Three young adults boarded a bright green RV at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Academic Center at Largo parking lot Dec. 2 to begin a coast-to-coast trip in search of answers to their many questions about the sometimes mystical world of cybersecurity.
Along the way, they will cover 3,600 miles in 26 days and stop in eight cities to talk with more than a dozen cyber industry leaders to ask their questions. And when the trip concludes in San Francisco, what they discovered will be incorporated in a PBS documentary that will air in 2017—coincidentally the year UMUC celebrates its 70th anniversary.
The quest is part of a project called Roadtrip Nation, which for 15 years has been putting together journeys to help students make career decisions through its career guide, documentary television series and classroom curriculum. Roadtrip Nation explores the future of work, where the opportunities will be—and how to attain them.
UMUC helped to underwrite this particular trip because its cybersecurity program at the undergraduate and graduate levels has become a national leader. By offering its cybersecurity curriculum entirely online, students located anywhere in the world can access courses and secure a variety of degrees or certificates in this high-demand career field.
“Innovation is part of our culture, and Roadtrip Nation embodies that innovation, turning a bright green RV into a powerful tool for education, research and community building,” said UMUC President Javier Miyares at the journey’s inauguration ceremony.
Since launching its cybersecurity-related programs in 2010, Miyares added, UMUC has graduated more than 5,000 majors and another 12,000 students are currently enrolled to pursue careers in aiding the nation’s defense against cyber terrorists and criminal hackers.
Yet even though the demand for individuals with cyber skills is skyrocketing, many new graduates are confused about how to jump-start a cyber career, said Nikki Sandoval, who directs the university’s career counseling center. Unlike most professions, she said, the pathway isn't well-trod or charted.
That’s the main point of the Roadtrip Nation excursion.
“It’s such a rapidly evolving industry that when these students go out on the road, I will be surprised if anyone can tell them what the path to a career is,” Sandoval said. “It’s changing every day. How awesome is that? You can set the rules and find your niche.”
Antwan King, who at 32 is finishing a master’s degree at UMUC in digital forensics and cyber investigation, is one of the road trippers.
Born in Greenville, N.C., King was the first in his family to go to college. His goal has always been to escape the fate of his parents and grandparents, who worked jobs they did not like in order to sustain themselves and their families.
King said that playing the computer game “Oregon Trail” as a kid opened his eyes to the possibilities of controlling his own life through computers. Now, he holds down a full-time job during the day and loads UPS trucks at night while completing online graduate classes.
He has been working at computer jobs since graduating from Benedict College in computer information science in 2006 but says those jobs are about as unsatisfying as the work his grandfather did.
“In cybersecurity, you’re in control,” he said. “I’m interested in digital forensics; how to hack a computer and find things to pin on someone who’s a prime suspect. That is exciting. Not only are you hacking, but [also] you are helping people.”
Finding the first step in a digital forensics career path has been elusive, though, he said. Nothing seems to come from job-fair interviews. He was baffled about how to start until Roadtrip Nation picked him from more than 100 people who had completed the arduous application process.
“I just want to sit down with someone to find out where the starting point is,” he said.
At the Roadtrip Nation sendoff in Largo, he may already have found that someone, UMUC grad Michael Echols, executive director and CEO of the International Association of Certified Information Sharing and Analysis Organizations (ISAOs). Like King, Echols is an African-American, and King said he was awed to meet Echols because he had heard his name mentioned prominently in so many places.
As they huddled during a break in the festivities, Echols said he sympathized with beginning cybersecurity professionals who are having trouble finding their niche, even though jobs are plentiful.
“I told [King] if he feels he can’t kick a door in, just go out and find another door,” Echols said. “It’s all about building relationships with people who understand where you want to be. We have a deficit of about a million people in cybersecurity. But I constantly have people call me and ask where the jobs are.”
Joining King on the RV is Emily Cox, 26, from Bloomington, Ill. She said she gets bored easily but has an insatiable curiosity. Cox dropped out of high school, earned a GED and said her early attempts at college have been rocky.
She discovered cybersecurity a year ago and has been largely self-taught. She completed a coding boot camp while working as a barista. Now Cox is hoping that the road trip will give her the guidance and inspiration to immerse herself in cybersecurity education.
“I would like to have a better definition of my path, a better idea of where I go from here,” she said, breaking momentarily from talking to two of UMUC’s cybersecurity advisors—Retired U.S. Navy Adm. Elizabeth Hight, who is now vice president of the Cybersecurity Solutions Group, and Marcus Sachs, vice president of national security policy at Verizon Communications.
“I want to know what these leaders did when they had doubts, what they are most proud of and where cybersecurity is going,” Cox said. “I’m in murky waters. I need some direction.”
Rounding out the group is Mansi Thakar, 24, from San Diego. She said she had been heading toward a career in chemistry until one night when her mother said she could not get access to her Gmail. Someone had hacked it. Thakar said she googled “what do I do when my emails are gone,” but her search came up empty.
“That’s when my cybersecurity education began,” she said.
Thakar hopes the road trip will give her a better perspective on how cybersecurity relates to other fields. She is particularly interested in the area where cybersecurity meets machine learning so that she can help shape how cyber threats can be thwarted by algorithms that automatically block attackers before they make entry.
“Working in cybersecurity is being a superhero for securing our digital life,” Thakar said. “Who doesn’t want to be a superhero?”
Five people will be crammed aboard the Roadtrip Nation RV, which is about the size of a studio apartment. The three students are joined by two videographers who are filming every step of the way. The students’ first job was to learn how to drive the RV.
Before coming to Largo, the trip started in New York City where the students talked to Rohan Amin, managing director of Global Technology at JP Morgan Chase, and to Christina Morillo, vice president of Technology and Information Risk at Morgan Stanley.
Afterward, using their new RV driving skills, they gingerly exited New York and headed down the New Jersey Turnpike—in the rain. The morning before the Largo send off, they visited the NSA Cryptology Museum at Fort Meade to talk with curator Patrick Weadon.
With the inaugural festivities behind them and Cox at the wheel, the big green van moved slowly out of the UMUC Largo parking lot as UMUC staff and well-wishers shook pompoms and cheered them on. Next stop: New Orleans.
Follow their journey with blogs and photos here: http://roadtripnation.com/roadtrip/cybersecurity#roadtrip