Nate McMullin was getting a haircut recently when he told the hairdresser he was getting a degree in information assurance.
“What’s that?” the hairdresser asked.
Nate did not detail the twists and turns of the modern American economy that landed him in this place. He did not explain the post-Sept. 11 journey that led him from IED blasts in Iraq to the graveyard shift at a North Platte train yard to a classroom inside Omaha’s Peter Kiewit Institute.
Nate is a modest guy, so he did not explain that this degree is a real-life, 21st-century version of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.
“It’s cybersecurity, essentially,” he said instead, and left it at that.
It is cybersecurity, essentially, and it also happens to be one of the hottest college degrees in the country. The American military and its close relatives — the FBI, the DEA, the Secret Service — are so desperate to hire information assurance graduates that the government funded Nate’s education and is giving out thousands of other full-ride scholarships. In the private sector, companies like Google and PayPal are handing out well-paying job offers to undergraduates and master’s degree students, sometimes months before they finish school.
All that interest means that Nate and nearly every University of Nebraska at Omaha student in the program who walked down the graduation aisle Friday walked right into a job.
“We simply can’t graduate enough people right now,” says Deepak Khazanchi, associate dean of UNO’s college of information science and technology. “We could double our number of graduates tomorrow and we would still have jobs for them all.”
For Nate, getting a master’s degree in one of 2015’s hottest fields is his latest and probably most successful attempt to navigate the wilds of the post-Sept. 11 economy.
A native of Leigh, Nebraska, Nate joined the National Guard in August 2001. A month later, he turned on the TV and watched as terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. By 2003, he was deployed to Iraq’s deadly Sunni Triangle.
He could have stayed inside the walls of Camp Speicher, working as an electronics technician, the job the Guard had trained him for. Instead, he volunteered for a gun-truck crew. The crew would get a call when a military vehicle had been destroyed by a roadside bomb. Then Nate and the other crew members would race off Camp Speicher to set up a security perimeter around the destroyed vehicle. It wasn’t the world’s safest work.
“We’d be on some highway close to the Syrian border, going 10 miles an hour, weaving through potholes just praying you don’t hit a land mine that’s been planted,” he says.
Nate came back from Iraq and got his bachelor’s degree in business marketing from UNO. He expected the job offers to roll in. One problem: Nate graduated in 2008, at arguably the worst point of the Great Recession.
He applied for dozens of job in his field, had no luck, and ended up in North Platte using skills he gained in the military to fix Union Pacific locomotives.
He worked a lot of nights. It wasn’t the career, or the life, he had in mind.
“I just kind of realized I wanted something more,” he says.
That something more turned out to be information assurance, which is one of five majors that the Peter Kiewit Institute offers in information technology and computing-based fields.
UNO started an undergraduate program in information assurance with a handful of students earlier this decade. Now the IA program boasts 112 students.
The master’s program started three years ago with six students. Now there are 28.
“We are just at the beginning of growth in this area,” Khazanchi says. “We’re just scratching the surface.”
Even a cursory glance at the headlines of the past few years makes it easy to understand why the field is growing and may soon explode in popularity.
Hackers are stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from Fortune 500 companies each year. High-profile attacks, like the recent one on Target, embarrass corporations and anger customers whose credit card information has been stolen.
Embarrassment and anger are far from the country’s most pressing cybersecurity concerns. President Barack Obama and American military leaders have spent most of the past few years warning that, without better defenses, the country’s banking systems, its state secrets and its infrastructure — things like power grids, oil refineries and dams — are vulnerable to attack from rogue criminals and U.S. rivals like China, Russia and Iran.
Graduates in fields like information assurance are our human firewall against all these attacks.
In his master’s program, Nate studied modern cryptography. He studied the safety and security of computer networks. He reverse-engineered malware to understand how and why the dangerous viruslike computer software works.
His full-ride scholarship from the National Science Foundation came with strings attached: Now that he’s graduated, Nate must work for the government for two years.
Which is great, the military veteran thinks, because that’s exactly what he wants to do.
In the past year, he interviewed with the FBI, the DEA and the Secret Service. He soon hopes to be a candidate in the Army Knowledge Leaders program, which could lead to a civilian job working for the military in Washington D.C.
The post-graduation path may be even more lucrative for his fellow graduates headed into the private sector, Nate says. One of his classmates just got a nearly six-figure job offer from DropBox. Khazanchi, the associate dean, says that other students have recently gotten job offers from Google, ConAgra and Union Pacific.
“Everyone needs information security,” the associate dean says.
Nate is 32, older than many of his fellow students. He’s lived the ups and downs of the past 14 years. He often wants to offer advice to them and others still in junior high and high school.
Here’s what he wants to tell them: “Start familiarizing yourself with how computers work. Start learning to program. Start learning to code. Because there are so many job opportunities. So many.”
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