"At the SANS Technology Institute, I experienced for the first time in my career what a real security incident is like," says Billy Wilson, who earned his Master of Science in Information Security Engineering in 2020. "SANS.edu showed me exactly what I needed to do to ensure peak performance in high stress situations."
Here this father of five talks about his experience attending the SANS Technology Institute graduate program while working full time – and offers insights and advice for those considering a similar path.
Q. How did you get interested in computer technology and, more specifically, cybersecurity?
A. I am a graduate of the Brigham Young University (BYU) College of Humanities where I studied linguistics and Korean. I had no interest in computer science at that time. Once I graduated, my love of the Korean language and my desire to earn a paycheck prompted me to take a job with a cybersecurity company seeking a Korean-speaking sales representative. For a guy who didn't want computers to be his "thing," I quickly became fascinated with the idea of penetration testing and professional hacking. I was captivated by the thought of protecting something and making a difference. It took me about two years to transition from sales rep to senior systems engineer.
Q. What's your current job and your role within the company?
A. In 2014 I returned to my alma mater to take a position as a systems administrator in the Office of Research Computing. In my position, I help facilitate computationally intensive research such as scientific simulations and genome analysis. My role is to ensure that BYU's researchers, several who have contracts with the Department of Defense, are working in a highly secure environment.
Q. How did you hear about the SANS Technology Institute?
A. My supervisor had taken some SANS classes. He knew that I wanted to continue my education and suggested that I apply to the program. Also, he knew that SANS.edu would not disrupt my work schedule. I gambled on his recommendation and I was not disappointed.
Q. Why did you choose to apply to the SANS Technology Institute? From your research, how did SANS.edu differ from other master's degree programs available?
A. I looked at several types of graduate degree programs before committing to the SANS Technology Institute. I considered a graduate degree from BYU, but they did not offer the flexibility I needed. I looked at online universities as well. The course content was not near the level of what SANS was offering. Cyber programs in academia are heavily focused on theory and usually offer little practical knowledge. They also include classes that don't matter to cyber professionals. Many of the programs that I researched were young or weak. I was not just looking for a piece of paper, I wanted my graduate experience to shape me into the professional I want to be. Looking back, I believe that SANS.edu was the only program that could have done that while offering me the flexibility that I needed to hold down a full-time job and still be available to my wife and young children.
Q. Did you take classes online or in person at live events?
A. My first class was a week-long live event in Salt Lake City. I felt very lucky to be in a room with so many people with the same interests. The instructor was remarkable. Every day, we provided feedback to SANS on the class. SANS.edu has very high expectations of their instructors. It was a terrific experience. That said, I liked the online courses better. I could take my time - I could pause and slow down when needed. The online delivery system was terrific. If I had questions or issues, I would get a response in less than 24 hours.
Q. What did you find most valuable about the program?
A. The real-world experience was invaluable. For example, as part of our 24-hour practicum, we had to respond to a problem - writing a technical report and presenting to a board of directors. I assumed I was presenting to the instructors. It turns out that one of the "graders" was the CISO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta The feedback and advice were phenomenal.
Q. What did you like most about the SANS Technology Institute?
A. SANS.edu provided me with practical knowledge that I could immediately apply in my everyday role as a systems administrator. According to the instructors, they have failed their mission if their students do not leave with information to take back to their office and immediately use.
Q. What did you expect of the program and were your expectations met?
A. Honestly, my expectations were not high. I had never heard of the SANS Technology Institute. To my surprise and delight, SANS.edu was amazing. It is a very rigorous program.
Q. What advice would you offer someone considering applying to SANS Technology Institute?
A. I would offer them the same advice my wise wife gave me. Go for it. In three years, you will be three years older anyway, so why not have a master's degree as well? You won't be disappointed.
Q. What's next for Billy Wilson?
A. I am still trying to figure out what I want to
be when I grow up. What I do know is that I want to excel in my career
in a way that opens more time to spend with my family.