What inspired you to choose the master’s in cybersecurity engineering program at UW Bothell?
During my undergraduate time at UW Bothell in the Computer Science and Software Engineering major, I was attracted to several elective courses in cybersecurity and information assurance at UW Bothell. After taking some cybersecurity courses and joining Dr. Geetha Thamilarasu’s research group, I fell in love with cybersecurity, from the complex and ingenious ways to crack problems to the unpredictability of human behaviors in making cybersecurity-related decisions.
However, at that time, I had not really thought about applying for the master’s program in cybersecurity, but instead my plan from the very beginning was to take a minor in Mathematics. After conversations with computer science and math advisors, they encouraged me to apply for a master’s degree in cybersecurity at UW Bothell because they saw my passion for it. They immediately contacted the graduate admissions advisor to work on the admission application as soon as possible because there were less than four days before the admission deadlines for international students. Thanks to the encouragement and support of my parents, advisors, professors, and friends, I finished all the essential components of the application within three days, including my personal statement, research essay, and three letters of recommendation from three professors. That was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Any big question you asked yourself before enrolling to make sure the program was the right choice for you?
Although my decision to continue my education journey with a cybersecurity program was made quickly, I did spend time researching the courses to ensure the skills and knowledge aligned with my goals and interests. A question I asked myself at that time was, “How many technical skills do I need to be successful in my academic journal and my professional work in the future?” While I had academic theoretical knowledge about cybersecurity, I lacked practical and hands-on experiences in the field. The fear of not being good enough and keeping up with the courses kept coming up during that time. However, my instincts and experiences at UW Bothell during my undergraduate years told me that I could do it.
What would you say makes the program unique?
The program provides diverse cybersecurity courses, including both technical and non-technical aspects. Those courses provide students with a solid foundation in cybersecurity and offer hands-on experiences and approaches to issues from different angles. The program’s structure also helps students explore their interests and identify their research areas, and from there, they can take elective courses to support their research projects. The professors themselves also make the program unique as they have extensive experience in the industry and are super friendly, professional, and willing to help students succeed.
What are some highlights from your student experience?
Joining and experiencing research groups not only helped me understand the research process, including identifying an issue, doing literature reviews, and developing a proposed solution, but also determined which career path was right for me. Dr. Thamilarasu’s research group showed me about cybersecurity research areas around network systems and assisted me in achieving a few academic accomplishments, including being a scholar at the RSA Conference and a WiCyS (Women in Cybersecurity) Conference.
Later, when I took Dr. Marc Dupuis’s courses, I was attracted to human behaviors and decisions toward cybersecurity. As a result, I decided my final master’s research project would focus on internal and external human factors in cybersecurity activities and decisions, which led to one of my greatest accomplishments during my student life. I was able to contribute to Dr. Dupuis’s research paper, which was introduced at an Information Technology Education Conference and later published in the ACM digital library.
What courses did you enjoy the most, and was there an area of research that inspired you?
I enjoyed all courses that UW Bothell offered. Each class provided knowledge and unique skills I can use in my work. Among those courses, I benefited a lot from Information Assurance and Cybersecurity. This course provided me with foundations and knowledge in secure development and information lifecycles, privacy security, security standards, procedures, policies, legal and regulatory issues, and governance, which I usually deal with in my job to ensure applications stay aligned with security requirements and comply with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards.
Another course I enjoyed was ethical penetration testing because this gave me the opportunity to act as an attacker, perform different penetration testing techniques, write up a penetration report, and have my classmates act as the stakeholders.
What were the most challenging and rewarding parts of being a student?
Keeping my mental health during the COVID-19 quarantine while working on my academic work and looking for a full-time job was the most challenging part. When all the classes moved online, it became harder to interact with professors and classmates, especially when I had questions and worked on team projects. I broke down the day before the master project defense due to too much stress and pressure.
Thanks to enormous support from my committee chair, Dr. Dupuis, who called and talked to me for over an hour to encourage and tell many fun stories to motivate and inspire me that I was capable of achieving the goals I worked hard for, and to my friend, Kalyani, who was willing to be my listener when I practiced the defense presentation countless time. The rewarding part was passing my master’s project defense on the morning of my birthday and receiving a congratulations and messages from professors, parents, and friends.
Do you have any advice for future students?
Start early on the final master’s research paper process to find the topic that interests you and create connections with professors. Don’t procrastinate on applying for a job, and DON’T turn down another job offer or stop other interviews even after you’ve signed a job offer and haven’t started the job. Rescission could happen at any time and to anyone.
Where are you currently working, and what is your job title?
I am currently working at Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas, as a software development engineer (packaged) in the Payments & International POS team.
Do you feel the degree prepared and supported your professional career goals? How did this job opportunity come about?
Undoubtedly, the master’s program covers diverse cybersecurity courses that introduced me to the cyber world and helped me discover the path I wanted to take in my professional career. The knowledge that I received from the degree has prepared me to be able to contribute to projects in my current role.
As an international student, finding a full-time job in cybersecurity is hard due to some restrictions. It was more challenging for me to find a job within 90 days of unemployment before departing the US due to the post-Covid and inflation times. Even before graduating, I was applying and interviewing continuously without any break at numerous companies, but I did not get any offers. In mid-March 2022, after some intense and lengthy interviews, a few small and medium tech companies offered me jobs. At the same time, I got a call from the recruiter from Whole Foods Market (WFM) regarding the application I sent them. Honestly, I did not remember when I applied for them, and WFM was not on my radar at first. Also, I did not expect to hear from them because I did not meet some of their job requirements. However, I needed to have a backup plan in case I signed an offer that got rescinded before starting a job, which happened to many people due to inflation.
I scheduled a call with the recruiter, but again I did not expect to move forward with another round as I did not have work experience in the retail field, and there was not much work related to cybersecurity. However, the hiring leader wanted to talk to me, so another interview was scheduled within seven days. The interview with the hiring leader (who is my team leader now) covered the details about the position, expectations, work related to security, and goals for personal growth. I had a chance to ask questions and discuss their backend system’s work to support and maintain high purchase volumes and to stay ahead of security attacks in the retail field.
The interview with the leader changed my thinking about WFM; as a result, I asked other companies to extend the time of considering their offers. I ended up with the final back-to-back interview with three different teams at WFM and received an offer two days later. After careful consideration, I accepted WFM’s offer over a few other offers because of the transparency of the interview process, the recruiter and interviewers’ hospitalities, and the work I will perform aligned with my expectations. Besides, the position offers me an opportunity to learn and explore different areas, from software development for various payment methods to security review processes to ensure payment applications stay in alignment with the company security requirements and comply with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards. I am glad I made the right decision, and I enjoy my current job and what I am working on daily.
Are there any other thoughts or advice you would like to share?
It’s very important to start exploring different domains in cybersecurity and computer science early in your studies, connecting with professors and exploring their research groups—not only to prepare for your final research paper, but also to immerse yourself into the field to identify which cybersecurity path is the right for you. Figuring out what you want to do can be challenging, but remember that UW Bothell provides plenty of resources to help students succeed in not only academic studies, but also professional careers.
Building a solid understanding of cybersecurity and computer science foundations and keeping up to date with the latest cybersecurity news and techniques can help you attract companies because companies do not expect you to know everything deeply as a new graduate student. It is necessary to understand what you want to do in your professional career and set up reasonable and achievable goals based on your strengths and weakness to make them happen. Learning and practicing outside of school is essential to show companies your willingness and dedication to learn and keep your skills and knowledge up to date and meet industry standards. That can help differentiate you in the job market and among other candidates.
Reflecting on being a UW Bothell cybersecurity scholarship recipient
As an international student, tuition fee was always the biggest burden besides other costs. The scholarship came to me at the perfect time when I struggled mentally to decide if I wanted to continue my education or find a job due to the expensive tuition fee.
Without the scholarship from UW Bothell, I did not think I could continue my education, achieve a few academic accomplishments, and finally get a master’s degree in cybersecurity. For myself, receiving a scholarship was already an unplanned accomplishment, which I was truly blessed to have so that I could continue my studying.