SANS Women’s Immersion Academy, COVID Style

Last month, I completed the SANS Women’s Immersion Academy, earning my GCFE (GIAC Certified Forensic Examiner), GCIH (GIAC Certified Incident Handler), and GSEC (GIAC Security Essentials) certifications.  The SANS Women’s Immersion Academy is an accelerated training program that helps fill the skills gap in cyber security.  The program is 6 months, and three classes are provided at full scholarship.  Mentoring, career placement assistance, and Slack channels are also provided.  This year, 25 women were selected out of over 600 applicants – I was one of them.

First, the Cliff Notes version (or TLDR as my son says).  The SANS Women’s Immersion Academy was amazing!  If you are thinking about applying, STOP AND APPLY NOW!  I have had the pleasure of working with some amazing women who shared this adventure with me.  They are funny, hardworking, and smart.  Many of us have husbands, children, and parents who may not understand that we are trying to better ourselves for their advantage as much as our own.  Add COVID into the mix and the adventure has been much harder than any of us could have anticipated.  Still, apply anyway!

Before I share my experience in the Women’s Academy, here are a few details about my background.  After graduating from college, I supported, consulted, and trained on Windows Server and Workstation and IBM hardware and software, as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT), and IBM Certified Trainer.  I worked at a support partner for Microsoft during the launch of Windows 95 as the training technical lead, scheduling, overseeing, and delivering training for all new employees.  After working on Windows 95, I taught and supported Windows Server and Workstation, Microsoft Systems Management Server (now SCCM), IBM Tivoli Storage Manager, IBM Tivoli LDAP server, IBM Identity Management, and optimizing IBM hardware on Windows. 

In 2002, I was self-employed as a contract trainer and my husband was developing and selling his (world famous) FTP server, WFTPD, and caring for our son when the unthinkable happened.  My 35 year old husband had cancer.  Since we were both self-employed, our health insurance cost almost as much as our mortgage and didn’t cover my son’s allergies and asthma or his therapy for ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).  Eventually we realized that one of us needed to go back to a regular job to get health insurance.  We were living in Austin and the job market was terrible – tech companies were abandoning half built buildings in downtown Austin.  In April of 2004, my husband and I came to Seattle for the Microsoft MVP Summit and a week later, he had a job offer and we had a plan to move to Seattle.  I quit working to be at home with our son.

Fast forward to 2014 when my son graduated from high school.  I was unable to find a job in IT after several years away, so I went back to office work, something I enjoyed while in college.  I worked at a city hall, a machine shop, and eventually I was an office manager at an HR services company.  The company was great and the people I worked with were amazing, but the work was not particularly challenging.  So, last year when I was at the Diana Initiative, I learned about the SANS Women’s Immersion Academy.  At first, I thought that there must be a catch, so I went home and investigated.  Indeed, they were giving away a 6-month cyber security training program at full scholarship!  I really didn’t think that I would get in, but I applied anyway.

After completing the application, I took a technical assessment.  I was incredibly surprised about how much I still remembered!  I had always felt that I wasn’t as technical as other people – that my strengths were in training and communication, not bits and bytes.  Later I found out that I did extremely well on the assessment.  A week later, I was asked to complete my application with a resume and transcripts for my degrees.  And much to my continued surprise, I was asked to interview for the Women’s Academy.  Then the hard part started – waiting to hear.  I continued working and didn’t tell anyone other than family that I had applied to the program.  In early January, I received an email saying that I had been selected!  Telling my coworkers was hard – I enjoyed working with them and hated to let them down.  Also, it sounded like a crazy plan for me (at 50 years old) to retrain to go back into technology in cyber security.

So, I excitedly put in my notice, bought a new laptop, and got ready for training to begin. 

Then COVID hit. 

The class was changed from in-person to online and I was disappointed that I would not get to meet my fellow Women’s Academy members and network with others in infosec.  But at least the program wasn’t cancelled.  The first class, Security Essentials Bootcamp Style, was brutal.  Class ran for six days from 9 a.m. to 7:30 or 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday.  Once again, I was surprised by how much I remembered – TCP/IP is still TCP/IP and network topology hasn’t changed. 

Once I finished the class, I began studying for the accompanying exam, GSEC.  Shortly before the class started, Pearson Vue, used by GIAC to proctor exams, closed all of their testing facilities through mid-April, but I assumed that by the time my testing deadline came around (in early May), I would be able to take my exam.  It was difficult to be motivated to study when I didn’t know when I would be able to complete the certification.  The date for re-opening Pearson Vue kept getting pushed back and eventually, I wondered if we would be able to complete the Women’s Academy or if the program would be abandoned due to COVID. 

Finally, GIAC was able to create a plan for remote proctoring through ProctorU starting May 17.  So, I ramped up my studying again, took my first practice exam in early May, and scored a 93!  So much for being less technical than others.  Since I scored so well on the practice exam and I was comfortable with the format, I decided to skip my second practice exam and was ready to take my exam.  On May 18, we received an email saying that we could schedule our exam for between June 1 and 15, so I scheduled mine for June 2.  I wanted to test sooner because I was ready and afraid that I would lose knowledge while waiting, but June 2 it was.  I was a wreck before the exam, nauseous and shaky, but I dove in and took the certification exam.  The setup took some time and was very awkward, but eventually I started the exam and scored a 93!

One down, two to go.  The next class was Hacker Tools, Techniques, Exploits, and Incident Handling which I took “On Demand”.  The class was great and there were a ton of tools to learn and use.  The exam for this class (GCIH) included a hands-on section that you needed to do well on to pass the exam.  I was nervous about this and so were the other women in the Women’s Academy.  We had no idea how in-depth or detailed the hands-on section would be.  So, I repeated the labs, created my index, and took the practice exam – another 93!  So, as before, I skipped the second practice exam and scheduled my certification exam.  I thought that the second one would be less nerve-wracking, but no, it was just as much!  I took the exam, completed all the hands-on questions correctly, and scored a 98!

The last class was the hardest, but most interesting, Windows Forensic Analysis.  At this point, fatigue was setting in and I wondered whether I would even be able to get a job in this new COVID world, so motivation to study was a challenge.  Fortunately, the material and the tools were both interesting and useful, so I persevered.  Same as before, study, create index, repeat labs, take the practice exam.  I scored a 91 on the practice exam, so I scheduled the certification exam.  Nerves ensued, but I passed with an 89!  Next up, vacation and quality time with my family, and then job hunting. 

It’s been a month since I completed the SANS Women’s Immersion Academy and I have had time to reflect on the last year since I first applied to the program.  I have refreshed old knowledge and gained new knowledge.  I have gained new skills and learned new tools.  Mostly though, I have learned not to underestimate myself.  I work hard and I’m capable.  And, every bit as technical as the next woman (or man).

Thanks to all those who have contributed to my success.  My coworker, Sean, who didn’t think I was crazy.  My husband for his support and help (I’m sure he never wants to hear, “Do you have a minute?  I have a question.” again).  My son for bearing with me and making dinner on Tuesday nights.  My mentor who encouraged us and occasionally told us to put our big-girl panties on.  The other women in the program who inspired and encouraged me, who went on this adventure with me.  And a special thank you to SANS and Sonny Sandelius for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself!

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