What I Learned Completing A Cybersecurity Boot Camp During The Pandemic
Just like everyone, in the summer of 2020, I was trying to make sense of the new reality of pandemic life. I live alone, and was working remotely at the time. (I still am.) I had been thinking about signing up for a tech boot camp program for some time, but the timing never worked out. Until 2020, with all its uncertainty, isolation, and extra time indoors. Suddenly I had the bandwidth to truly commit to an ambitious tech program.
I signed up for the Cybersecurity Boot Camp at Northwestern University in June of 2020. I was going in cold. I had no prior tech industry work experience. I had never used Linux. I own a Microsoft Surface laptop, but nine out of 10 times I’m using my MacBook Pro. There was no guarantee that signing up for an expensive and intense boot camp would pay off. I wasn’t even sure I would make it to the end.
After six months of virtual classes per week, I officially graduated the program at the start of March 2021. The class met virtually for live instruction three times per week: Monday and Wednesday evenings for three hours, and four hours on Saturday morning. Additionally, I also took advantage of the program’s tutoring service for an extra hour per week. So it felt like I had three long-form classes and one shorter lesson every week for six months.
Over the past half year, I’ve learned a lot about career upskilling, meeting academic challenges, developing a new professional career path, and more. Some reflections are below.
Learning New Skills Isn’t Always Easy, But It’s Far From Impossible
Boot camps move quickly. Each week is a new large scale topic, and then, after three classes, it’s on to the next lesson. So one week early on would cover command line basics, while later lessons would cover topics like Wireshark, Metasploit, Nmap, John the Ripper, and much, much more. More than once I became a bit overwhelmed. Thankfully, repetition helps. Both in class, and practicing new skills outside of class. Another useful learning tactic is teaching the concepts back. If I was talking to friends or family about the course, and could sufficiently explain specific tools or strategies we were learning, that helped reinforce my learning.
Community Also Helps
Beyond the above strategies, tapping into the community of the boot camp made a world of difference. Whether that was attending virtual office hours before or after the start of class to ask questions or get feedback on an assignment, or working with a tutor provided by the boot camp for additional insight into that week’s lessons.
Equally beneficial was working in groups with my peers in the class. There were a few group projects throughout the six month program, and working to problem solve red and blue team strategies with four or five other students, all of us contributing different ideas, trying different tactics, and helping each other problem solve, helped us take ownership of the curriculum.
Having live online classes, an engaged and supportive instructor, a tutor who pushed me to figure out solutions when I got stuck, and fellow classmates who were in the same boat of trying to crack cybersecurity challenges all made the learning experience that much more substantial.
Independent Learning Is Crucial
Of course, all the outer support in the world doesn’t make a difference if I’m not doing the work myself, as well. Early on in the in the boot camp, I sought out additional learning tools and channels online, to strengthen my understanding of the course material.
My outside resources for additional learning included completing the NYU Introduction to Cyber Security Specialization, and starting the Google IT Support Professional Certificate. (I’ve already completed the first two Google IT courses, and am currently working through the third course, out of five.)
Outside of online certificate training, resources like virtual CTF meetups, Hack The Box, the CompTIA CertMaster Practice for Security+, Professor Messer, and Darknet Diaries all provide additional learning opportunities that build on the boot camp curriculum.
Finding Your Focus Is Essential
Cybersecurity is a broad field. For the first two thirds of the boot camp, I wasn’t sure which career path I would want to pursue. I was spending more time absorbing a lot of the lessons.
As I spent more time doing career path research, cloud architecture and security caught my attention. Given the significant increase of work from home over the past year, and with the future of work likely utilizing a hybrid IRL/online approach, cloud applications and solution skills will only become increasingly beneficial.
Currently, I’m studying to take the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner (CCP) exam this summer, while working through the AWS Fundamentals Specialization program on Coursera.
It’s Never Too Late To Start, And You Don’t Need A Technical Background To Learn Tech
I’m in my thirties. Some people in the boot camp were younger than me. Some were older than me. Some had worked in tech (IT, for example) prior to the bootcamp. Others, like myself, were coming in cold. I wouldn’t say any of us were too young, old, or new to the field to be able to learn the material. I think in America there’s a narrative that after a certain age, you can’t change careers, or can’t continue learning. And that’s absolutely not true. If anything, the Northwestern boot camp made me want to continue my tech education for the foreseeable future. To find new work opportunities and continue upskilling at the same time.
If you’ve been thinking about pursuing a new career, going back to school, and/or learning new skills, I can’t recommend doing so enough. With the rise of online learning platforms like Coursera and edX, certificate programs that are far more affordable (and more expedited) than a college degree, and the influx of information available online, there’s truly never been a better time to start a new professional journey. As cliche as it sounds, the sooner you start, the sooner you’re mastering new skills and pursuing new professional opportunities.
And if anyone reading this has an opening for a SOC analyst or cloud architect, let’s talk!