US Army Veteran Keith Roberts' education benefits had expired by the time he was laid-off from a factory job in 2014. It would have been easy for him to have been bitter. Instead, Keith responded to the curveball fate had thrown him by applying a relentless work ethic to turning the interest in technology he developed in the Army, into what will surely become a rewarding career in a rapidly growing field.
On December 31st of 1999, a delivery man brought Keith his first PC at Fort Bragg; a Gateway Intel Celeron 400. That sparked a fascination with technology that Keith continued to develop while learning basic networking as Paratrooper.
Years later, during the time he was laid off, Keith’s fiancé worked at Pine Technical and Community College (PTCC), in Pine City, Minn. She mentioned to Keith that a new IT grant, the Rural Information Technology Alliance (RITA), was expanding the IT programs at PTCC. Despite his interest in technology, Keith had recently been working in a factory and enrolling in the manufacturing program seemed like the logical next step. Realizing this was an opportunity to move in a new direction, Keith followed his interest and enrolled in the network administration program.
Feeling the excitement of pursuing a new goal, and after completing the Accuplacer entrance exam, Keith learned his education benefits as Veteran had lapsed after the then 10 year time frame. Thankfully, the Vet rep at PTCC informed Keith the Minnesota G.I. Bill doesn’t expire and would at least provide him $1,000 per semester. With his benefits and schedule intact, Keith was ready to begin and determined to do whatever it would take to be successful.
“It’s funny because before school, I had never even heard of industry certifications,” admits Roberts. Despite his previous lack of knowledge, Keith quickly realized the importance of industry certifications in the IT field and set a goal of earning his CompTIA A+ before graduating.
In response to industry feedback, a primary goal of the RITA grant was to create opportunities for students to earn coveted industry certifications. Through RITA, IT faculty at PTCC were able to align course curriculum with certification exams; education and employment advisors were able to assist students in planning, and a testing center was built, which currently offers an array of professional exams.
All of this worked in Keith’s favor, but there was no substitute for the work he needed to put in. During his summer break, Keith studied four hours a day, for two weeks straight. He passed the two part exam and earned his A+ certification. Instead of stopping there, Keith quickly set his sights on CompTIA Security+ and applied the same approach; four hours a day. Security had become Keith’s focus and he switched from the network administration program to the newly created cyber-security AAS program. His hard work paid off once again, he passed the exam and earned his Security+ certification.
“These exams should not be taken lightly as there are simulation questions as well as multiple choice, but I believe anyone who wants them bad enough can study hard and earn them,” says Roberts.
Having already exceeded his goal, the next step would be earning the CompTIA Network+ certification, which would complete the CompTIA “triple crown.” Keith didn’t feel ready for that at the time.
The cyber-security AAS program was brought to fruition by instructor Chris Morgan and the RITA grant, as well as a relationship the grant helped form with a local Fortune 500 company. Stemming from a need for a pool of well-trained cyber-security graduates, staff at the Fortune 500 company played a role in shaping the cyber-security program and increased their involvement with PTCC.
When Keith learned the Fortune 500 company would be at a career fair hosted at PTCC, he worked with his instructor and education and employment advisor to polish his resume and LinkedIn profile, and conduct mock interviews.
“I remember staying up until 2:00am polishing my resume for the career fair the next day. I basically begged for a shot at this internship. It was really about my interview, winning the interview was key, and then waiting by the phone and checking emails hourly!” states Roberts.
Once again, keeping his eyes on the prize paid off; Keith landed the internship implementing security measures for the Fortune 500 company. If you ask him now, he can’t tell you much about his internship due the sensitive nature of the work. He will, however, tell you he hopes to land a job with the company, as the work he’s doing in his internship aligns perfectly with his career goals. That, and he’s very grateful for the opportunity to work with world class security professionals in a cutting edge environment.
Keith is set to graduate in May, but he isn’t done yet. Along with the other classes in his full-time course load, he’ll tell you his project management class is a bear. He’s still working in his internship, he’s a parent, he just stepped down as Computer Club President and he still manages to find time to help new students. It’s easy to wonder what keeps someone like Keith going.
“The carrot at the end of all this? A good paying career in IT Security, as well as the fact that down the road I would like to pursue my BS in cyber-security. I would honestly love to teach it someday, and teach in the manner I have been taught, by people who are the best at what they do, the (Steve) Cody’s and (Tony) Mueller’s and (Chris) Morgan’s of the world,” says Roberts.
Keith’s advice, “Anyone can do this at any stage in life, I’m no spring chicken and already have accomplished so much. Believe in yourself and stay positive, even when it’s hard. Believe and achieve!”
Could it be that simple?
If Robert’s advice seems too abstract, consider another concrete example. After earning his Security+ certification, Keith didn’t feel ready to attempt the Network+ exams that would have earned him the unofficial, CompTIA “triple crown.” Keith got the encouragement he needed from his internship colleagues and he set his sights on the Network+ certification. Employing the same four-hours-of-studying-per-day strategy that worked for him before, Keith passed the exams and earned his Network+ certification.
Although Keith had hoped to land a job in IT security after graduation, he ended up achieving that goal ahead of schedule. A month prior to graduation, the Fortune 500 company offered Keith a position as a security analyst. He’s beyond excited and quite happy with the starting salary. When asked about coasting his way to graduation, his response is no surprise, “You know that’s not me! I’m going for honors!”