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Education of a Hacker: One Woman's Journey From Clerical Worker to Cyber Warrior

Her hands smeared with typewriter ribbon ink and smudged with carbon copy paper, her fingernails caked with white correction fluid, Jen Havermann remembers thinking, "Well, at least I'm learning to type."

It was her first day on the job at a government office in Fort Meade, Md. – the unlikely start to a high-tech career that would eventually turn Havermann into an elite cyber warrior, part of the United States' defensive line against hackers and other threats.

Her rise shows that anyone with an interest in technology and a willingness to learn can build a career in cybersecurity, said Havermann, now an engineering manager for Raytheon. When she visits college campuses and meets with students, she urges them to aim for a cybersecurity career.

Havermann's own career began in 1988, when the U.S. government hired her straight out of high school as a "security aide." But nobody at her new office in Fort Meade, Md. ever issued her a badge, a baton or even a heavy-duty flashlight. Instead, they sat her down in front of an electric typewriter.

"Truthfully, it was torture … I didn't even take typing in high school," Havermann said.

But she decided that she was going to turn a negative into a positive and learn as much as she could about her new job, taking on additional assignments and making the most of any opportunity.

"I might not have landed my dream job, but I decided that I was going to add as many skills to my bag of tricks as I could," Havermann said. "And I was going to work my hardest and do the best job I could."

That attitude paid off.

While a "security aide" typist, Havermann got her first exposure to computers while digging through databases. That experience instantly hooked her.

Soon afterward, her employer accepted her into a year-long Computer Systems Career Development program. She found she loved entering text commands and code, talking to the machines directly instead of through graphical user interfaces, or GUIs,  like Windows.

"I wanted to see what I was touching and modifying. You don't get that from a GUI," she said.

 

She called her training intense and compressed, teaching her every aspect of computing from coding to pulling cables. She rose up through the cybersecurity ranks, both in government and later in private companies.

Often she was the only woman on the teams that tested clients' vulnerabilities and conducted penetration testing, or "pentesting." As a "white-hat," or good-guy, hacker, Havermann helped clients understand the risks they faced and how to address them. 

Now Havermann jokes that she's crossed over to the dark side:  "I work in management now," she quipped. "I consider myself an enabler, and I enjoy helping our people find their path and decide their specialties. "

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Raytheon and other companies need penetration testers, secure coders, system testers, security architects and auditors, intrusion analysts, disaster recovery and business continuity people, as well as forensic experts, she said.

Cybersecurity has become as varied as the health care industry, she said, with dozens of specialties opening up for technically minded people.

"Reverse engineering is a really cool cyber discipline but we don't need 5,000 cybersecurity reverse engineers," Havermann said. "My message is that there are a lot of choices, and you should go for something you like and enjoy."

Last Updated: 10/28/2014

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