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Beyond Technical Skills: How to Choose Your Non-Traditional Cyber Program

By Adam Bricker, Executive Director of the Carolina Cyber Center

Individuals pursuing a cybersecurity career are increasingly looking past traditional cybersecurity programs. Practically speaking, a college education is not for everyone – as the expense, duration and schedule demands are often not feasible or prudent for certain individuals (e.g., family demands, current expenses). Thankfully, employers are recognizing that qualified cybersecurity talent need not possess a college degree—these employers are seeking talent with character, experience, and technical skills. Technical skills and experience are foundational to a cyber professional, but so are curiosity, critical thinking, collaboration, discipline, and grit. When selecting a non-traditional cybersecurity program, here are four things to consider:

1. Pick your people.

Counterintuitively, as technology and threats advance, we must enhance our investment in people. Cybersecurity surely involves a great deal of technology, but it remains largely a “people problem” and weaknesses in our cyber defense systems are dominated by the lack of discipline, critical thinking and collaboration among people. Thus, who are the people to whom you are entrusting your future? Do the instructors and program leaders have ten to twenty-plus years of industry experience with a mix of front-line technical skills and management/leadership experience? Although learning from credible mentors is necessary, it should go further than that. The program leaders have to know from experience what to teach and what not to teach. If the instructors are focused on putting forward book knowledge and the data necessary to “pass the certification,” they cannot teach you to differentiate between essential and non-essential information. Look for programs employing state-of-the-art cybersecurity tools, but also look those leaders who can help you learn the essential life skills noted above (e.g., curiosity, critical thinking).

2. Stay savvy.

Ironically, while the phrase itself is outdated, the sentiment is not. Is the program you’re evaluating designed to stay current with what employers seek? All too often, cybersecurity programs can become subject to ‘certification envy’. Instead of centering on what other programs offer and attempting to look competitive (certification envy), your program needs to center on what companies need from their cyber professionals—they need to be competitive. Esse Quam Videri. Ask “How is your program and the people that lead it going to help me become a professional leader of character and not just a technically-literate staff member?” And ask, “How does your program continuously adapt to the changing cybersecurity professional demands (e.g., threats, tools, technologies) and what have your recently added and removed from your program?”

3. Make them come to you.

Our third point has to do with you. Does the program meet you where you are? Once you step outside the realm of traditional college education, you will find that learning is not a one-size-fits-all. Non-traditional programs, like the Carolina Cyber Center, technically prepare you for the job, for working in the corporate world, for communicating through difficult situations, and most importantly, for developing your essential life skills (e.g., curiosity, critical thinking, collaboration, discipline, and grit). Does the program offer various “on-ramps” and “off-ramps” that reflect your current skills and your future career goals? Or is it a “one size fits all” program?

4. Do not settle for emulation, or worse, just information.

Finally, figure out if your program does more than information dissemination and structured memorization. The program that you choose should increasingly simulate rather than emulate the real world. Emulation repeats, providing a replica of the structured work environment. Simulation places you in various, dynamic environments of increasing complexity and realism to build and assess your technical skills and your essential life skills in a real, unstructured contexts. We refer to this as building your agency under duress – the ability to perform under pressure when times/situations demand your competency and timely action (vs. untrained reaction).

At the Carolina Cyber Center, we begin with structured skills that become increasingly more complex and unstructured until you are ready to hit the real world. The more a program simulates the real world, the less tolerance there should be for failure. That sounds harsh, but our job is to prepare you for a successful career, not just to get the interview or even the job. Real-world, hands-on experience and essential life skills not only get you the job but help you thrive in your career. All of this requires curiosity, critical thinking, collaboration, discipline, and grit—qualities we cultivate here at the Carolina Cyber Center. In short, when you look for a non-traditional cyber program, look for a program that knows what they are talking about, is not pulled into ‘certification envy’, meets you where you are, and shows you how to navigate real-life situations.

Want to learn more about the Carolina Cyber Center’s non-traditional cyber program? Visit our webpage or call us at 828.419.0737 to see how you can join one of our Academy cohorts beginning this summer and become a certified Cyber Analyst!

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