This morning I received an email from a young college grad asking for career advice. How could he land a job in IT now that he was finished with school and ready to conquer the world?

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I’m flattered and humbled that someone would ask me for career advice. Most days, I barely feel old enough to have this thing called a ‘career’ (but then I am turning 31 this winter…yikes). Other days I impress myself and think, “Man, I’m really good at this. Look how far I’ve come.” But the thing is: it was never my intention to go into the cybersecurity and IT field, so how could I ever be qualified to advise someone who wants to do so?

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I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first book when I was 6 (it was a comic about cloud-like people called the Wibbles) and started my first novel in the 4th grade (basically Scobby Doo meets Indiana Jones in Africa; really quite ambitious for a 10 year old). I wanted to tell stories that made people smile. Later, influenced by watching my mom work, I decided I would one day be the art director of an entertainment magazine in New York City. I wanted to be in charge of layout and tell stories through design. I spent hours in Microsoft Publisher making fake magazines and brochures and using all of my parents’ color ink. In college, my focus shifted away from print and I decided I wanted to be a movie trailer editor in Los Angeles, manipulating moving images and audio to tell stories in 29.97 frames per second.

But I didn’t go to NYC and after one trip to LA I knew it was not the place for me. Instead, after completing my BA in Digital Media, I moved back in with my parents so I could figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’ve written a few other novels hoping for a career as a writer; I interned at a TV stations and made a documentary hoping for a career as an editor; and I’ve freelanced for government agencies and conferences hoping for a career as a graphic designer.

And still none of those things happened.

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Somehow, after a strange and fortunate series of events, I’ve found myself leading an incredible creative team for a company that produces cyber security videos, newsletters and interactive training courses. So even though I’m not in Hollywood or the Big Apple and I don’t have any books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, I get to do all of the things I love, every single day. The context in which I do those things might be very different from what I set out to do, but over the last decade I’ve come to love the information security field and have learned a ton in the process.

When I was growing up, I heard “career path” and thought of the mid-20th century corporate ladder, a straight and narrow line that would take you from point A to point B without any detours. But in the modern landscape, I don’t think this type of path really exists anymore. People don’t stay at the same company for 30 years anymore. People bounce around, trying out different roles, learning new skills, wearing different hats, looking not for what suits them best forever but for what suits them best for right now. In many ways, I feel like the odd-ball, having been with the same company for as long as I have (but hey, I can’t walk out on the family biz!)

So for all of your young “cyber” professionals, here are a few pieces of advice that will hopefully help you as you navigate your own meandering and exciting career paths:

Be a Yes Man. 

You know that movie with Jim Carrey where he has to say ‘yes’ to all things, no matter how ridiculous or out-of-his-comfort-zone they might be? Whether you thought it was funny or not, it actually has an awesome life lesson. The more open we are to weird, unusual, atypical experiences, the more rewarding life can be. Dare to wander off the straight and narrow by saying YES to business opportunities, networking events, lunches and internships. Say YES to attending conferences and seminars and workshops. Say YES to that job that you think you’re 80% suited for; you can figure out the other 20% (that’s what the internet is for)!

Be willing to say, “I don’t know, but I will find out.” 

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A lot of people pop out of college with their degrees crisp in their hands, ready to conquer the world and (unfortunately) think they know as much as they could ever need to know. But NONE of us actually knows everything that we need to know, and only the people who are wise enough to acknowledge when they don’t know something and actually be willing to learn more will move forward. There have been many times in the last 10 years when I’ve been asked if I know how to do something. When the answer was “no” (as if often was), I did not just shrug and say, “sorry, that’s not my job” or “oh well, out of luck.” I took it upon myself to admit that I didn’t know but also figure it out, quickly, efficiently and accurately.

Don’t be so damn picky.

Unless you have a bottle of Felix Felicis in your pocket, you probably won’t find your ‘dream job’ right away, if ever. But just like I did not end up doing any of the things I dreamed about, you can find a job that satisfies the urges that drive you. Figure out what it is you want to do – not the top level ‘what’, not the ‘art director of a magazine’ or ‘trailer editor’, but the lower level, the motivating force underneath that. For me, that was “telling stories.” And now my job is spreading the message of security awareness, telling people stories about how they can be more secure. So what is your motivating force? What do you want to do, at a deeper level? Figure that out, and try your hand at different jobs that will let you explore different aspects of that motivation and don’t worry about it not being your ‘dream job.’ Every job you take can teach you something new about a subject, a field, or yourself.

Learn as much as you can about all the things, not just the thing you want to do.

Absorb as much information as you can about everything that’s slightly tangential to the job you want to do. The more you know about related jobs/roles/industries will only make you more valuable as a team member and employee. For example, my boss is not a designer or video editor, but he knows enough about those two things so that he can understand me and my team when we explain why something he wants isn’t feasible or why a project is taking a bit longer than expected. I know very little about programming or web development, but I try to stay in-the-know enough to be able to talk to my web master and help troubleshoot issues we run into with our sites. Even if you want to be a behind-the-scenes IT guy, take a public speaking class, do some improv, talk to strangers at parties and improve your people skills. Your managers and sales people will appreciate it later. And all of your marketing and sales minded folks, get some technical savvy. Take seminars and classes and watch tutorials online. Read magazines and blogs and follow relevant twitter accounts for news. The more you learn, the more indispensable you will become.

And for you ladies…

The STEM fields get a bad rap as being a hard place for women to succeed, and in many, many  cases that is true. I’ve heard enough horror stories and experienced enough misogyny from people in this industry for a lifetime. But we can’t let that stand in our way. We can’t let anyone underestimate what we’re capable of. At conferences, one of my favorite things is when someone approaches our booth, sees two young women, and assumes we’re just “booth babes” or sales reps who don’t know anything about our company. You can see it in their eyes, when they step up and ask questions, a tone in their voice wondering if we’re wasting their time. When we answer them not only knowledgeably but confidently and with lots of experience to back up our response, their entire demeanor changes. Their facial muscles shift, something flickers in their eyes. Respect. We can not expect people to respect us just because we are women. We must still earn it, and at times it can seem like an uphill battle. But arm yourself with knowledge, passion, a strong work ethic and a willingness to take risks, and you will not only win their respect, you will deserve it. The many facets of ‘cyber’ offer a lot to women who come hungry and ready to work, so don’t be afraid to enter this field. It’s fun, exciting, challenging and rewarding for anyone willing to give it all they’ve got.


Ashley Schwartau

Director of Production & Creative Development at SAC
After more than 15 years of working in this industry, she’s finally accepted – and embraced! – the fact that she’s a security awareness expert. She is also a book-loving, travel-blogging, French-speaking Gryffindor who is unapologetically obsessed with her cats.