Cyber first - and then what? A student's experience
News article - 23 May 2016
Cyber first – and then what?
"CyberFirst has absolutely opened my eyes" - Jess*, a current CyberFirst sponsored student, shares her view of the scheme and how she has benefitted both from the wide range of experiences the scheme offers as well as the financial assistance available.
(*not her real name, this has been changed to protect her privacy).
"So, hmm, where do I start. Well, I’m Jess and I’m a student. I do computer science at a university in the north west of England and I’m in my third year. That’s right. I’m a girl doing computer science. HOLD THE FRONT PAGE! Unlike my Mum and Dad, who were only born in 1973, I’ve grown up with the Internet and always loved it. It’s just the most incredible pool of information that ripples from coast to coast, helping people learn and keep in touch. It defines the world we live in. I often wonder where I’d be without it, probably still trying to finish GCSE English coursework on Wuthering Heights.
"Apart from being a girl and liking computers, there’s something else I’d like to tell you that I’ve not really been allowed to tell anyone. I’m really proud to be one of only 19 people that are part of something called CyberFirst, which is a bit like TeachFirst where you study a related degree but at the end of my course, instead of going into a classroom full of teenagers, I’m going to work in cyber. What does that mean? I get ‘In-bit-tweeners' and my friends from home doing TeachFirst, get the real Will, Simon, Neil and Jay. I’m also being sponsored to complete my degree with a bursary of £4,000 a year, which has made a huge difference to me and my family.
"Before I go on, here’s a little bit about me and why I don’t think that cyber is ‘just for boys’. I’m really lucky to have pretty chilled out parents who never forced any sort of gender-based rules on me or my brother. When we were young we also spent a lot of time at my grandparents playing with four boy cousins. You can imagine how fun the summer holidays were (and the bruises!). Apart from the hurt of losing many a game of three-a-side footie, what sticks with me from that time was I wasn’t treated any differently from the boys, apart from perks like getting to sit in the front of the car or singing Lennon’s part in "Twist and Shout".
"Although that may seem trivial, they made a difference to how I viewed myself; I never felt like any subject or topic was inaccessible because "that’s for boys". I remember first getting dial-up internet and my Dad teaching us how to play Quake 3 Arena online and Team Fortress Classic. There, my love for games (specifically shooters) was born and that seems to go hand-in-hand with computer science, to be honest. I haven’t quite figured out why yet…
"I was lucky enough to go to a Sixth-Form College that offered a Computing course. There were two classes in my year, each around 25 students, and out of those 50 pupils, there were very few girls. It made absolutely zero difference to me, but it was definitely noticeable to others. My class had a female tutor and she was brilliant and helped me out massively because she wanted to see more females go into computer careers.
"After school, I originally went to uni to do Maths, ended up doing Discrete Maths and found I enjoyed the Computing side of it a hell of a lot more. Quite honestly, most parts of the computer science industry seem as dry as a bone; you can’t get anyone’s eyes to glaze over faster than saying the words "I do software engineering".
"On my course there are loads of guys – and yes, some of them only wear hoodies and jeans – but there are loads of 'normal' people too. The course is tough. We do all the usual computer science stuff – programming, operating systems, algorithms, logic and now a bit of AI (which I’ve rechristened C3PO!), which is fascinating and stimulating – but in the holidays I get to (have to) go to ‘work’ and put into practice what we’re taught. It’s pretty cool implementing what we learn and there’s a good mix between training, learning about the real cyber world experience and spending time with some seriously smart people. The attitude rubs off on you and I’m hoping the brains do too! And to do CyberFirst, which is open to anyone doing a STEM subject, not just computer science, liking computers helps but you don’t need to be Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.
"And the course and the work experience wasn’t what I thought it would be. CyberFirst and the Northern Exposure Summer School have absolutely opened my eyes to a load of areas I would never have previously considered, purely because I didn’t even know they existed. Neither college nor Uni have exposed me to anything to do with security, which for the life of me I cannot understand, because it’s without a doubt the "coolest" and most interesting area.
"I thought that both would be the stereotype: dark, sinister, uber-competitive, coffee wafts around every turn, green numbers water-falling down screen after screen – in essence a nerd cave. But in lectures, tutorials, practicals and in the weeks I’ve spent doing work experience I saw and smelt none of that - ok, the latter may not be true. It’s all been awesome and pleasantly surprising how laid-back the atmosphere is.
"Being naturally inquisitive about people and problems are useful traits when it comes to cyber. I’m lucky I pretty much thought like that anyway but it was subconscious. What CyberFirst, and the work experience have done is made me conscious of the way I think. I’ve had to think big and small, left and right, inside and out. I’ve had to think like someone else, get in their head, understand their motivations and work out what the best way is to defend against attacks.
"Doing this for real has also really brought home to me that everything we do online can have real world consequences. I know it’s an obvious thing to say but a lot of the time people disassociate the two. Revenge porn, hacking, a Tweet, a comment on Instagram are real things, they’re not just 'banter'; usually it’s bullying, and bullying at its anonymous worst. And that’s one thing I’ve also realised through CyberFirst: cyber stuff is actually all about caring and protecting what you care about. I know we’re not doctors or nurses but we do look after the cyber health of the nation. Caring about security. Caring about networks. Caring about what information you or your company puts on the Internet.. And I suppose that’s what the cyber world is all about.
"That appeals to my sense of, well, being British, I suppose. 'Doing your bit', as my gran would say. I’m not the marching-saluting-sleeping-in-a-bush type but I want to do my bit to help the country. And with cybercrime going to cost the world something like $2 trillion by 2019, then I see working in cyber as a way I can use my brain and time to good effect.
"Does the stereotype need a makeover? Absabloominlutley. Yes, us cybermen and women do some geeky stuff (but even I have to turn my computer off and on to fix stuff – trust me on that one) but we also do loads of really normal stuff that everyone in every job does. We’re linguists but our languages are codes like C+ and Ruby. We’re detectives: how did they get into that system? We’re diplomats: working with foreign partners. We’re comedians: you smirked at "In-bit-tweeners", right? We’re builders. We’re architects. And CyberFirst gives you loads of other stuff that courses which don’t have a year in industry just can’t give you, like meeting people in a field you might want to work in, putting into practice what you’ve been taught and shed-loads of examples to put on your CV that aren’t bar jobs…
"And in my experience of cyber you’re more likely to meet someone who has a Doctorate in Orpheus than someone dressed as Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix. There are quite a few older people who I end up working with but remember most people who work nowadays started before the Internet was on your wrist and in your pocket, but that’s not to say they don’t understand it and some of the people I’ve met and worked with played a part in creating it! What I want to see is more people like me, not in like a 'Being John Malkovich' kind of way but more young, energetic, inquisitive people who want to get on learn and have a good career. I think we need a pipeline of talent, men and women, old and young, coming to work for government and industry because as the arc of the technology bends more towards quantum thinking, we need more people who can handle the challenges, which is kind of what my teacher was getting at.
"Am I going to do cyber forever? Well, the clue’s in the title really. Cyber. First. And then what? I may move on and start my own business or go to work in the City but I don’t have to, I can stay and carry on this challenging, fascinating and rewarding career. There are no handcuffs past the three years that I’ve got my job after uni, so I have the flexibility to stay or go, which is great.
"From the moment you started reading this you’ve wanted me to answer the 'should I do this?' question. Here’s what I think: I’m not entirely sure what I’d do without CyberFirst and the prospect of a job. And I’m not just saying that, promise! I’m actually filled with excitement and I know after my year in work I'll have to be dragged back to uni kicking and screaming. You’ve got to make your own mind up for your own reasons but go on, what have you got to lose?"