If You Want a Job When You Graduate, Then Go Do Something

July 15th, 2011 By randy Categories: Rants

In 2008, Daniel Miessler provided a list of 25 questions to ask during an information security interview. I thought he did a good job, but wanted to emphasize something he noted that I think a lot of college students reading it might miss. With the economy in a slump, one would think that employers are at an advantage in finding new talent, and in a certain sense they are. However, companies looking for qualified system administrators and information security professionals are having a difficult time finding that talent. At the same time, computer science and information system majors are having a difficult time getting hired.

If you were one of the few student in college who had real interests within your technology based major, you know exactly what the problem is. In fact, you’re not experiencing the same difficulty as everyone else in finding a job, you’re experiencing a different kind of problem. Your problem is that the other people who work in the same field as you are nincompoops.

All too often, college students spend their undergraduate career wasting time. They go to class, study for tests, do their homework and then when they have free time: they waste it. Those who grew up with tiger moms apply it to a higher standard of academic rigor and those brought up in the typical American home practice their much “deserved” rest and relaxation; neither are accomplishing anything. I am not discrediting the importance of academia, good grades or taking time to unwind. I am pointing at a distorted view of college that guarantees a paycheck in four years. Studying for tests and doing homework is necessary and important. However, if getting a piece of paper to satisfy the requirements of a job is the end-goal, you’re wasting your time and money. Your free-time in college, as a student pursuing a technical major, should be spent pursing those same interests and putting the information acquired in the academic settings to good use.

Career service centers in colleges often re-enforce the distorted academic approach that good grades and a piece of paper equals guaranteed success. After all, job placement is how universities convince students to enroll. They encourage students to greater heights in academic rigor in order to increase their competitive advantage in entry-level positions. Then, they teach techniques in acing interviews as if they were another academic hoop to jump through. There is a tendency to read Miessler’s post as a help in this way. In fact, the person who sent me the link was doing just that. He had no technical interests outside of class, is graduating soon and is now studying for a series of exams of another type: those conducted before interviewers. Job seekers, informed by a distorted view of academia, are substituting practical, real-life interests for the same study techniques they learned in college.

If you’re looking for a job as an information security professional or as a system administrator, it’s easy to trick most interviewers. Just practice writing scripts to parse log files (many will certainly ask you to do this), memorize the general details of the TCP/IP stack, be able to articulate how protocols like: HTTP,DNS, TCP, UDP and ICMP work, etc.. However, be careful; I’ve encountered more than one person who could articulate how a traceroute worked with almost textbook accuracy, but hadn’t a clue where to begin, even aided by a man page, if asked to manually perform one using a tool such as ‘ping.’

Miessler makes a distinction between the computer/technology/security enthusiast and the person just looking for a paycheck in his question concerning the home network. In fact, he isn’t writing for college students; he’s writing for interviewers. Here is where the college student should take his or her cue. Everyone I’ve met in college who is doing interesting things today was also doing interesting things, outside of the classroom, back then too. If you want to ace the interview in a couple years, go join a club where like minded individuals are exploring their interests. In my day, it was the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) that provided this environment. Academia and the theoretical foundation laid by it is important, but all the useful skills that make you competitive in the workplace will come from actually doing something.

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