Security Staff Acquisition & Development, Leadership

Lessons Learned from Running Which Also Apply to a Career in IT

By Jeremy Finke

Running is something anyone can do. Runners, themselves, come in all shapes and sizes, unlike other sports where, perhaps, body weight or muscle mass significantly affect performance. As human beings, running is one of our natural abilities. It has been posited that running down game was one of the earliest ways mankind hunted for meat/protein sources. Running is innate; most people don't need to be taught how to run—it just happens naturally as young children learn to, first, walk then run.

Running is actually just a series of rapid, controlled falls. If you observe a child learning to walk, they start by falling down quite a bit. Eventually, children learn how to stay upright and move forward. They don't require a complicated set of instructions; it's trial and error for a short period until it sticks and they find the right balance.

As with running, I believe anyone can build a career in IT. It might take a series of controlled falls until we can remain upright, but failure is part of the learning process (especially given the speed of technology change). Failure is not something be afraid of. This is a lesson that has taken me a long time to learn and relearn in my professional life. Running has helped me become more comfortable with the concept of failure, as it happens so much during training.

Fortunately for technology practitioners, IT differs from a lot of other professional careers. One does not need hundreds of hours of schooling, advanced degrees, or have to pass board certifications in order to practice the craft. Simply put, the most important trait a technology professional can possess is the ability to provide value by making something better through technology and problem solving. You can start to learn this on your own, just like running.

However, to be able to take a technology career to the next level, natural ability and perseverance only go so far. At some point, outside influences can help shape your IT career, as they did for me with running.

Taking it to the next level

After completing a major race, I decided I wanted to become a better runner. Up until that point, with all the learning and training on my own, my running was inconsistent, I wasn't getting any faster over time, and I didn't know why I was running how I did. One of the running bloggers I followed explained the improvement he saw after he hired a coach. I figured I could do the same and give it a shot.

{tweetme}"The most important trait a technology professional can possess is the ability to provide value by making something better through technology and problem solving." - @jfinke #InfoSecInsder #infosec{/tweetme}

One of the first questions my coach asked me during our first meeting was what I wanted to accomplish by working with him. It was a question that needed quantitative measures of success. In other words, "run faster" or "get better" were too abstract and not measurable enough to provide the basis for our training together. Instead, he explained, what I should be thinking about were things like, "How can I run a specific race at a defined pace." This made sense: precise, measurable goals. I sat down right away and developed a set of goals that I relayed to him during our next meeting. His response was, "It's doable based on your past performance, but it is going to take some hard work." Essentially, he was telling me he could help guide me to my goals, but I was going to have to push myself harder than I ever had before. I was the one who was going to have to do the work, not him.

To accomplish my goals I was going to have to apply discipline, consistency, hard work, and planning. In addition, not only was I going to be accountable to myself, but I was now accountable to my coach who was putting in his time and effort to teach me.

If you look at the images below, you can probably tell the exact week I started running with a coach to start accomplishing those goals. In the end, after many failures, I achieved the three goals I set out before him.

Distance per week

 Distance per month

Likewise, when managing your technology career, you need similar skills and values. You need to work hard. People need to know they can count on you. Goal setting becomes key.

Applying lessons learned

Fortunately for me, my employer offers a formal mentoring program and some coaching services. This has allowed me as a mentee to ask questions and hear advice from those people in my company who may have seen a similar situation before. As with my running coach, my career mentors are not doing the work for me. They are not grooming me. Rather, they are guiding me from a vantage point of experience that has allowed them some trial and error, some successes and failures, to be able to pass along the knowledge of what has worked and what has not in certain situations. This breadth of information has allowed me to accelerate my learning versus stumbling along, trying to find the right balance, and (maybe) figure it out on my own. It's like a parent offering a hand or finger to steady their child learning to walk or run.

For those of you who may be inexperienced in IT or security specifically, please reach out to people who are more experienced. Listen to what they have to offer. Take advantage of the wisdom they have to offer and to learn from their past mistakes. At the same point, do not be afraid to fail and to learn things on your own.

For those of you in the field who are experienced or experts, do not get frustrated when someone new asks a basic question. Do not shout "n00b!" or "RTFM." Do not mock them. Remember, you were in their shoes at one point. If an inexperienced person asks you what it takes to get to a certain position, skill set, or ability, be honest and frank with them. Tell them about the hard work, the failures, and the pain. Also tell them about the success, the accomplishments, and the rewards. Provide some guidance. Be a mentor. Be a positive force in the industry. We need all the help we can get to move the field in a positive direction. And don't be surprised if one day you are asking that same mentee for assistance in something they have become the expert in.

Jeremy will present his talk entitled, Lessons Learned from Running Which Also Apply to a Career in IT on Tuesday, March 20th at 9:40 AM InfoSec World 2018 in Orlando, Florida.

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