Amanda Rousseau is a malware researcher at Endgame and the founder of fashion-meets-cybersecurity blog VanitySec.
If I asked you to picture a hacker, you’d probably imagine a guy in a hoodie living in his mom’s basement. If you did, you’re not alone. To be honest, hackers have gotten quite a skewed reputation over the years!
Contrary to what you might think from watching TV shows like Mr. Robot or Silicon Valley, hackers are not a homogeneous group of nerds. I should know this, I’m a white-hat hacker.
Known as the Malware Unicorn, I kicked off my career in the U.S. Department of Defense protecting the government against cyber criminals. Since I was one of the few women on the floor, I had a higher standard to perform because I stood out and was an anomaly. In return, I was forced to learn how to get the job done efficiently and with no mistakes in a short amount of time, which allowed me to quickly rise through the ranks. While others were focusing on my gender, I was perfecting my skills and expertise. I now work in the private sector at a company called Endgame where I reverse engineer malware, which means I break down the lines of code in an attack to figure out how it works and how to stop it.
A few years into my career, I still see myself as an oddball: I rock platinum blonde hair, write bad malware pick-up lines, secretly place unicorns throughout my error code to add some flair, and love graphic design just as much as coding. In the cybersecurity industry though, I fit right in. By becoming an expert in my field and exceeding expectations, I’ve pushed my peers to overlook my gender and solely respect my ability to do the work and get the job done. You see, behind the computer screen, your gender and superficial characteristics don’t matter. Hackers have no identity; they’re anonymous. It’s the work you produce that earns you respect among peers.
Even though the cybersecurity industry has been predominantly male in the past, it is rapidly evolving and attracting hackers from all walks of life. In fact, a group of fellow hackers and I recently launched a blog called VanitySec to create a community for women working in the cybersecurity industry to discuss all-things fashion and security, from cute hand warmers for debugging to how to create artwork from your favorite malware. Ultimately, we want to show that there are multiple facets to being a woman in security, from malware to makeup and everything in-between.
1. You meet people from a variety of different backgrounds
Hackers aren’t all nerds stuck in their basement — I promise. In fact, cybersecurity professionals come from diverse backgrounds and possess a wide variety of skills. They’re coders, social scientists, data scientists, graphic designers and more. To be a really good hacker, it’s helpful to have a unique way of looking at problems, which is why a successful team is full of hackers from all walks of life (the more motley the crew, the better!). The threats are constantly changing, so being adaptable is paramount.
For example, I love art and design, so I initially majored in graphic design at college. But when I took a class on computer science by chance, I was hooked and eventually decided to become a reverse-engineer. To be honest, it wasn’t an easy switch at first. I could never miss a class because I was the only woman in the room and was singled out. However, I got through it, and actually became a department tutor! Even though I may be a hacker now, I still see myself as an artist. My diverse skills gave me the ability to convert abstract concepts into tangible ideas for people who don’t know much about computers.
2. You can work from anywhere
It’s no secret that most of us love a flexible work arrangement, and being able to take your work with you is a huge part of that. Let’s be honest, being stuck in a cubicle is rarely at the top of anyone’s wish list. Luckily, since so much of a hacker’s job is online, you can work from anywhere — from home or a new country every month.
On top of that, when there is a major cyber attack, you could be flown to the scene of the crime for crisis control, and, depending on the urgency of the investigation, you might even get upgraded to a private jet. Not only do you get to see the world for free, but you also get to meet and work with some really cool and influential people — from FBI agents to world-renowned astrophysicists like Neil deGrasse Tyson (who I met in 2014)!
3. Your job is in high demand
The demand for hackers is very real and very high. By some accounts, security will be a $100 billion industry in just a few years, and this year alone, one million new cybersecurity jobs will open. Finding and keeping a good job is never easy, but as cybersecurity becomes more important around the world, the rising demand for jobs means a lot of opportunity. And while a degree in computer science is helpful to break into the field, you can also teach yourself through boot camps, online forums, and books. Almost anyone can make a career switch; you just gotta be willing to put in the work!
So if you’re looking for an edgy and prosperous career, becoming a hacker might be right up your alley.
4. You actually make a difference
From protecting Americans’ online identity to preventing businesses from losing millions in valuable assets, hackers have the potential to make people’s lives better. Yes, it’s a high-stakes job that can result in some serious consequences (as seen with the 2016 U.S. presidential election). But, not all hackers are cybercriminals. Most of us try to keep your cities, communities, and daily lives running smoothly and safely.
For instance, just a few months ago, a massive ransomware attack known as WannaCry hit over 150 countries and disabled hospital systems in the United Kingdom. Immediately after the exploit happened, I spent my weekend breaking down the ransomware to figure out how it worked and how we could stop it. With WannaCry and most other malicious exploits, lives were at risk and, by knowing what was behind the ransomware, we were able to help prevent future attacks.
Ultimately, being a hacker is very cool. It’s an empowering and exciting role that you should definitely consider. So don’t let your perceptions of who a hacker is stop you from giving the field a shot. If I can make it in the cybersecurity industry, then so can you!