Virginia student using certification to prepare for government cybersecurity career
Posted on
March 9, 2020

This feature first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Greg Mitchell, as student at George Mason University in Virginia, is on the path to a career in cybersecurity.

Irony is interesting because it's unexpected. In my case, I still don't have an IT certification (I promise I haven't stopped working on my Desktop Pro), yet I am frequently asked to speak to students about careers in the tech industry.

When young people hear that I write for Certification Magazine, the first question they invariably ask is about the pros and cons of certification. I typically respond by listing the four big advantages of earning a cert:

  • They contain current information.
  • They are quicker to complete than a college degree.
  • They are less expensive to complete than a college degree.
  • They measure and verify directly applicable, job-ready knowledge and skills.

That gets kids are excited for me to answer their next question: Which cert will best help them land a high-paying job? Without fail, my answer is, Cybersecurity, all the way. To buttress my humble opinion, I pop out a few verifiable statistics.

For example, within the next two years, worldwide spending on cybersecurity will exceed $140 billion annually. Or there's this: Only five percent of companies feel confident that they are sufficiently protected from a cyber-attack. That sort of thing.

The truth is that when it comes to in-demand IT jobs, nothing compares to cybersecurity. You just can't go wrong with a security certification. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the past seven years the demand for skilled cybersecurity professionals has grown at an average of 37 percent annually.

Anyone who needs further convincing should look no further than how rapidly colleges and universities are adding cybersecurity certifications to their IT curricula. To my knowledge, there is not one four-year institution or junior college that doesn't offer students some level of cybersecurity training. Many institutions are offering full-blown cybersecurity degrees.

The world needs the next generation of cybersecurity professionals, and it needs then now. One young man who has eagerly answered that call is 20-year-old Greg Mitchell of Tampa, Fla. Greg is a sophomore at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where he is pursuing a degree in cybersecurity engineering.

The program is both thorough and rigorous, requiring both intelligence and hard work. The big benefit to Greg and others like him is that graduates will have no shortage of interesting and high-paying career opportunities.

A middle school certification start

Greg's decision to attend George Mason looks smart for a number of reasons. The school offers a strong IT program and the Washington D.C. area is one of the country's hottest job locations for up-and-coming tech talent. With a veritable alphabet soup of federal agencies on the front lines of the cyber war, the area is teeming with cybersecurity jobs.

As such, Greg's future is almost literally at his fingertips. Being close to D.C., I have a lot of agencies I can apply to for internships while in school and full-time jobs after graduation, said Greg.

In addition to managing a full load of classes, Greg helps meet his expenses by working part-time in the university's security office, where each next shift brings opportunities to hone his skills. It's something different every day, he said. I write scripts, do some networking, it's a bit of everything. I enjoy it and I'm making money at the same time.

Greg has always had a natural bent for tinkering with tech. He began figuring out what makes hardware and software tick all the way back in the 6th grade. I was always the guy called on to fix the teacher's computer, he said.

His first formal foray into IT and the world of certifications occurred in middle school as the result of a scheduling conflict. Taking the bus home each day meant travelling a circuitous and time-consuming route. Rather than make their son spend his time on the bus, Greg's parents arranged for him to remain at school until they could pick him up after work.

Instead of just letting him hang out at school, Greg's technology teacher suggested that he consider picking up some Microsoft Office certifications. As Greg remembers it, He told me they would help me down the road, so I figured, "Sure, why not?"

Before too long, young Greg had completed Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certifications in Word, PowerPoint, and Outlook. His only regret is that he did not also get certified in Excel. I should have done Excel, he said, but I didn't have a lot of time and Outlook was quicker and easier.

Chasing technology dreams

Greg Mitchell, as student at George Mason University in Virginia, is on the path to a career in cybersecurity.

Having gotten a taste of technology, Greg was hungry for more. When it came time to move on to high school, he decided to attend nearby Middleton High, which offered an advanced computer system program: I really wanted to learn more about computers and earn more certifications and Middleton was the place to do that.

Greg's parents were initially reluctant, since attending Middleton would involve another long bus ride and Greg would have had to get up extra early in the mornings. Not easily dissuaded, he kept pushing as only a teenager can. I just bugged my parents all summer long, Greg said.

Mom eventually came around after attending a Middleton open house that just happened to feature robots and an electric car competition. There was all kinds of cool stuff going on, said Greg. Mom was duly impressed with the teachers and course offerings and agreed to a trial run, with the caveat that Greg keep his grades up.

Greg agreed, happy to bet on himself in order to get what he wanted. Before long, it became evident he'd made a smart bet. Gret did well in school and, as his mother saw all he was learning, she knew that Middleton had been the correct choice for his education.

With Middleton's wealth of IT riches at his disposal, Greg thrived. One individual in particular who helped shape his high school experience was Alex Brightman, the Middleton High computer systems instructor. Brightman worked his students hard and made certain to give them the tools needed to develop their IT skills.

When the student is ready, the master will appear, and so it was with Greg, who Brightman remembers as being a most eager and capable pupil: He wanted to learn about new emerging technologies on a daily basis. He was always requesting more work to do in our network.

From Sudoku to cybersecurity

Brightman became a role model for Greg, who credits his favorite teacher with preparing him to take and pass certification exams. He always motivated me the whole time I was in his classes. He kept me on track and made sure I was ready for my exams. There were countless times that I didn't understand something right away and he patiently helped me figure things out.

Under Brightman's tutelage, Greg eventually added four more titles to his tally of certifications: A+, Network+, and Security+ from CompTIA, as well as Microsoft's Networking Fundamentals. As Greg's skills improved, he was regularly called on to resolve tech problems for other faculty members. We here at Middleton are very proud of Greg and what he has become, said Brightman.

Greg's eagerness to learn followed him to college. Despite being busy with a demanding major and a part-time job, Greg sets aside time to participate in Mason Competitive Cyber, a club that meets weekly to discuss current developments in cybersecurity. MCC also holds capture-the-flag cyber competitions, an activity members pursue as a way to practice the ins and outs of cybersecurity.

Competition scenarios involve the completion of complex security tasks like data exfiltration and malware analyzing. Greg says he's not anywhere close to being good at cybersecurity and has much to learn, but he still enjoys the events.

I love solving the puzzles and stuff, he said, and it's a way for me to keep learning. Figuring stuff out is a lifelong habit — as a boy Greg enjoyed completing Sudoku and crosswords puzzles.

Greg may profess a humble level of cyber security knowhow, but he and two roommates recently won third place in the George Mason PatriotHacks competition. Winning third place on our track of the PatriotHacks event was a big accomplishment, said Greg. I had never done a hackathon before and I wasn't sure how well I would do, but we got it done.

PatriotHacks features real companies presenting their IT challenges for student teams to solve. In addition to picking up real-world experience, students network closely with company reps — who are always on the lookout for new talent.

Greg and his teammates designed an app that collects data from product reviews and transforms it into comprehensible and readable reports. Our project enabled the company to run comprehensive reports that provided an overview of what is good and bad about products they offer, he said. We won some gift cards, but more importantly we learned and got to network with company representatives.

Long-term vision

One aspect of Greg's character that helps him in IT is his ability to focus on a goal, regardless of how long it may take. I like having something to work toward, he explained. I like to feel I'm accomplishing something, even if it's not immediate; (I can press on) as long as I'm working towards some worthwhile end.

During his freshman year in high school he initially felt somewhat out of his element and unable to handle the subject matter. Before high school, I knew how to use a computer, but had no idea of how they did what they did. As a consequence, I had a lot to learn in a very little amount of time, he said.

At the beginning of the school year, Greg took a pretest on computer hardware and software systems and struggled to answer the questions. He kept at it, however, and by year's end had learned enough to pass the CompTIA A+ exam. Greg's father, Todd Mitchell applauds his son's stick-to-it attitude, calling Greg a highly focused, self-motivated young man who welcomes rigorous challenges.

In addition to hard work and a curious nature, Greg attributes his success in IT to certifications, describing them as a quantifiable measure of one's progress in the subject matter.

Like any up-and-coming IT professional, Greg is excited about what the future holds. He plans to work for the Federal Government as a cybersecurity specialist. He describes himself as patriotic to an extent, but acknowledges that government agencies deal with cutting-edge cyber challenges. They have the most fun doing the real down-and-dirty important cybersec stuff.

He also knows that excelling in the cyber security realm will require a great deal more knowledge and experience — and that certifications will help him. His future certification plans include Cisco's CCNA CyberOps credential, and he hopes to eventually ascend to higher levels of Cisco certification. He would also like to obtain CompTIA's Linux+, CySA+, and PenTest+ credentials, as well as the expert-level CASP+.

I know I've got a lot more to learn, he said. I've got the basics, next comes the hard stuff.

Not surprisingly, Greg describes getting the results of his exams as the most enjoyable aspect of certification. At the end, I have something to show for all of my studying and hard work. It is one thing to learn, but getting the cert really makes it complete.

An excellent adventure awaits

Greg Mitchell, as student at George Mason University in Virginia, is on the path to a career in cybersecurity.

Greg also finds time to relax with friends, watching movies and playing video games. He enjoys comedies and says his all-time favorite is Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure — a film that is eight years older than Greg himself. Some people say it's kind of silly, but to me, it's hysterical, he said. There is not one moment in that movie that isn't funny.

Greg was especially excited to recently learn that Hollywood superstar Keanu Reeves and his less successful co-star Alex Winter will return to their famous slack doofus personas in Bill & Ted Face the Music (set to be released on Aug. 21), the long-awaited follow-up to the earlier 1991 sequel Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey.

Having successfully navigated the certification process a number of times, Greg is in an excellent position to offer some hard-earned certification advice to younger students: Start off with the goal to do it and commit to studying as much as you need to, and you won't have much of a problem.

Greg also cautions against the dangers of being satisfied with past achievements. The tech field changes really fast and it's changing all the time, he said. Certification alone isn't enough. You have to constantly keep up with new information and developments about your certifications and the industry in general.

The field of information technology does change on a daily basis, presenting new challenges and opportunities. Greg Mitchell is precisely the sort of budding IT professional who will meet and conquer tomorrow's challenges and help build a more secure computing environment for all of us.

About the Author

Calvin Harper is a former associate editor of Certification Magazine and a veteran of the publishing industry.

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