By her own admission, Melissa Bischoping is an adrenaline junky; always seeking new and exciting challenges and adventures. Unsure of her career direction, a young Melissa was certain of one thing, her personality would never allow her to take a boring desk job.
Melissa took a few detours along her career path. She entered college as a pre-nursing major and quickly decided it was not for her. Melissa then spent the next five years at home raising her young son, before going on to receive a degree in psychology from the University of Wyoming. Instead of continuing into clinicals or research, Melissa decided to redirect her studies once again. In 2018, Melissa graduated Summa Cum Laude from Colorado State University with a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology and found a career she loved.
Today, Melissa is an Endpoint Security Research Specialist at Tanium, a cybersecurity and system management company working with nearly half of the Fortune 100, leading retailers, top financial institutions, and multiple branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Concurrently, Melissa is halfway through the SANS Technology Institute’s Master of Science in Information Security Engineering program. She is set to graduate in 2023.
Here, Melissa talks to us about her experience with the SANS.edu master’s program and offers advice to those considering a similar path.
Q. How did you get interested in cybersecurity?A. I was first introduced to computer science in high school and had a wonderful computer science teacher who allowed us to move at our own pace. When I finished with the required assignments, I was able to explore the computer lab on my own and with classmates for side projects. Breaking things and finding unexpected ways to build them back again was exciting. That was where my love of technology was formed. However, it was not until I held my first internship position in college that I knew cybersecurity was exactly what I wanted to do. I was drawn to the constantly changing puzzle, and the opportunity to tinker, as well as the satisfaction of bringing order to chaos.
Q. Prior to attending the SANS Technology Institute, what was your career background?
A. Prior to my current position as an Endpoint Security Research Specialist at Tanium, I held several positions in operations and security across the hospitality, casino gaming, and industrial/manufacturing industries.
Q. As an endpoint security research specialist, what is your role and what do you like most about your job?
A. I analyze emerging threats, zero-day attacks, and common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVEs). After gathering intel, I provide subject matter expertise to internal and external customers, as well as feedback for enhancements to our product managers and developers. I frequently author blogs and technical guidance and have been offered multiple opportunities to present at industry events.
Every day in this role is unexpected and offers opportunities for me to enhance my understanding of different tech stacks, collaborate with my peers, and know that my contributions solve the real, challenging problems faced by some of the largest enterprises in the world. I am privileged to work alongside some of the most brilliant technical minds in the field. The constant exposure to new material, innovative problem solving, and collective mindset of being unstoppable has, without a doubt, made me a better engineer.
Q. How are you covering the cost of a SANS.edu education?
A. My husband has served in the US military and transferred a portion of his GI bill benefits to me as an investment in our shared goals and my career aspirations. Through Tanium, I also have access to training funds to cover SANS course fees, which allows me to stretch these benefits even further.
Q. From your research, how did the SANS.edu program differ from other graduate degree programs?
A. I looked at a lot of graduate programs. I spoke with a lot of people. Most of the programs seemed to lack substance. The curriculum was focused on the textbook and did not correlate with the real world. I could tell that SANS.edu was different.
SANS is among the most well-respected authorities on cybersecurity instruction and offers up-to-date course materials. The instructors are active practitioners in the field. Some of my instructors even developed the tools that I use in my job today. When making my decision I asked myself, ‘what is more valuable: experience, certifications, or a degree?’ By choosing SANS.edu, I knew I could get all three.
I am incredibly happy with the program and have recruited three people to join. A further testament to the program, Tanium currently has four employees who are current or former SANS.edu students.
Q. What do you find most valuable about the program thus far?
A. I know that a lot of my peers would say that they find the certifications most valuable. For me, the networking opportunities and the connections with other students and instructors are of the utmost value. SANS.edu creates an amazing community of the most brilliant minds in cybersecurity and enables me to interact with them regularly. For instance, if I am curious about working for a particular company, or getting feedback on a product or service, someone at SANS can often make an introduction for me or provide insights. These connections are priceless.
Q. Did you take classes online or at live events?
A. I started the graduate degree program in the middle of the pandemic. Online courses were the only option during that time and it worked out beautifully for me as online classes have always been my favorite. Online courses allow me to move at my own pace and allot more time to absorb the information, instead of taking in the lessons all at once over a five-day period.
Q. What advice would you offer someone considering applying to the SANS Technology Institute?
A. 1. Time management is critical to success.
2. Don’t miss any opportunity to network, even virtually, with your peers, SANS instructors, staff and executive team. Use every chance you can to collaborate on course work and studying.
3. Take advantage of industry events; you will always find other SANS students there. Form connections with like-minded people who are equally passionate about the industry.
4. Don’t forget to buy a lot of post-it flags for your indexing!
Q. What’s next for Melissa Bischoping?
A. In terms of my education, I want to make the Dean’s List again and graduate in 2023. Professionally, I want to go deeper into reverse engineering and further develop that skillset. Socially, I am an active member of multiple industry nonprofits that support other women in security and I want to continue to give back to the cybersecurity community. I have been truly fortunate to have some wonderful mentors and leaders. That is why I am so passionate about opening avenues in the industry for those who do not come with a computer science degree or other traditional education backgrounds.
I want to help open doors to the industry for nontraditional students, career changers, and people with diverse personal and professional backgrounds. It is important to increase the representation across tech, and certainly in security, to challenge the status quo and drive innovation. Diverse teams yield positive outcomes, and we must continue to create spaces for those teams to flourish.
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