What it's like to work in cybersecurity – Fortune

William Sparks always wanted to be a hacker.
Born in the ’90s, Sparks grew up enthralled with the hacker culture celebrated in films like, well, Hackers, as well as John Connor in T2: Judgement Day. “It was just the coolest thing to me when I was seven,” Sparks says.
From an early age, he was all in.
“It became a hobby. I was nine, or 10 years old asking, ‘What’s a firewall? How do I make my firewall do this or that so I can play my video games because they’re not working.'” he says.
These days, Sparks, 29, is a cybersecurity engineer for a health care insurance company just outside of Boston where he makes north of $130,000 a year as part of a team working to protect and prevent the company (and by extension, its customers) from hackers and employee misuse. It’s a dream job for Sparks in many ways, and he knows he’s lucky.
Whereas so many Americans are stuck in jobs they don’t like, he’s been able to actually accomplish the age-old guidance counselor advice: Do something you love. Of course the rest of that adage is: “and you’ll never work a day in your life,” and well, Sparks isn’t sure he agrees with that. Work will always be work, after all. But yeah, enjoying that work certainly helps, he says.
While Sparks found his passion for hacking at a young age, he didn’t take a straight career path to get his current role. There was no one offering him advice on how to turn his childhood hacking hobby into a career, he didn’t have anyone encouraging him. While he was inspired by the teens in Hackers, they were considered criminals, and sure, John Connor was trying to help save the world, but that’s science fiction.
Sparks grew up in a small town in southwestern Georgia where he says he was the only person in his graduating class who was even into computers. Usually high school guidance counselors will offer some direction to students trying to figure out what to become when they grow up. In that arena, Sparks was unlucky.
“They didn’t know what the hell I was talking about… I didn’t really have anyone to talk to,” he says. “I probably could have gotten to where I am three or four years sooner had I had the guidance. I think a lot of people struggle with that. They see something that interests them, but they don’t know how to get there.”
After high school, he attended a nearby community college where he was one of six students in the computer science course. After graduating with an associate’s degree, he landed a job at a small consulting business doing “generic IT work.” He got to work with computers, but it wasn’t his dream; it certainly wasn’t Hackers. He became a developer for a spell, thinking “well hacking is just code”—that also wasn’t it.
He bounced around various computer-related jobs for about three years until he discovered the cybersecurity industry; a sort of “you clean up nicely” version of his lifelong hacking passion. A job at Flower’s Foods, the manufacturers of Nature’s Own and Wonder bread, introduced him to people who were in the cybersecurity world. He learned what certifications to get, what skills to develop, and which jobs to apply for.
“When I first started in IT, I thought, I shouldn’t hate this [job] because I enjoy doing this stuff, and if it wasn’t work I would still probably be doing it. But I really didn’t enjoy it,” Sparks says. “Once I landed that first cybersecurity role, which was very entry level and still kind of monotonous, it was like, ‘Oh man, I’m here. I see it.'”
The work his coworkers were doing was more interesting to Sparks than his own, but he saw the potential, he says. And then he thought: “What’s stopping me from doing what they’re doing?”
“I would pull one of them aside and be like, ‘Hey man, how did you get there?'” Sparks says. “I saw people doing the stuff that I wanted to do—not because it pays well, and not because of the title, but because it just sounds like fun. This guy is trying to break into a server that someone just built. That sounds cool as hell. I just want to watch him do that all day. I want to do that all day.”
The global cybersecurity industry had a market size of roughly $86.4 billion when Sparks entered the world, now he’s in one of the fastest growing markets, expected to to surpass $400 billion market size by 2027.
As a cybersecurity professional, he’s on the defensive side in the world he fell in love with as a 10-year-old obsessed with John Connor and Dade Murphy. But every now and then he gets to do some pentesting as part of the job, essentially professional hacking.
“It’s done to find holes and fix them. Imagine paying a guy to break into your house and he’s like, ‘OK, I got in through this window by doing this this and this, and we should fix it by doing this and this,” Sparks says.
His goal, if he had to think about moving on someday, would be to do pentesting full time. He has no desire to really move up because management is hands off. He’s exactly where he wants to be. And even still, a lot of the time it’s just work.
“I genuinely enjoy going to my job. I don’t stare at the clock waiting for the minutes to pass, and I’ve worked at jobs where you’re just miserable and you think ‘Today’s the day when I quit.’ I don’t feel that,” Sparks says. “But at the same time, I would say I enjoy maybe 30% to 40% of what I do. The other 60% is going to meetings and I’ve got to do reports… When you do something you love that doesn’t make it not work. It’s still work. But it makes it a lot easier day-to-day.”
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