Hacking the Education Process

My posts are usually related to projects and the work I do, but after overhearing another “skip college” conversation, I thought I’d share my own story going through the educational system. College isn’t for everyone, but I am of the mindset that it shouldn’t be skipped over so easily. If you can’t afford it or manage the time, that’s one reason, but to just call it a waste of time seems ignorant.

Background

I grew in Baltimore, more specifically Dundalk, MD. Going into high school, my parents split up, leaving my younger brother and sister to live with my mom. We weren’t considered poor, but my mom did what she could to get by and kept us fairly comfortable despite the circumstances. With money being tight and home not being that great, I jumped at the prospect to begin working for Jiffy Lube at 14 (shop owner happily looked the other way on my birthdate) and quickly saw the value in earning on my own. This realization changed my life and work quickly became the single most important function.

High school for me was split between my home school and a specialized school where I enrolled in a Cisco Network Academy program. Beginning in 10th grade, I began attending the specialized school for part of the day to learn about networking — building LANs, configuring routers and switches, learning topologies, etc. I loved these classes and dreaded the standard curriculum, and turns out, I wasn’t alone. A couple friends heard they could attend class at the local community college where you could pick whatever you wanted and thus began my college career*.

*To be fair here, the networking class I was taking as part of high school earned me 19 credits upon graduation and 21 (on top of the 19) if I became Cisco Certified, so in reality, college began directly after starting high school.

Taking Night Classes

Sometime in 11th grade, I started attending night classes at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) with a few friends. Depending on the subject, we might end up at any one of the campuses around the county. After work (I couldn’t get any financial aid, so I had to keep working), I’d drive to school where I took classes in RedHat Linux, Logic and Programming, Data Communications, PC Repair and Cybersecurity. Lessons learned from these classes were applicable to my high school classes and also helped further my primary mission — learning how to hack.

Beyond the classroom teachings, I bought books or copied text from Barnes and Nobles on how to attack systems. This drive to learn how to hack led me down so many different paths — many of which I use today — including web design, web application development, web server deployment, linux administration and a lot more. See, what I didn’t realize at the time was that successfully hacking a system end-to-end was the culmination of acquired knowledge from various disciplines.

As I completed my night classes and started to come closer to my senior year, it dawned on me that I was close to half an associates degree in Network Communications. In other words, I was one quarter the way complete on finishing college and getting a job doing what I really enjoyed. Shortly after this realization, I made moving fast my primary mission — I was going to complete high school early and then complete college early, so I could work with computers.

Hacking High School and Associates Degree

Since I was part of a specialized program, my high school schedule was a bit accelerated with part of the senior year being left open to work in the field or pursue college classes. Entering my last year of high school, I had managed to get a half-a-day, half-a-year schedule where I could then go to school and work full time. Every semester I would draft up a new plan-of-attack — what classes would I take, what could transfer, what aligned to an associates degree, which campus offered which class, which schedule let me work the most hours — then I’d commit to getting it done.

Unlike most upcoming high school seniors (outside Dundalk — no one leaves that fly trap), attending a four-year institution was never something that really entered my mind. Having started community college early, I felt like I discovered a loop-hole in the system. I was not only going to graduate early, I was also paying a fraction of the tuition cost. Looking back, some of the professors I had in community college were far more detailed than the four-year I later transferred to and professional training I’ve taken since.

It was post-high-school-graduation that I began making more friends in the administration side of the community college. I often overloaded classes or needed to take certain classes at certain times to appease my employer. As such, I’d often need to meet with administrators or professors to get written approval. I met so many great people inside of the community college who not only wanted to help me, but put their faith in me to get my work done. I still associate with some of these individuals now and owe a great deal of thanks to them.

One year after graduating high school, I received my applied associates degree in Networking Technology from CCBC. What made this occasion even more exciting was that I just started a job working for a government contractor inspecting circuit boards with a path towards transferring over to a group doing offensive operations.

A Triple Transfer

Having landed my first career job, priority number one was getting out of my mom’s house and moving into my own place. I was literally breaking even each month with food, but made a spending plan and ensured I could save to pay for class. Having just earned my associates degree — a non-degree to many — I was able to command a little more in salary at my job and begin figuring out which college I would transfer to in order to complete my bachelors degree.

My criteria for completer schools was extremely simple — who paid me the most in aid and who took the most credits on a transfer — anything else was icing on the cake. In the end, it came down to University of Maryland, Villa Julie College (now Stevenson University) and Capitol College (now Capitol Technology University). I don’t recall if I got into all of them, but I know for sure that Capitol College became the immediate winner as they took all my credits, provided $10,000 in aid (with an already affordable tuition cost), were NSA accredited (one of the first) and offered many of their classes online.

Starting in the fall, I began pursuing my bachelors degree in Information Assurance — a combination of business, computer science and information technology. Similar to attending night classes in high school, I was able to take lessons learned in the classroom and apply them in the real-world. What was even more exciting though was that this information exchange was two-way — real-world experiences were influencing my class work and making it far easier to complete.

Eh, I’ll Stay at Work

As I gained more experience in my position working as a government contractor, I began to see some of the flaws in the classroom. Mainly, what I was being taught was not always reflective to what I was dealing with in the real world. I can’t quite remember when the shift happened, but it was after switching positions and entering as a private-sector consultant that I really didn’t want to attend class. In fact, I did whatever I could to remain remote, submit work and not go into the classroom.

What’s important to note here is that I was still learning — I didn’t pick up a complex where I thought I knew it all — though I valued earning a living over showing face in class. Capitol’s online structure and my good grades made it easier for me to bargain my way into staying at work longer and opened up another college hack. As I was nearing the completion of my bachelors, I found some of the Information Assurance curriculum to be duplicative (we were only the second class to ever go through the program, so this was understandable). Reminded of my community college experience of staff going out on a limb, I tested Capitol College.

Speaking with some of the staff, I put together an argument around how my real-world experience gave me enough knowledge to warrant not having to take the class. I wasn’t asking to skip out of class completely, but instead substitute my bachelor classes for master classes that appeared more interesting. Without much hesitation — again, not advocating to just ditch class and grades were great — the administration let me swap classes. This small change got me into 2–3 classes that were not only challenging, but outside of my normal day-to-day skillset.

Opening Door After Door

A little over 3 years after graduating high school, I was able to walk across stage with a bachelors of science in Information Assurance. Because of aid, controlled saving and working full time, I was able to pay my student loans off after leaving campus — no debt, no fees, just my degree. No doubt, I was excited to be done school and have the degree, but for me, the end-game all along was to continue working; it also turns out that having a degree meant commanding a much higher salary (this always annoyed me as nothing in my work changed because of the degree, but I knew it was part of the game nonetheless).

Being able to work and not have to worry about attending class or finishing assignments was a big relief. At the time, I didn’t reflect much on college, but always had a lingering feeling of embarrassment with my school choice, especially when interviewing with other companies. In some ways, I felt like an imposter — having a degree from some school no one knew — trying to prove I could do a great job. In the end, this self-doubt worked to my advantage. Instead of cowering, I found that I would double-down on making sure I did the best possible job.

Living in the Now

These days, I have no qualms with the path I took. I grew up in an area where most people succumb to drugs or simply stay at dead-end jobs with no motivation to do more. I graduated high school and college early, all the while working and managed to do it without accruing debt.

My experience is certainly not normal, but I think it highlights what’s possible with a lot of hard work, building a network of those that believe in you and to be fair, luck. There were countless people along my journey who took the time to mentor me, make a call, sign a piece of paper, hold me back or push me forward — there’s no doubt in my mind that my journey was not just the work of me, but the collective around me.

I am glad I completed college and have no trouble seeing it for what it is — a 4-year commitment that serves to educate, and prove you have the drive to get it done. Attending college and planning years of my life around it changed who I was as a person; college made me better. My degree and backgrounding in computers couldn’t have happened at a better time in the industry and not having a job was never an issue — for that I am lucky. I won’t end this story with some call to action, but I know I wouldn’t be me if it weren’t for going through the educational process.

Founder of @BlockadeIO, PDF X-RAY, and @PassiveTotal. Partner and developer for @TheNinjaJobs. VP of Strategy for @RiskIQ. Roaster at @SplitKeyCoffee.