Veteran Finds Path to Cybersecurity via Certification

Ralph Lazaro accumulated more than a decade’s worth of hands-on computer experience in the U.S. Navy. But when he got out of the service and sent his resume around in search of civilian jobs, he was not getting calls back. His resume was missing one crucial element – certifications.

The loud chatter of a team of IT security professionals seated at a long table filled the room at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, California. In a day’s work of responding to red flags at the seven Marine bases under their purview, it’s not out of the ordinary for that chatter to turn to yelling. Rarely does a day go by when cybersecurity specialist Ralph Lazaro and the rest of his team are not putting out fires. Sometimes it’s because someone less-than-tech savvy has plugged in his phone at one of the bases, not realizing that smartphones are data storage devices with the potential to carry malware. Other times it’s because a patch or update needs to be installed at a remote base to make sure systems aren’t left vulnerable. The stakes are always high when working in cybersecurity at Camp Pendleton, even when the tasks are routine.

In the course of his year at Camp Pendleton, Lazaro has thankfully not seen a big security incident – a hacker breaking into the system or the introduction of a virus that needed to be contained. But if it were to happen, the team would be prepared. Keeping the country safe is, when it comes down to it, Lazaro and his team’s job. This is not Lazaro’s first experience in the arena of national security, though, as he is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Navy.

“As soon as I graduated high school, I was in the Navy like two weeks later,” Lazaro said. “I think [my family] was like, ‘Oh, OK. Finally.’ It wasn’t expected, but it was no surprise to them.”

No surprise, because joining the Navy is a Lazaro family tradition. Lazaro’s father was a 20-year Navy man whose service brought him from the Philippines to the United States, where he started Lazaro’s family.  Both of Lazaro’s brothers also served, and his wife is currently a member of the Navy.

Having done IT work throughout his time in the service, stationed at Pearl Harbor, Bahrain, Seoul and Okinawa, Lazaro accumulated more than a decade’s worth of hands-on computer experience. But when he got out of the Navy and sent his resume around in search of civilian jobs, he was not getting calls back. There was one thing his resume was missing. He had no certifications. For that, Lazaro sought out New Horizons.

New Horizons is an IT training company with over 300 locations worldwide. Cindy Sutherland, vice president of career development at New Horizons Computer Learning Centers of Southern California, oversees five locations in the Southern California region. She has seen many members of San Diego’s considerable veteran population facing the same sort of career concerns as Lazaro did. 

“[Veterans’] biggest point of pain is that they have experience ... but the experience they have is, ‘I did this in the military,’” Sutherland said.

For instance, a radio tech in the military, Sutherland explained, may be perfectly capable of taking on a help desk role or even a more advanced one in the civilian world, but without a certification there is no path to getting such a position. In fact, Sutherland has found that a company that is hiring might not even see a candidate’s name appear on a computer screen if s/he has no certification.

“We became victims of technology as far as applying for jobs and using resumes,” Sutherland said. “[Employers use] word searches for things like CompTIA A+ and CompTIA Network+ and if you don’t have it, you’re not even recognized. In today’s world, industry-recognized certifications have become so important.”

As a part of CompTIA’s Authorized Partner Program (CAPP), New Horizons offers a range of certifications to make sure candidates can proudly place those keywords on their resumes – and have the skills to back them up. Sutherland, in developing programs for her region, takes matching the right students with the right certifications seriously.

Students are not just enrolled to be enrolled. Rather, New Horizons looks at their work history as well as their personality to make sure that students – veterans and non-vets alike – get certified in the areas that will set them up for professional roles in which they will thrive.

For veterans coming out of New Horizons in the San Diego area there is an added bonus according to Sutherland: Their military security clearance already meets the Department of Defense hiring standards, opening up a whole market of potential contracts.

“[Veterans] come to us and they get their A+, Network+ and Security+ and they can jump into those level one tech positions,” Sutherland said. “That’s been pretty big for us.”

When Lazaro got out of New Horizons with CompTIA certifications under his belt, his job prospects were immediately brighter. Once he was trying to get in the door; now he was negotiating potential pay. Most recently, after being put in contact with an AT&T IT headhunter by a friend from the Navy, he was able to easily land his current contract position with the Marines, which is contracted through AT&T.

Throughout the course of his employment, Lazaro has continued to return to New Horizons to pick up additional certifications.

These days, to get a break from the sometimes chaotic nature of his workspace at Camp Pendleton, Lazaro spends his free time setting up photo booths for events and parties—a side business that he finds benefits quite a bit from his advanced IT knowledge. But he is pressing forward in IT as well, and his experience on this contract doing cybersecurity work has him hooked on the burgeoning, high-stakes world of IT security. 

“Seeing how every business, private industry or government agency needs cybersecurity, it’s wide open,” Lazaro said.

Whatever new enterprises Lazaro helps keep safe in the future, he hopes to do so with the full benefit of CompTIA’s certification backing him. He is currently pursuing his CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner (CASP+) certification, which is targeted at the top-tier of IT security professionals, and is looking forward to adding it to his resume.

“It’s been a blessing to have all these certs,” Lazaro said.

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Matthew Stern is a freelance writer based in Chicago who covers information technology, retail and various other topics and industries.

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