, in short, while their programs are self-paced, the ‘design’ for the average person to complete the degree I chose is 9 semesters (yes, 4 ½ years). Many people progress through it faster, so they may complete it in 2-3 years. That’s not fast enough for the challenge I put to myself, so I completed the entire program in just under 4 months! Yes, you read that correctly.
I saw my urgent need and desire for a degree and had just locked myself into a possible 4 ½ year, $31,500 commitment. With those facts facing me, why not try to do it as fast as possible? I completed it in less than one full semester for just over $3500 (admissions and program fees included). Note, I’m not shortchanging the value of their courses or program at all, as I did learn quite a bit. It’s just that if you can commit to it and have relevant experience to help you through some of the more technical classes and certification courses, it really caters well to an individual who already has a career.
So, here’s how I pulled it off.
First, my degree program was made up of 34 ‘courses’ made up of 122 credit units (CUs) including:
- 12 courses that lead to 11 industry certifications: Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP) – Associate of (ISC)² designation, Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP) – Associate of (ISC)² designation, Certified Encryption Specialist (EC-Council ECES), Certified Incident Handler (EC-Council ECIH), Certified Internet Webmaster – Site Development Associate (CIW-SDA), Certified Internet Webmaster – Web Security Associate (CIW-WSA), A+ (CompTIA), Network+ (CompTIA), Security+ (CompTIA), Project+ (CompTIA), IT Operations Specialist (CompTIA), Secure Infrastructure Specialist (CompTIA) and ITIL®1 Foundation Certification.
- 21 ‘typical’ college or technology courses (Algebra, English Composition, Geography, Basic Programming, SQL, etc.).
- 1 final Capstone Project related to the degree program.
Because my wife works nights and our son usually goes to bed by 9 PM, I committed myself to study and taking proctored exams between 9 PM and 3 AM, or occasionally before my workday starts in the morning at 9 AM. I committed any weekend time I could to study as well. My only other commitment to myself was that if my wife or son were home, I tried to spend the waking hours with them and only studied after they went to sleep. This included weekends. By forcing myself to keep that schedule, I avoided work conflicts and had a set time, pretty much every day, that I’d be studying. I knew I was going to ONLY study or work with no life or free time otherwise. But I had wanted this for so long, that I committed myself to it completely.
Working with my program mentor, who is only allowed to add or remove a couple of courses to each semester at a time (their goal is to make sure you complete all enrolled classes in the same semester and show progress, so as not to hurt financial aid), I worked out my course load. He helped to make sure that I had one or two ‘traditional’-style classes and one or two certification-related classes active at any one time. As I completed one or the other, I had the mentor replace it immediately with another of the same type. In this fashion, I broke up the monotony of reading, studying and writing papers with periods of more hands-on study and exams that didn’t require writing papers. I kept that mix throughout the program. Whenever I had to travel to Sylvan to take certification exams, I made certain to schedule two exams, back-to-back, so I wouldn’t have to make extra trips or spend extra time traveling.
My excitement continued to build through the first month, as I completed 21 courses for 71 CUs before taking a week of vacation with the family. From there, I slowed down a bit while moving into courses I was less familiar with, had more required papers to write or research projects that challenged me a bit more. But I never stopped pressing. I finished 4 courses for 14 CUs in month two, 6 courses for 23 CUs in month three and 3 courses for 14 CUs in month four.
Going into it all knowing I could go self-paced and try to progress relatively quickly, my goal was to complete the degree in two to three semesters and save a good amount of money. I honestly didn’t think, even after the success in that first month, that I’d complete the degree in the first semester. Those courses came easy to me, so I just figured I’d just scale back in month two and keep working. But the closer I got to completion, the more motivated I became. So I just knocked it out. It’s truly amazing how wanting something that badly can make you go that extra mile or put in that extra effort!
I was one of many professionals that made it, having bypassed a traditional education. But as the years went on, more often than not, I realized the missed opportunities by not having a degree. Now I’m not kidding myself in thinking that a degree is a guarantee of anything. But if it gets me past the first filter enough to show a potential employer the real me and the value I can bring to their organization, then that’s enough of a foot in the door.
If you really want it, whether for your own satisfaction, to achieve some higher goal, or simply to bypass an HR filter, some motivation, lots of focused hard work and real commitment can certainly help you reach that milestone. It certainly helps to have the flexibility of a program like WGU’s to make education hacking possible. But it’s even more crucial to have the support of your family. During those late nights, moments of low energy or times of self-doubt, knowing what they’re doing for me and what I want to give back to them made it all that much easier. Add it all up, and the equation is there for a real opportunity. You may not have thought it would work. It clearly did for me. Don’t let regret, careers or other factors keep you from reaching for the stars.
I did it.
So can you!
Tim Everson, OSCE, OSCP (aka hayabusa) – Sr. Security Engineer / Manager of Information Security, is a security enthusiast with over 22 years in various sectors of the IT industry. Tim has performed Web Application and Network Penetration Testing, managed efforts to meet compliance audits such as SOC 2 Type 2 and others, and led efforts to align customer and company environments to comply with best practices such as ITIL and other industry frameworks. Tim enjoys reviewing new books and courses to build his knowledge base and challenge himself, as well as to help others find appropriate learning to help them grow and progress in the field. When not tucked behind a computer screen, Tim likes to spend time camping and hiking trails at the state and national parks, he’s a busy husband, dad and grandpa, and he has a passion for cartoon drawing and computer graphics and animation. Blog: https://eversec.blogspot.com/ Twitter: @timeversonTags: certificationsdegreeeducationeversonhackinghighlightinfosec