Jon Mallory wasn’t satisfied with his career path in chemistry, so when he found NexGenT, he decided to take a leap into IT and cyber security. Jon shares how a short IT course at NexGenT convinced him to enroll in NexGenT’s remote cyber security bootcamp. He also shares the difference between networking engineering and cyber security, plus how NexGenT made it possible to balance studying remotely while working full-time. Read how Jon successfully changed career paths and his tips for the cyber security job search!
What inspired you to switch from chemistry to cyber security?
I received a Bachelor's of Science in Biology and Genetics at a traditional four-year college, and I thought for a long time that I wanted to work in chemistry. I am part of that generation where your parents told you to go to college in order to figure out what you wanted to do in your life. I went with that mindset for a while, and ended up working in an analytical chemist position at a healthcare company.
I’ve always been interested in IT and tech, starting early on with video gaming and eventually building my own PCs and learning how computers work. I had a buddy who needed someone to help him with some C# coding, so I started to get into front end development and learn more about the Microsoft framework Visual Studio, ASP.Net, etc. But I found that coding wasn't really my forte. One day, I was scrolling through Instagram and saw an ad for a CompTIA Network+ certification course at NexGenT. It got me interested in tech again, so I decided to look into it.
There are so many online bootcamps now! What stood out to you about NexGenT?
I initially signed up for NexGenT’s CompTIA Network+ Certification course, because it was a good, affordable opportunity for me to jump into IT. Doing that course helped me learn more about NexGenT and the team there, and I then got accepted into their Network Engineering bootcamp. When I finished that bootcamp, the NexGenT team suggested I join their new Cyber Security Specialization bootcamp. Branching out from the foundational framework of network engineering seemed like a good idea, so I decided to enroll in the Cyber Security Specialization program.
Did you have to know how to code to get into NexGenT?
No, you don't have to know anything specific to enroll at NexGenT. Aptitude-wise, you can be green as a pine tree coming into it! There was a test assessment for aptitude and I did well on it! I also did a 30-minute phone call with the admissions team, and they basically wanted to see if I was motivated and going to stay on top of my classwork.
What is the difference between network engineering and cyber security?
Network engineering is heavily focused on physical infrastructure – setting up switching topologies, routers, and hosts within an organization to communicate with each other.
Cyber security is more focused on risk management. In cyber security, you’re making sure that data that's flowing within that network and flowing between the host and clients is actually protected. You're ensuring that policies are followed and best practices are in place. You're also making sure that what the network engineer has configured and installed is protected from outside attackers, malicious processes, and insider threats.
Network engineering and cyber security go hand-in-hand. There are a lot of network engineers that have cyber security experience and there are a lot of cyber security analysts that have networking experience. You almost have to in this day and age. They compliment each other well.
Do you need to learn networking before learning cyber security?
I recommend that anyone interested in cyber security start learning about very low-level networking concepts for computer systems first. Cyber security is always going to be based on the network and the infrastructure that you're supporting. This happens at any organization, from small civilian-based companies to larger-scale organizations involving national security.
Did NexGenT’s teaching style match your own personal learning style?
Yeah! Vamsee and Jacob were our instructors, and on the very first day, we actually did a little assessment on the types of learners in our cohort: kinesthetic, audio, and visual learning. I'm a kinesthetic learner, which means I'm hands-on. If I'm reading about doing something on the computer, it's much easier and better for me if I can get my hands on the keyboard and execute the things I've learned. Vamsee wanted to provide every available learning style while he taught, so that people who learn differently would be able to collectively catch up with the class and we could work as a team.
What was a typical day like for you in the remote NexGenT bootcamps?
For my cohort, we had classes Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights as well as a four-hour class on Saturday mornings. That was our standard schedule for the 6-month course. It was expected of us to attend class and then spend about 2 hours of study-time on the days that we weren't in class. With our 10 hours of class and the suggested ten hours of studying, my cohort put in a solid 20 hours of learning a week. By the end of the bootcamp, we had about 400 hours of applied cyber security knowledge and training. It can be a bit challenging to balance the course with a full-time job, but it’s definitely doable!
How did you interact and communicate with your cohort?
Going into this bootcamp, I did not know anybody in my cohort. A couple of the other students had been through the Full Stack Network Engineering course that I was also in before, but I didn't personally interact with them much. There were about 30 of us on Zoom calls! I'm quite outgoing, so it's not a problem for me to reach out to other people and offer or ask for help. I gave some of my classmates my number, too, so that we could connect. Doing that helped me establish lifelong friendships and that has been so valuable.
Honestly, the greatest component of the bootcamp for me has been my cohort. My cohort was interactive and willing to help one another, which has been the best aspect of online learning for me. It would be completely different if you had to learn this curriculum by yourself as opposed to having all of these resources. NexGenT is totally on top of it when it comes to support. I had the instruction team, my cohort, career services, and NexGenT alumni to reach out to. It's a solid network.
What exactly did you learn during the cyber security bootcamp?
The cyber security bootcamp starts off with the basics, and the first 4-6 weeks of the program puts a heavy emphasis on networking. We learned how computers communicate with each other, how data is transmitted from one client to another, and the best practices for networking, security, and technologies that are leveraged. If you don't have any prior networking knowledge, it's a bit vigorous but it's not too difficult to catch onto. After that, we dove into what cyber security is, when it's used, the business that we're in, and common frameworks. By the end of the course, we were jumping into the fun stuff, like common attacks, threats, vulnerabilities, and hackers. We went through attack vectors, malware, ransomware, cross-site scripting, web application security, and more.
What was your favorite project that you worked on in the cyber security bootcamp at NexGenT?
We use PracticeLabs throughout the course. Every single lesson we did was reinforced with a lab; for example, when we learned about the Domain Name System (DNS) then we reinforced that by learning how to set up a Virtual Machine. After we got through the general course work, we got to do a project from Circadence called Project Aries. It's a top-of-the-line cyber security hacking simulation software; we used that over the last 10 weeks of our course.
My favorite project was a simulation of a Russian attacker in Project Aries. The hacker was attacking corporate networks, so we were called in as cyber security analysts and professionals to do a footprint of the network, check out the traffic that was flowing through the firewall, and set up roles inside of our prevention system to make sure that malicious activity was identified and stopped. NexGenT also had us get into a couple of computers and get rid of malicious files.
How did NexGenT prepare you for your CompTIA certification exams?
Preparing for the CompTIA certification exams is actually the last week of bootcamp, but a lot of the Security+ material that's covered in the exams is actually baked into the curriculum. (Security+ is the entry-level overhaul of everything cyber security.) NexGenT did a great job of going over every aspect of the exams. I bought additional CompTIA study materials and did practice exams, and going through those, I've noticed I learned most of it at NexGenT already!
The last few weeks of the bootcamp, we practiced with Project Aries. Our instructor Vamsee pulled real-world Security+ questions and concepts, and put them into the program for us. There were also open office hours, so if there was nothing specific on the agenda for the office hours one night, my cohort could stick around and go through those Security+ questions. Everything in the course is reiterative of everything that's covered on the lower-level CompTIA certifications, which cements it into your mind. I now understand the concepts and how to apply them in a real-world situation.
Do you have any tips for someone who is about to take the CompTIA+ certification tests?
You can never be too well prepared! But also don’t overthink it and don't overstress it. I'm about to take my Security+ exam and I feel prepared for it. Cyber security is an ever-growing and changing career and framework, but the fundamentals are always going to be the fundamentals.
How has NexGenT prepared you for the job hunt?
NexGenT has an amazing career services team! In our cohort, we worked with Sam and Michael, and they've been a phenomenal help to me. As we've gone through the cyber security cohort we've gone over interview strategies, the best way to find jobs, and things like that. We had a mock interview practice test where I had to record myself and submit it to the career counselors to get feedback. Michael also showed us a platform called Big Interview and that's been built into the curriculum to prepare us for the job hunt. Once your cohort is done, NexGenT’s career services continue to support you for a solid 6 months. You also always have access to NexGenT's professional network, so that in the unlikely chance that you can't find work, you can easily reach out to people in the industry.
Since finishing the cyber security bootcamp, which job titles do you feel qualified to apply for?
I'm mostly looking at roles like Cyber security Analyst, Security Operations Center Analyst, Network Operations Center Analyst, Information Security Analyst, and Cyber security Specialist. Keep in mind that there are a lot of different titles for similar roles! Cyber security analyst is the most common entry-level position in the cyber security field.
Personally, I would like to work on-site because I like the in-person team aspect, but NexGenT definitely prepared me to work remotely.
You have been working full-time, completing the NexGenT bootcamp, and doing a remote job search all at the same time! How have you structured your remote job search to balance all of that?
I’ve balanced bootcamp, work, interacting with my cohort, and a job search by being disciplined with my time management. I would advise anyone who is considering doing the NexGenT program to start the job hunt process early on. Begin looking for jobs at least halfway through the program. Remember it’s never too late to start working on your resume and references! Get your foot in the door and get your first interview. Once you get the interview, you'll be able to sell yourself on the value that you bring to the company you're interviewing for.
I’ve also been working with higher-level recruiters on platforms like Dice. Even LinkedIn has been successful for me. For the last two weeks, I've had a phone call almost every day to discuss job opportunities, but I want to make sure that I get the right fit for me. Most positions I’m looking at right now are remote and that will probably continue to be the case.
How have you set up your home office to work remotely in cyber security?
Your company will probably send you a laptop and software that you need, and they’ll connect you to a VPN. In this day and age, it doesn't hurt to have a switch and a router set up at your home office. You might also want to set up a couple of servers so that you can play around with concepts you've learned, but you can do this all through virtual machines these days, too.
For my own job search, I'm currently in the process of setting up a home lab because most employers want to know that you're passionate about cyber security. In this sector, it's less about having the necessary skills and knowledge and more about presenting yourself as someone who is dedicated and passionate about cyber security. You need to be someone who is willing to learn. With my own home lab, I'm trying to use AWS machines. I also have software called GNS3, which has complemented well with my networking engineering course because I'm able to use virtual images of software to set up my own networks. This allows me to set up firewalls and blend in my cyber security knowledge that I've been learning. It's been fun!
Tell us about your new job at IES Communications! Did your NexGenT bootcamp experience help you make the transition from chemistry to your current IT position?
Yes! Taking NexGenT’s Network Engineering bootcamp actually helped me land my current IT position as a Lead Datacenter Technician at IES Communications. IES Communications is a data center, and I use a lot of what we learned in the network engineering course, like using a bit of Python! I highly recommend learning Python. You can automate a ton with Python and write scripts to do mundane tasks for you and make your life way easier.
As a Lead Datacenter Technician, I respond to customer and vendor tickets, handling Layer One and Layer Two. Vendor tickets range anywhere from troubleshooting to switching out hardware or storage drivers. This job is going to be a great pivot point for me to snag my next position as a cyber security professional. Graduating from the NexGenT bootcamp also helped me leverage a pay increase that I probably would not have been able to get otherwise. I wholeheartedly credit NexGenT for helping me with that!
Did you have to do a technical interview for your current IT role?
I did not necessarily have to do a specific technical interview to get this position, but I did have to answer some general technical questions like, "What's a router?" "What's a switch?" "How do computers communicate with one another?"
What has been your biggest challenge on this journey to becoming a cyber security professional?
For me, it was maintaining diligence with the program. It's easy to work 40+ hours a week and slack off on your coursework. Sometimes with online learning, since you're not physically going to a classroom, it can be easy to push your classwork aside. Even when it seems like you don't have any time, you can schedule your time in blocks and assess yourself. Being vigilant about staying on top of your homework is important. At NexGenT, we had a weekly check-in about what we learned, what our strong points were, if we needed help, and our plan for the week. That helped me stay on track and it encouraged me to stick with it.
Are you happy that you went down this career path towards cyber security? Was it worth it?
Definitely! I don't have any regrets, and I'm extremely passionate about it. I've only gotten more excited about this career from the moment I got the first whiff of interest about cyber security to where I'm sitting right now. It's an ever-expanding market. If you like to solve problems and do detective work then cyber security is a great field to go into. I highly recommend it.