It will be some time before sweet Ada, born mere weeks ago, will come to appreciate the origin of her name. As her mother Jessica Stainer explained, “Ada is the namesake of Ada Lovelace, a computer science pioneer whose mathematical contributions in the early 1840s provided the foundations of computer science. I wanted my daughter’s name to honor a brilliant and strong woman whose achievements have contributed greatly to a profession I have committed my life to.”
Jessica, a digital forensics engineer whose career has focused primarily on assisting federal law enforcement, earned a graduate certificate in Incidence Response from SANS Technology Institute in 2022. Notably, Jessica completed the program in one year while working full time. Here Jessica speaks with us about her experience as a student of the SANS graduate certificate program and offers advice and insight to others considering a similar path.
Q. How did you get interested in cybersecurity?
A. Initially, I went to college to study computer science. And while I really liked many aspects of computer science, I didn’t want to find myself a nameless face behind a computer writing code all day. I was in school during the Great Recession and actively explored career paths expected to survive the economic turmoil of the time. Computer forensics was at the top of the list. So, I decided to dual major in Computer Science and Criminal Justice and Law. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies from California Polytechnic State University in 2012. I also earned a Master of Science degree in Information Security and Assurance from George Mason University in 2020.
Q. What do you like most about the cybersecurity profession?
A. I really enjoy solving puzzles and problems. Cybersecurity is all about just that – solving puzzles and problems simultaneously. Moreover, the field is everchanging. I am excited to come to work every day. No day is the same.
Q. Why did you choose to enroll in SANS Technology Institute’s program?
A. George Mason University gave me a wonderful graduate degree education with an emphasis on theoretical basics. But I needed more hands-on instruction. I knew that SANS had a wonderful reputation throughout the industry. After speaking with colleagues who had participated in SANS courses, I believed that SANS could provide the added value of an education that focused on practical knowledge. I was right. I use what I learned from SANS.edu every day on the job.
Q. How did you like the SANS.edu online courses?
A. I took all courses via the on-demand modality. I was thrilled to be able to watch as slow or fast as needed. The courses were rigorous, but because I found them to be so interesting it did not seem like school. I was genuinely excited to tune into the online classes. In fact, I didn’t think I would enjoy them as much as I did. The labs were created exceptionally well. The real-world scenarios did not feel at all fake. It was so impressive.
Q. What SANS.edu elective courses did you take and why?
A. I took the Incident Handler course. It's so important to have the correct tools and knowledge at the beginning of an intrusion because it impacts the rest of the analysis down the line. I felt that if I had a strong grasp of the tools and concepts required for proper incident handling, I would be able to go into an incident with greater confidence about what to do.
Q. From your research how did the SANS.edu program differ from other graduate degree programs?
A. I had done a great deal of research for my master’s degree so I was remarkably familiar with the offerings of brick-and-mortar programs in the DC area. And while I received a great post-graduate education at George Mason University, I must admit traditional graduate and post-graduate institutions are often a bit slow to adopt the latest cybersecurity techniques and technologies, especially when it comes to forensics. I chose SANS because I knew that their curriculum and materials would be up to date. In fact, they were updated in 2020 and I enrolled in 2021. I was not going to get this fresh technical content at another school. Further, the flexibility of the program proved particularly important. I found out that I was pregnant halfway through the program so the ability to hasten my pace and finish sooner than anticipated, before Ada’s arrival, was invaluable.
Q. What did you find most valuable about the program?
A. I have two responses. First, cybersecurity is an industry that values certifications, especially when those certifications come from an organization that is so well regarded such as SANS.edu. SANS certifications get noticed by those looking to hire. Second, SANS courses gave me practical, hands-on knowledge – information that I use to perform on the job every day.
Q. How has your SANS.edu degree impacted your career trajectory?
A. When I entered the field, I never really put much stock in certifications. I naively thought that experience in the workforce and self-taught initiatives would give me all I needed to advance in my career. I was wrong. When I spoke with anyone in a hiring position, they wanted to see that I had SANS’ certifications. They know that a SANS certificate means solid work ethic and strong, practical knowledge. SANS.edu not only provided me with the practical technical skills, but the organization also strengthened my soft skills, such as my communications skills. I must be able to explain to clients the situation both verbally and in writing in plain language. SANS helped me with that a lot.
Q. What advice would you offer someone considering applying to the SANS Technology Institute?
A. I would tell them you will not regret your decision to go the SANS.edu. SANS will help you every step of the way. I never felt alone even though I never met anyone in person. From instructors to administrators, everyone was super responsive. SANS goes above and beyond both academically and administratively. They give you everything you need to succeed. That said, you must come prepared to succeed. You must give yourself the time to watch the videos and always ask questions.
Q. What’s next for Jessica?
A. Do you mean after I figure out how to be a mom and a cyber professional at that same time? Seriously, I want to continually take what I’ve learned and apply that knowledge each day. I am so fortunate that I found my passion so early on in life. I want to work in cyber security for as long as I can. I love what I do.
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