Welcome back to The Pipeline, where we highlight members of the military community who are working in cybersecurity. Today we’re speaking with Charles Johnston.
How did you become interested in the military?
My grandfather served during World War II, and my brother joined the national guard around the time of the first Gulf War, so I knew a fair amount about the military already. Honestly, the biggest draw for me was trying to get ahead in life. My father was a factory worker, and my mother is a nurse, so we were a middle-class family. They both worked extremely hard to make sure we had everything we needed. Some things we wanted, but they did not have the income to pay for – like college, and I didn’t have the grades for it. I did not apply myself at all in school and thought it wasn’t really for me. Knowing that the military was the best option, I took a kind of “try before you buy” approach by joining the National Guard when I was 17. I originally selected a job that would translate very well into a civilian career–Avionics Systems Repairer–and received a lot training in electronics which allowed me to work on helicopters. I thought that was super cool at 17.
Did your role in the military have any direct relationship to your current or previous roles?
Nope, I was an avionics technician and then an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Operator and neither role has anything to do with Information Technology. I guess EOD would play a larger part in that I had to learn very quickly and retain information very well. When you’re disarming an explosive device, you must know what you are doing and remember details about your work or else it is not going to go very well. This combined with the ability to interpret what I am seeing have helped me most of all. However, there was no direct translation from military to civilian applications.
What experiences while in uniform started you on the path to where you are now?
Nothing directly. I always had an interest in computers and technology, but the biggest thing that brought me here was knowing that there was no way I could keep doing what I did in the military forever. Don’t get me wrong–many find roles in force protection and explosive work after military service–but for me I thought doing it for my entire adult was not going to be enough. What I really wanted was a challenge. I wanted to do something different than what my peers had done. I could always fall back on my military experience and training if the need arose, but why not go in a completely different direction? If you love what you do you will never work a day in your life, and for me solving complex problems while seeing patterns others miss keeps me coming back to work every day.
What did you do in the latter part of your service/while you were leaving the military that set you up for success?
I used all my Tuition Assistance every year so by the time I was getting close to retirement I would have a Bachelors of Science degree. I was able to leverage transition programs normally available only to officers (that require a degree.) This allowed me to apply for an internship program while I was still in service. As a result, during my last few months in service I was still on the military’s payroll, and I was working as an intern with a Fortune 500 company. I also took every opportunity I could find to network. I would go to events and meet people and talk about who I am and what I am trying to do. The importance of networking during transition is often stressed but also goes overlooked. In my opinion, too many veterans feel disconnected from non-veterans and have a hard time connecting with people who have never served; this still happens to me at times. I try to get out of my comfort zone and meet others in the field because you never know who you might meet and what that could lead to professionally.
Looking back—did you do anything that set you back?
I tried to take a very deliberate approach to my educational plan. If anything, my first degree–an associate’s in Web Publishing–did the least for me. It provided a lot of transfer credits which was a plus, but I have never used anything I learned in the program. I found it interesting, however. For me, the only way an educational program is effective is if I find it interesting. Boring classes result in lackadaisical work ethic and grades reflect this. I may never have used or will ever use my Web Publishing skills, but it got the ball rolling for me and gave me time to figure out what I really wanted to do. To me nothing can really set you back; even if something appears to have resulted in a setback, take the good from it; at least now you know. We all make mistakes in life–what sets one apart is what was learned from that mistake. Take ownership and don’t make the same mistake twice.
What are 3 challenges you’ve faced in your current role that you used your military experience to help overcome?
Politics: I had hoped that corporate America would not be as political as the military, but I have been proven wrong. Having dealt with senior military officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) I have learned how to tread the political waters and see the rip tides before I get pulled under.
Toxic Personalities: While I have not encountered this as much in my civilian career they are out there. I know how to handle them, so I don’t get run over, and don’t let them get under my skin.
Not being afraid to ask for help: When I was just starting out, I asked a lot of questions, even when I was sure I was right about something. I needed validation that I knew what I was doing as I was dealing with a fair amount of imposter syndrome and still do at times. I also was crazy scared to make a mistake. What I have seen since is everyone deals with this and some just never ask for help or a second set of eyes. Of course, this is a double-edged sword as now I have people constantly asking the same questions which is worrisome because it gives the impression they are not understanding. My military experience allowed me to understand that I do not know everything and never will. I also learned to pay attention, learn, and build my confidence.
What sort of education and experience would a veteran need to either land your role or be part of your team?
There are so many programs now to get into this field. If you still have your GI Bill, I highly recommend either the SANs Technology Institute Cyber Undergrad, their Master’s in Information Security Engineering (MSISE), or any of their post graduate certificates. Their curriculum is top notch, highly technical, and highly respected in the field. They are very expensive so that is something to keep in mind. CompTIA certifications are ok. While not as technical they provide a solid foundation if you are trying to gain certifications without breaking the bank. You can buy one of their books, read the book, take the exam, and spend less than a grand which while not a small amount of money is much less than a SANs certification. There are even cyber apprentice programs, I know CyberDefenses is a company that has one. Make sure you resume is up to date and translated from military to civilian. There are companies that will do this for you, for free. I think I used Hire Heros USA. Go to meet ups in the area you are in. Sign up for events like BSides (I believe you can register for less than $100.) There are event Discord channels like The Many Hats Club. Listen to podcasts that talk about new trends, technologies, and threats. Immerse yourself in the field because if this is what you want to do for the rest of your life you should really understand it as best you can, no half measures.
What message would you like to send to employers on how to hire and get the most value from veterans?
Veterans bring a different mindset to the workplace; if they are there, they are there to work. They are the ones you can count on at 2AM to answer their phone, get out of bed, and start solving problems because that’s what the military ingrained in us. All you need to do is give them the mission and send them on their way–no need to micromanage or check in on them to make sure they are being productive. There may be times where it doesn’t look like they are grinding away quite as much as some of the others, but I guarantee they have produced more than you expected. If you want to attract veterans, hold free events and get the word out there. Many times, companies hold events that are advertised on campus but are they advertised at the nearest military installation? Connect your corporate recruiters with military transition professionals so the word can get out. Most veterans are part of groups online with active and retired military and the word will spread. This will not only draw more veterans but also allow you to show them your culture and what your company is about.
Don’t place so much emphasis on time with a product because to be honest that is a horrible metric for success; just because someone has 10 years of experience in CISCO Routing Switching and Firewalls does not mean they are good at their job–it doesn’t hurt, but it also does not guarantee success. I have talked to hiring managers and been offered jobs when I only have two years of experience event though the job posting says “5 years of experience required.” Had I only looked at the posting on LinkedIn I would have passed it over. Understand that regardless of the veteran’s military occupation they all understand how to follow direction and lead when the need arises. Every veteran I know is a quick learner and will throw themselves whole-heartedly into a task if they feel like an integral part of the team. A lot of times they will find a novel approach to something that was overlooked because someone couldn’t see the forest through the trees. Their attention to detail and work ethic are assets that are hard to find anywhere else.