How a passion for cyber molds a student’s career path

Image 4 - Capt Leavitt.jpgWeylin Leavitt has turned his cybersecurity interest into a lifestyle. His involvement with Excelsior College’s cybersecurity program has led him to become an active member of the College’s cybersecurity club to support his passion for the field. Leavitt is a Master of Science in Cybersecurity student that has also granted him the ability to be cyber-field certified, with certifications such as the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH). The Santa Rosa, California native is currently stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, assigned to the 33d Network Warfare Squadron, previously known as the Air Force Computer Emergency Response Team. Leavitt joined the U.S. Air Force after graduating college in Prescott, Arizona. Leavitt sits down with Excelsior Life to discuss his journey in the cybersecurity field.

Excelsior Life: You pursued a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering. How did that lead you to the Airforce?

Leavitt: I attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, which is a predominately flying related school focusing on pilots and Aerospace Engineering, but also has a ROTC program. I tried the ROTC program while I was there but I discontinued my involvement during my first year. After I graduated in 2008, I found myself with no experience or certifications and competing with 10+ years experienced individuals with Ph.D.’s and Master’s degrees in the computer engineering field. After looking for work for six months and only finding a part time, house-call IT job, I decided to join the Air Force. They were heavily recruiting in the new cybersecurity field being talked about a lot at that time. It took two years of paperwork and patience, but I was finally I was accepted to Officer Training School in 2010.

Excelsior Life: What are your current job responsibilities?

Leavitt: I am currently a “jack of all trades,” as most officers are. My main responsibility is as a “Crew Commander” on our operations floor. We have over 110 operators, up to 56 operating at any one time, running 24/7 operations, protecting the Air Force network consisting of roughly 850,000 systems and 150,000 users. I am responsible for coordinating missions for those operators, planning them, providing incident handling and response actions, and ensuring any active, global contingency efforts have the mission assurance they need to succeed in their own missions.

Excelsior Life: What does a typical day look like?

Leavitt: Being 24/7 operations, I usually only work a 50-60 hour work week, Monday through Friday. If I am crew commanding, I work a 12-14 hour shift consisting of briefing the day’s plans to the operations floor, operating our weapon system, and coordinating incidents and event handling across up to seven geographically located Air Force squadrons.

Excelsior Life: Being in your role, how did that lead you to pursue a degree in cybersecurity? Was there an opportunity at work in this field that interested you?

Leavitt: Every year, I mentor anywhere from to two to three schools in the CyberPatriot program. I also lead and participate in three to four Capture the Flag (CTF) competitions, in addition to helping friends, family, and business associates with protecting their computer systems. Just this year I have started to teach a computer programming and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) program through the San Antonio Coder Dojo project. There are many opportunities at work to be technical and get hands on the latest issues, but for someone in a management/officer position like myself, I am only allowed to teach the operational and strategic levels of cybersecurity, not the tactical and technical levels. That is the reason I seek opportunities for technical advancements outside of the workplace.

Excelsior Life: What excites you about the cybersecurity field?

Leavitt: I’m most excited about being at the forefront of a rapidly involving, and all but required industry in today’s world. Cybersecurity is no longer just the realm of IT admins at schools or businesses resetting passwords from a basement, but has expanded and touches every person in the world from anywhere between mobile technologies to Red Cross relief efforts to nation states waging the silent cyber wars you hear about in movies or magazines. All aspects of everyday life are embedded in cyber, from credit cards scanned via mobile device, to shopping for groceries or clothing, to plugging in a car to a computer for diagnostics, to video conferencing across the world via Skype or FaceTime, and of course to banking, commerce, government, and department of defense, just to name a few. It’s both scary and wondrous that this technology has been forced upon kids at the tender age of 2 to the elderly age of 90. This is an effort to entertain or communicate where once we relied on pen and paper. As such, it’s imperative to stay on top of all these new technologies to understand and protect the common person from malicious actors looking to take criminal activities from the real world to the virtual world where they can hide in anonymity.

Excelsior Life: You decided to pursue your Master’s degree. Did you have any hesitations? Any concerns regarding balancing school with work?

Leavitt: I absolutely had concerns with work/education/life balance. When I first enrolled with Excelsior I was preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan. I knew I would have to change units but wasn’t sure if I would be doing cybersecurity work still. Plus, as an officer I am expected to work over 40 hours a week.

Excelsior Life: How did you hear about Excelsior’s cybersecurity program?

Leavitt: I was looking online for schools with a cybersecurity graduate degree program. After searching for a few specific topics that I wanted to learn about, such as ethics, legalities, cyber attacks and defenses, and networking, I came across Excelsior College.

Excelsior Life: What was it about Excelsior’s cybersecurity program that made you enroll? What were the most important elements of a program that you were looking for?

Leavitt: There were many information assurance degrees and management degrees but only three were available with cybersecurity focus… Excelsior was on point while being 100 percent covered for tuition assistance…It offered courses for everything I already knew from job experience or certifications, as well as courses for a few things I wanted to know.

Excelsior Life: What has been your favorite course to date and why?

Leavitt: Despite the issue I ran into with work and a deployment at the time, I enjoyed the Cyber Attacks and Defenses course. It opened my mind to a few new concepts I was not aware of and the discussions were great between the students. It also allowed me to study for and pass my CISSP and CEH certifications.

Excelsior Life: Any advice for potential students of our cyber program?

Leavitt: Get involved in the industry and your education. Take the chance to write about your personal experiences and share them with your classmates. Listen to your peers’ experiences and stay in contact with them throughout your education and career. With Excelsior College being military friendly, having us uniformed members share our knowledge and learn along with you is an irreplaceable educational opportunity, especially in today’s cyber environment. Lastly, practice your knowledge and skills. If you are a technical person, participate in CTFs to test your skills and learn new tactics, techniques, and procedures. If you are more management oriented, practice at home on virtual machines and participate in CTFs CTFs just to understand what threats are out there and how to best have your team defend against them. The Excelsior College Cybersecurity Club participates in 1-4 CTFs a year and is a great resource to stay current on possible attacks and defenses in industry. If you are uncomfortable with participating, you are still welcome to watch and listen in on the lessons provided and competitions.

 

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