What it’s like to work with cyber security
William Sparks always wanted to be a hacker.
Born in the ’90s, Sparks grew up captivated by the hacker culture celebrated in movies like, well, Hackersas well as John Connor in T2: Judgment Day. “It was just the coolest thing to me when I was seven,” Sparks says.
From an early age he was all in.
– It became a hobby. I was nine or ten years old and asked, ‘What is a firewall? How do I get my firewall to do this or that so I can play my video games because they’re not working.’” he says.
These days, Sparks, 29, is a cybersecurity engineer for a health insurance company just outside Boston, where he makes north of $130,000 a year as part of a team that works to protect and prevent the company (and, by extension, its customers) from hackers and employee abuse. It’s a dream job for Sparks in many ways, and he knows he’s lucky.
While so many Americans are stuck in jobs they don’t like, he has actually been able to achieve the age-old advice of the supervisor: Do something you love. Of course, the rest of that saying is: “and you’ll never work a day in your life,” and well, Sparks isn’t sure he agrees with that. After all, work will always be work. But yes, it certainly helps to enjoy that work, he says.
While Sparks found his passion for hacking at a young age, he didn’t take a straight career path to land his current role. There was no one to advise him on how to turn his childhood hacking hobby into a career, he had no one to encourage him. While he was inspired by the teenagers in hackers, they were considered criminals, and sure, John Connor tried to help save the world, but that’s science fiction.
Sparks grew up in a small town in southwest Georgia, where he says he was the only person in his graduating class who even tinkered with computers. Usually, high school guidance counselors will give some guidance to students who are trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. In that arena, the Sparks were unlucky.
“They didn’t know what the hell I was talking about … I didn’t really have anyone to talk to,” he says. “I probably could have gotten to where I am three or four years earlier if I had gotten the guidance. I think a lot of people struggle with that. They see something that interests them, but they don’t know how to get there.”
After high school, he attended a nearby community college where he was one of six students on the computer science course. After graduating with an associate’s degree, he got a job in a small consultancy doing “generic IT work”. He got to work with computers, but it wasn’t his dream; it certainly wasn’t Hackers. He became a developer for a spell, thinking “well, hacking is just code” – it wasn’t either.
He bounced around different computer-related jobs for about three years until he discovered the cybersecurity industry; a sort of “you clean up nicely” version of his lifelong hacking passion. A job at Flower’s Foods, the makers of Nature’s Own and Wonder bread, introduced him to people in the cybersecurity world. He learned what certifications to get, what skills to develop and what jobs to apply for.
“When I first started in IT, I thought I shouldn’t hate this [job] because I enjoy doing this and if it wasn’t work I’d probably still be doing it. But I really didn’t like it, says Sparks. “When I got the first cybersecurity role, which was very entry-level and still kind of monotonous, it was like, ‘Oh man, I’m here. I see it.'”
The work his associates were doing was more interesting to Sparks than his own, but he saw the potential, he says. And then he thought, “What prevents me from doing what they do?”
“I’d pull one of them aside and say, ‘Hey man, how did you get there?'” Sparks says. “I saw people doing things I wanted to do – not because it pays well, and not because of the title, but because it just sounds like fun. This guy is trying to break into a server that someone just built. It sounds look cool. I just want to watch him do it all day. I want to do it all day.”
The global cyber security industry had a market size of approximately $86.4 billion when Sparks entered the world, now he is in one of the fastest growing markets, expected to exceed $400 billion by 2027.
As a cybersecurity professional, he is on the defensive side of the world he fell in love with as a 10-year-old obsessed with John Connor and Dade Murphy. But every now and then he gets to do some pentesting as part of the job, really professional hacking.
“It’s done to find holes and fix them. Imagine paying a guy to break into your house and he says, ‘OK, I got in through this window by doing this and this, and we should fix it by doing this and this,'” Sparks says.
His goal, if he had to think about moving on one day, would be to do pentesting full time. He has no desire to really move up because the leadership is beyond doubt. He is exactly where he wants to be. And even still, a lot of the time it’s just work.
“I really enjoy going to my job. I don’t stare at the clock waiting for the minutes to tick by, and I’ve worked jobs where you’re just miserable and you think “today’s the day I quit.” I don’t feel that, says Sparks. “But at the same time, I would say that I like maybe 30% to 40% of what I do. The other 60% is going to meetings and I have to make reports… When you do something you love, it doesn’t make it not work. It’s still work, but it makes everyday life a lot easier.”
sign up Fortune features mailing list so you don’t miss out on our biggest features, exclusive interviews and surveys.