Volunteer for Professional Development

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This is a transcript from a presentation at BSides San Antonio. Participants are Kathleen Smith, CMO with ClearedJobs.Net and CyberSecJobs.com; Cindy Jones, Principal Security Consultant at Rapid7.

Kathleen: What I’m hearing is that people are learning very basic technical skills and non-tech skills from volunteering that has helped them in their “real” job. Cindy and I with the help of a few others put together this presentation to go over what we’ve learned to give you a roadmap for volunteering in your community.

I’ve been volunteering with BSides for about five years now. I’ve been doing overall volunteering within various communities — the recruiting community, the military community, for the last 17 or 18 years. So, Cindy why volunteer?

Cindy: I started off attending DEFCON when I think I was 13, it was my first one, it was still at Alexis Park. I got a lot out of it. I mean I got a lot out of it. Then I started working with BSides and also got a lot out of that. It’s been amazing. I just started contributing and realized my work could help others and that brought me satisfaction.

Kathleen: The main reason why I started volunteering is that the core of my job is business development. I would get out into the cleared community through many organizations. I did it to network and get business development opportunities.

I soon realized that I really hated doing that. That was not something that was me. And when you’re a blonde woman in the government contracting field you’re one of 10 women that are in the Washington D.C. area. It’s just a very uncomfortable feeling. I learned something about myself.

There are many opportunities for volunteering, so a big question is how do you evaluate and choose what you do. Cindy, how did you originally choose and how to you evaluate now?

Cindy: I went to the second BSides and the vibe was cool, very laid back. It was interactive and people would talk to each other. Speakers were very approachable and you could have conversations.

Kathleen: How you evaluate opportunities now and – how do you evaluate the opportunities now versus how you evaluated in the beginning?

Cindy: In the beginning. I didn’t evaluate. I’d say, “You need help? I’ll help. Just ask me to help, I’m there for you.” There was no evaluation. Now, I try to pick and choose what I work on. Now I try to be a little bit more circumspect in my decision-making. Most recently the last thing I was asked to be involved with was DEFCON China which was kind of awesome, It was an amazing experience.

I’m very fortunate that I have support from various arenas in my world that allow me to do this on a routine basis. It really is a matter of determining what I’m able to contribute to an organization and what can I get out of it. That’s my basic criteria.

Kathleen: That’s a big part of the evaluation. So, when I started volunteering about 17, 18 years ago, if anyone asked me I said, “Yes.” I was gone from home a lot. I was not saying “No” to anyone. But when you’re stressed out you’re not doing good work across the board.

So, now I evaluate everything. I actually have a conference call this afternoon to talk with someone who is starting up a new non-profit. I have some basic questions. What kind of work have you already done? What kind of references do you have? What is your thinking process of doing this conference.

There’s a big difference between someone who has a really big idea and someone who knows how to put on an event. When you’re starting to look at these volunteer opportunities, really look at how they’re going to use your skills, how are you going to be able to make an impact.

Cindy, what career skill have you learned between saying no, and saying yes to some of the conferences?

Cindy: When I started volunteering I put a lot on myself. I was a horrible delegator. Realizing this was a developed skill. Through my volunteering I learned how to delegate. Also, I started out being very timid and now I find myself standing in front of groups and I have no problem speaking to people, speaking my mind, being more confident. That was a big gain from volunteer work.

Kathleen: Delegating is something that you definitely want to learn as you’re becoming more of a manager or if you’re managing a team.

Okay, let’s talk about how you’ve engaged your employer because conference management really isn’t about leaving your day job. It’s about doing it and your day job.

Cindy: Initially when I first started at BSides I was working on an Air Force contract. I think you get ten days a year PTO, period. They don’t care if you’re going above and beyond.

There was no desire for these companies, they were out in the D.C. area, they didn’t know anything about a BSides event. They certainly weren’t going to sponsor. I did try but it never happened. I lost a lot of vacation time.

Flip that completely on its ear. Now I work for Rapid7 who is very prominent in the information security industry. We sponsor many different conferences and they encourage us to go to these things. They want us to be seen as representatives not only of the organization but they want us to be the leaders in the community. They want a community presence. Because of this they give me, and a lot of our employees free reign to join in on conferences, speak at conferences. We actually have billing codes so they can track our time, and see how much time we are putting into it.

But it is above and beyond our day job. I still have 40 hours a week I have to bill, whether it’s to internal projects or the client work. An 80-hour work week can be exhausting

Kathleen: At some point if you really enjoy doing all the conference management, you might want to start talking to your employer about what you’re doing. Approach them to explain the different career skills that you’re learning. Like delegation, public speaking, time management.

The other thing is in conference management you also have to think about sponsorships. You have to get out and sell something. Getting out and making the case. This requires communication and presentation skills that you’re going to want to have in your career.

Also, finance management. Managing something that is for the community…. you’re all of a sudden gaining this fiduciary responsibility. You are responsible for the finances of another organization.

These are things that you need to be talking about with your employer. Tell them, “I managed a team of ten, I brought in a sponsorship. I co-managed several projects at the same time, and I still got my work done.” Remind yourself that you need to keep journals of the volunteering, what you learned, what kind of skills you are growing. Have the details to take to an employer conversation…“I really enjoyed the finance aspect of this. Maybe we might want to consider this in my career within this company.”

While you may not necessarily want to put it on your resume as something that says, “Managed budget,” you might want to bring it in as something that you talk about during the interview.

Definitely be placing your volunteer work and skills on your LinkedIn profile. “Was conference manager, for three years running.” And write what you did. Write that you were a manager, write that you secured sponsorships.

It shows that you’re a well-rounded individual. It also says that you’re out in the community or you have the initiative that employers are going to be looking for. And they are really starting to look for them now.

Let’s talk about competitions. When you interview the employer will ask, “Do you have the experience?” And you say, “No, I have the education, and I have the certificate but I don’t necessarily have the experience.”

I find it very interesting that people compete in competitions, and they don’t realize this is very similar to work experience. You’re given a challenge, you’re given a short amount of time, you’re working with new people, and you have a deadline, and it’s all in a stressful environment. If that isn’t work experience, I don’t know what is. You should be listing your competitions on your resume, you should be listing them on your LinkedIn profile.

But also do yourself the favor that when you come back from doing the competition. Write out what you did in the competition, what was the challenge, what was the flag, what were the steps that you had to go through, what did you fail in, what lesson did you learn. Did you become the leader or did you end up following someone else? Did you learn that you have certain communication challenges?

The other great thing about volunteering and competitions is that it’s a terrific way to expand your network. The number one way an employer finds their new employees is through sa referral from a current employee. The more people you have in your network, the more people that you’ve connected with, the better chance you have of being referred for a job.

Kathleen: A lot of people think that presentations are easy to do. Slide decks are really great, and easy to do. Cindy, tell us a little bit about presenting what you’ve went through.

Cindy: Like I said before I was very timid. Never would have gotten up in front of people. Never would have had the gumption to think that I could have anything saying. Then I hacked my brain. It still stresses me out to stand up in front of people but through my volunteering I hacked my brain to the point where I can not only be approachable but also be approaching.

How has this helped my career? It IS my career. I walk into organizations and I talk to groups of people and I drill them on their security programs. Taking that information and turning it into a presentation is another skill I learned. It has made my career.

Kathleen: We all have technical abilities but being able to explain them to non-technical people is really an amazing skill and it’s one that you’ll have to work on over and over and over again.

Yes, volunteering is extremely draining, it is also extremely rewarding. Do you want to talk a little bit more about that?

Cindy: Career development and career growth is a big payoff of volunteerism. The job I have now was because I was involved. My employer pays for me to do a lot of these conferences. They support me whether I’m presenting, organizing, volunteering, or just attending. My volunteering has also been a big advantage when it comes to expanding my network of connections.

Kathleen: Everyone please consider volunteering as a terrific way to undergo professional development. Use your community work to develop new skills and build your network. I look forward to hearing about your successes.

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