I’ve always been interested in technology and engineering, and my professional background includes nearly 10 years’ experience in aerospace engineering. But I became interested in cybersecurity and decided to earn my master’s degree in cybersecurity from Drexel University, in hopes of working as a systems engineer. Despite this training, however, I had a hard time finding work in the field.
Most of the job postings for systems engineers that I encountered were asking for several years’ worth of experience. I had significant professional experience, but not in this particular field. And how was I to begin obtaining those years of SE experience if I couldn’t even get my foot in the door? There had to be a way — and I found it in the SE Academy, part of Palo Alto Networks’ LEAP Program.
I attended a conference for the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and that’s where I encountered Palo Alto Networks for the first time. I met a small group of representatives from the company, and I was impressed with their obvious passion for it. I applied to work here — three times, in fact — and each time I got a little further in the process. But all those positions were for people with more advanced technical backgrounds than I had.
However, during one interview, one manager mentioned that the company was starting up this SE Academy, and he asked if that was something I would be interested in. “Absolutely,” I told him. Within just a few months, I got the opportunity to interview for the Academy, and I received an offer shortly thereafter. So far, it has been just the experience I was looking for!
Inside the Academy
The LEAP Program is designed for new graduates, offering tailored professional development in various specialties through its Academies — in systems engineering, sales, research & development, and product management — to help those early in their careers to accelerate their growth. The SE Academy is a two-year program that provides foundations in security basics, networking, whiteboarding, and more, with professional certifications being part of the process.
This is no internship. Though the SE Academy provides us with learning opportunities, we are full-time, professional systems engineers who are given the latitude to learn in hands-on fashion — by doing the work.
Those accepted into the program get to select one of three tracks: corporate systems engineering (CorpSE), DevOps, and proof of concept (POC). The Academy is fairly new, with the first cohort in our Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) territory having only begun in late 2019. I am one of a small cohort of just three who comprise the first American cohort, which began in February 2020. Since then, the second cohort of five has begun the program as well.
In my CorpSE track, I’m working with the corporate sales team to assist companies of all sizes with their cybersecurity needs. I’m getting plenty of at-bats to understand customer environments and how our products fit those environments. Working alongside a sales rep, I investigate the customers’ needs and work as a trusted advisor who understands the technical aspects of our products but can explain them in user-friendly terms. It’s not so much about pushing for a sale; it’s about making sure you are addressing pain points and offering help where they need it most.
Working with customers is something I love about this job, but I also love that no two days are the same. Every customer and every situation is different, so I’m excited to come to work each day. And while I do love working with customers and being social, I also get to indulge my inner “tech nerd” on occasion as well, so it’s the best of both worlds.
And while I am working as a full-fledged SE, I’m still learning, and all of my colleagues are incredibly supportive of that. It’s okay to make mistakes — they welcome it because they know that’s the best way to learn.
Yet no one treats me as if I’m an intern or as if I am not a “real” employee. No one is trying to weed me out. They want me to succeed. Everyone makes themselves accessible to LEAP participants, no matter how high up they are on the totem pole. Not only are people available, but they really listen; they’re interested in my experiences and concerns. And when I express interest in trying something new and unfamiliar, they encourage me to go for it, because this is the entire foundation on which the company was built: Pushing the envelope and doing what hasn’t been done before.
All in all, I would say that if you have a passion for solving problems and engaging with people, this is the position for you. Just bring your most genuine, best self, and you might find this is the right fit for you.