Master of Science in Cybersecurity Engineering

Sida Gao (MSCSE ‘17)

Sida Gao AlumnusWhat inspired you to choose the master’s in cybersecurity engineering program at UW Bothell?

I remember when I was a junior in undergrad I started seeing an increasing amount of news on TV and the internet related to data breach, company hacks, hackers selling sensitive personal info, etc. That’s pretty much how I got interested into security. I sort of just had that vision that this industry is going to big and critical in the near future. When I started applying for graduate school, I paid extra attention to schools that are offering security programs instead of just regular computer science. I came across UW since it’s one of the best computer science schools, and then I got to know the cybersecurity program at UW Bothell.

I chose this program first of all because it’s in Bothell—right next to Seattle. I always wanted to move to the west coast, not only because of the weather but also there just so many tech companies in Seattle (even though now I ended up in the California bay area instead of Seattle, lol). Secondly, I was aware that our program offers great flexibility in terms of class schedule and variety of focus areas. In addition to that, I felt like this program really emphasizes the hands-on experience. And we have the option to choose either a project or thesis for graduation. And lastly, I really liked the environment and atmosphere of UW Bothell.

Any big question you asked yourself before enrolling to make sure the program was the right choice for you?

Maybe, am I going to get accustomed to this new environment? I used to go to a university that has like 40,000 students, is located right in the city, and has tons of activities going on every day—just lively. But now I’m about to go to this place where it feels like there’s only a thousand students and the campus is located on a hill with tranquility.

But personally, once I got there, I realized that this is exactly the environment you are looking for if you want to focus on learning new knowledge, doing some research, etc. There’re just few distractions.

What would you say makes the program unique?

Definitely having people actually in the industry who teach the classes. You will be learning things that are not just in the textbooks.

What are some highlights from your student experience?

I joined Assistant Professor Geetha Thamilarasu’s research group where I pretty much learned everything about doing research from scratch. I got a chance to publish some papers and I also made some great friends.

What courses did you enjoy the most, and was there an area of research that inspired you?

I remember there is a course about learning some hands-on pen testing techniques taught by a faculty member from Microsoft. I really enjoyed the course not only because of the class materials but also the stories that the professor shared based from his industry experience. I can’t clearly recall any of them, but I do remember that they were just fascinating and made me firmly believe that I want to work in this domain.

What were the most challenging and rewarding parts of being a student?

Definitely getting your thesis/project approved by the committee. Preparing the final version of your paper and the presentation is quite challenging, especially given the pressure there. But I will never forget the moment when I was waiting outside the room for their decision and then they opened the door and asked me to come inside again. It’s more than rewarding when I heard ‘Congratulations’ from my professors. 

Do you have any advice for future students?

Don’t procrastinate, especially on job finding. Start early on preparation as well as building connections. Always feel free to reach out to alumni. We’d love to help anytime. 

Where are you currently working, and what is your job title?

I’m currently working at Facebook in Menlo Park, California as an application security engineer.

Do you feel the degree prepared and supported your professional career goals? How did this job opportunity come about?

To be honest, I will say partially. But of course, that also depends on what you want to exactly do in the field, like what’s your role going to be. Because security is such a big domain that contains countless sub domains, I don’t think it’s possible for a master’s program to cover everything. That’s why I said earlier that as a student you have to start your career preparation as early as possible—figure out which path you’d like to go to take the right classes.

Speaking of this job opportunity, first I want to say as an international student, it's not easy to get a job in the security world due to visa and other restrictions. I think I did almost 10 onsite interviews before the Facebook one and I didn’t get any offers. Since my graduation, I had been applying for Facebook for months, and there was not a single reply. Then I asked a friend of mine to do a referral for me, and it just worked ‘magically’. That’s why I think connections are so important; an internal referral is always going to be helpful no matter what.

Are there any other thoughts or advice you would like to share?

When you are studying security, try to build the width of your knowledge first because that’s mostly what the companies are looking for from a new graduate. They don’t expect you to come in and be an expert in a certain area say cryptography, networking, application security or other topics. Try to understand the basics of everything and then start digging dipper in certain paths.