NEWS + ADVICE
UMBC Center for Cybersecurity Training Director Talks Cyber, Transition, MOS and More
UMBC is one of the sponsors of CyberMaryland 2014. We had the opportunity to chat with Homer Minnick, Director, Center for Cybersecurity Training at UMBC Training Centers. Mr. Minnick is a 20-year Army veteran.
How did you come to the fields of cybersecurity and training
HM I graduated early from high school at 16 and wasn’t ready to go to college right away. I needed a break to figure out what I wanted to do, but didn’t have that luxury. I always had an interest in the military, but was too young to join at the time. I wasted my first two years of college because I was not focused on school. I joined a delayed entry program and was placed in the intelligence field.
During my time in the first unit, I had the opportunity to work with computers and soon discovered my passion. I started pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Information Systems Management during off-duty hours. I knew I needed to have the formal education to pursue the career I wanted, but my degree focused more on management concepts attached to technology. It didn’t fulfill all of my interests, but it was enough exposure to make me realize I wanted to dive deeper into the technical field.
In 2004, I finished my Bachelor’s, and career-wise I was doing strictly leadership within my role. Nothing technical, just leading other Soldiers. I happened to be in the right place at the right time when the Army was looking to develop a capability for Computer Network Operations. The Army only had about four or five people that were involved in anything in the field at that time, so they had a push to get more people involved. Because I had some background, I got an opportunity to get called.
It was largely self-study. A lot of reading, self-paced classes, and CBTs (computer based training). I was finally able to get the unit to send me to two live technical courses. That was my first exposure to technical training, and I loved it. There was a Linux Certification course and a Cisco Certification course, and it was just enough knowledge to get me in the door. At that point I was able to go and receive more training to become certified as an operator.
Because I was senior, from a rank perspective, I was chosen to lead an effort to grow that capability for the Army. That involved developing a process for assessing and selecting people for training. Over the next 5 years I developed a tremendous understanding of how to build cybersecurity professionals to perform a variety of different types of jobs. I learned quickly what core skills were common across many different positions, so that experience is what has allowed me now to continue doing what I do for Training Centers. In turn it’s allowed me to serve as a subject matter expert for our clients.
Along with development, I was providing on-the-job training to people that would go through the formal training courses. I would sit next to them to certify and teach them the real world application of what they had learned in the classroom. As anyone in the field of cybersecurity realizes, it’s a never ending challenge to stay current with your skills and the technologies that are in use. I realized that I had to maintain my skills and that I needed to continue to educate myself as well.
During my last five years in the Army prior to retiring I obtained a number of technical certifications. I also realized that I wanted to complete a Master’s degree before I retired, since that would be beneficial from a career perspective. At that point, I had huge responsibilities at work, while being married with four kids. It wasn’t an easy thing to get done. But again, by taking one class at a time I completed my Master’s degree over a three-year period. I knew that when I started looking for a career after the military employers would be looking for a well-balanced candidate with formal education, certifications, experience in the field, and other technical training. Something else that I consistently do is encourage my soldiers and children to get their education, determine their passions, and continuously pursue education.
What challenges did you overcome to pursue educational opportunities in your personal and military career
HM It was a challenge to balance the responsibilities of work and family while pursuing my degree. It’s difficult having a long-term goal and being able to see the final product, while working slowly over a long period of time to get there. A lot of people get overwhelmed when they see that, and then stop and never pursue it. Many times in the development of the program that I built for the Army specific to education, it seemed like things were stalled. But then I would look back at where I had started. I would then recognize that progress was made. Take a close look at where you are and where you’re going to re-energize yourself.
How would you recommend other military personnel look at the tours as a platform for their career developmen
HM Deployment wasn’t applicable to me, however it may be for other personnel. As the technology use and acceptance increases, and military equipment becomes more integrated and technology based, deployed personnel are learning valuable lessons in the field.
What they learn may or may not be directly applicable to the cybersecurity field, but it will help them determine if they have a passion for it. For me, the technology I was working with had nothing to do with cybersecurity, but I made that tie because it gave me that first exposure.
Soldiers that are deployed using high tech systems are gaining valuable experience that they can turn around and use if they’re interested in pursuing a career in cybersecurity. More importantly, the other skills that they are gaining from those deployments – risk assessment and management, judgment, decision making and general military attributes – are important in shaping thinking.
Just as important as the technology is the thought process in the person deploying them. So while deployments were not applicable for me, those things for someone who has been deployed can help when working in a cybersecurity position.
Please explain the new Army’s Cyber Military Occupational Specialties that you assisted in developing.
HM While developing the Center Network Operations (CNO) capability for the Army, every soldier who was trained in the field was only effectively on loan from the Army. There was no permanent career field that was specific to cyber or CNO. It was a constant struggle to maintain personnel because we would only have them for a single rotation or tour.
We quickly realized that long training requirements in order to obtain proficiency in the jobs required a permanent career designation to maintain any sort of long term continuity. When we started talking with Army leadership about needing a career field or specific MOS, there was a lot of push back.
Initially we were told it wouldn’t ever happen and that it was just another form of intelligence, so it didn’t need its own designation. We fought that mindset for probably 2 years. At that point they started to realize that while they were going to leave them in their job specialties, that having some sort of identifier tied to them that showed cyber talent was necessary so the Army could identify how many people they had regardless of what their job code was.
We initially got this identified, which was a stepping stone to having a career code or MOS. It took an additional 2 years to convince Army leadership that they needed to carve off the resources to a dedicated cyber force capability. The new MOS, which is a 35Q, is actually designated as a Cryptologic Network Warfare Specialist. We had approval for the MOS prior to my retirement, and there were several other senior NCO’s and commission officers who assisted with the process of getting resources assigned and the approval for a new career designated.
One of the roles that I held was creating the training school that eventually became the school for the new 35Q MOS. That school is the Joint Cyber Analysis Course (JCAC), and covers the 80% common technical skills required of people in different CNO roles. A new 35Q who completes the school becomes plug-and-play into a variety of different positions while still maintaining their key technical skills over the lifetime of their career.
All of the groundwork had been laid for a new MOS to be created before I retired and it went live in October of 2012, 10 months after I retired. Key senior NCO’s who worked with me took senior positions in the implementation of the new MOS and its continuing evolution today. The 35Q MOS now has more than 500 authorizations and the Soldiers holding the MOS are assigned both domestically and abroad.
How does it feel to be part of a training program that continues to support the mission
HM Great! It was a requirement for me in my decision of which position to accept that I knew I could still have some impact – even indirectly – on the continuing national security mission to keep our country safe. To know I was still impacting DoD and service members was important.
And it’s very satisfying to still be involved and to know that since I am separate from the military, I’ve had more direct impact on soldiers attaining base line skills in cyber than I did when I was on active duty, just in terms of sheer volume. It’s satisfying to have soldiers that I’ve trained in the past continue to come back to me when they’re experiencing difficulties with fulfilling the training requirements. So I still have that close connection, which is important.
Many military personnel are concerned about transitioning to a private company once they retire. What advice or pointers can you provide to allay these concerns?
- Start preparing yourself for transition as soon as possible.
- Ensure that you are knowledgeable about all of the training and education and career services available. Both while in service and after transitioning.
- Seek assistance with resume preparation and start your professional networking at least a year out.
- Try to obtain as much education, training, or certifications, or experience as possible prior to the transition.
- Don’t underestimate your experience and skill. Work with career assistance resources to learn how to portray the experience and talents that you have and be able to translate those into the language that corporate world will understand. You bring a lot of experience and valuable background to any organization. You just need to learn how to have the confidence and ability to translate it.
- Emphasize your willingness to learn and continue to grow through education and training. Talk to potential employers about that, and that it’s important to you. Be willing to expand on what you know. For me, coming into my role at UMBC Training Centers, I chose it specifically because it offered opportunities to learn about the business world and the academic world, because I had no experience in either.