Welcome to Episode 6 of the Building a Life and Career in Security Podcast.
Today’s guest is Michael “Dop” Dopheide. Dop has spent the majority of his career in the research and engineering space working for universities and research institutions with a brief stint in the corporate world.
Dop and I talk about how you can really understand the security space (touch it with your hands).
Links from the show:
Michael Dopheide: When I worked for that startup just before the tech boom, I’d say, “Take the higher salary instead of the stock options.” That would have benefited me a little better in the long run.
Speaker 3: From the jayschulman.com studio this is the building a life and career in security podcast. Now your host Jay Schulman.
Jay Schulman: Thanks. It’s Jay. Welcome to another episode of the building a life and career in security podcast. The podcast that lets you see how others grow their information security careers. Today’s guest is Michael Dopheide or Dop. Dop has spent the majority of his career in the research and engineering space or R and E as he’ll describe, working for universities and research institutions with a brief stint in the corporate world. Dop will talk about the differences between working in the private and public sector. Here is Dop’s career journey in his own words.
Michael Dopheide: My career I guess kind of started in the early to late nineties. Back when I was in high school me and my friends from a small town kind of screwing around, learning things on our own, this is back in the day when Linux is still fairly new, the internet is Netscape One and stuff like that. In order to get things to work you had to really really dig in to get things to work together.
We had a really cool group that, I don’t know what you’d call it, but we called it Explorers. This company in town Gardner Denver I think it was, that would let these teenage kids just come in at night. No one around, no supervision at all on their engineer’s work stations and just do whatever we wanted. Usually that involves playing Doom or something, but we had to learn [inaudible 00:01:30] report to get that to take place.
Then I went to U of I in Urbana Chamaign. I actually went for mechanical engineering thinking that I was going to be an engineer, or a draftsman or something like that like my dad. As that year went along, I needed some money to help pay for food and beer and stuff, so I got the only job I was really qualified for which was a lab assistant admin. I had a couple like that working for the math department, bio [inaudible 00:01:55] research labs, stuff like that. Really great jobs, learned a lot, but then it kind of became clear at the end of my college career that there was no way I was actually going to be a mechanical engineer. I loved coming up with the ideas and the concepts, but when it came to doing four year transforms for control equations, I had no interest in doing that as a career.
End of college last semester and a couple years after, I worked for a small startup company in town where they do online learning. The interesting thing about that is I spent a lot of my time building the systems to do some of that learning, but I also spent a lot of my time writing courses like intro to [inaudible 00:02:29] programming, couple courses on Unix, how to be assistant administrator. Which was really interesting, really fulfilling in a way, but it also stagnated my skills a little bit I felt. I spent so much time teaching people what I was doing that I wasn’t learning anything else myself.
Then the tech burst kind of happened. About half the company got laid off for funding reasons and I ended up getting a great job at the National Center for [inaudible 00:02:51] Applications. Which is also based in Champaign, Illinois. I was there for nine and half years. I held a number of positions. I started off building packages on a bunch of different Linux and Unix hosts, Eventually transitioned into the security team, did a little bit of work. We had a small project with the FBI for awhile that was fun. We then ended up in instant response and day to day stuff.
At that point I was really happy there. When a friend of mine offered me a chance to join him at a new team at a financial organization, a major bank, at first I turned him down. I’m happy here, I don’t really see the need to move. Then kind of a series of unfortunate events that the state of Illinois, you want to look at the history of our governors and how many of them are in jail, there was some funding issues where it became clear that in order to get a raise or anything at my current position, I had to get a competing offer.
I talked to my friend, I said “Hey, can you give me an offer?” He said “Yeah. Just come up and at least lie to me and pretend you’re being serious about my offer.” I went up there and I really liked what he was doing, so I ended up leaving NCSA and joining this bank. I was there for about three and a half years, evenutually promoted to manage penetration testing team within the bank. It was a really good time.
Then I just got lucky. Right now I’m at the energy sciences network, Esnet. We connect essentially all the DOE labs together. Really high speed networks, really innovative stuff, really great network engineers. I had kind of been following ES net for awhile, but I’d always told a couple of my friends that worked there that if the [steering 00:04:18] engineer position comes up, please let me know and that happened. Super excited. I’ve only been here about six months. Super excited to be here and I think this is really where I want to be in the research and education of space. That’s my career in a nutshell.
Jay Schulman: Very interesting. You said something really interesting to me, so we’ll go all the way back to the first thing you said. If I wrote this down correctly “To get things to work, you really had to dig in.” I totally believe that. I also think that today a lot of people don’t get that opportunity to dig in. Do you think that’s true? If you’re just getting out of college today or just trying to learn this stuff, how do you dig in?
Michael Dopheide: To me it’s really, really important, especially for security, if you want to be able to secure something, you have to understand how that thing works at a fundamental level. Whether that’s assisted engineering, networking, if you want to know how to put a physical security even. If you want to put a lock on a door, you have to understand how buildings are built too.
I agree that a lot of people these days, the new people coming up, they don’t have that opportunity. Systems work a lot better than they used to. It’s not like we were coming up, in order to get connected to the internet and Linux, you had to figure out your [inaudible 00:05:25] configuration worked and manage your Windows system through a config file. Now all that stuff works for them, so they don’t have as much opportunity to be forced to learn that stuff. If they need to do that, they have to really go out of their way to learn that themselves. It’s not forced upon them like it was us.
Jay Schulman: Mechanical engineering background and I see a ton of people kind of in the same situation. For whatever reason they kept the degree when they went to college and certainly you went to my alma mater down in Champaign. Do you use your mechanical engineering degree today? Are there things in information security that the mechanical engineering degree has actually helped you?
Michael Dopheide: A little bit. I think some of the, they always tell you when you’re in school “Oh, we’re not teaching you this specific thing, we’re teaching you these problem solving skills.” Which seems a little bit nebulous, but it’s kind of right. It teaches you that and writing the technical papers and reports you have to do for your senior design project. That’s helpful. It’s a big deal at the time, but 10 years later in your career, you’re writing 20 page reports every week. It’s like that seemed like a huge deal, but now I’m doing it constantly.
Even more so, computers were kind of my hobby back then. I kind of switched, so now computers are my job, but mechanical engineering is more like what I do for a hobby. I’ll build stuff in the garage and screw around. I kind of switched my hobby and career there.
Jay Schulman: Yeah, I remember going to college and thinking that I didn’t want to ruin my hobby by doing it for work and that computers was this fun thing and gosh I wouldn’t want to ruin that by making a career out of it. I don’t know at what point, I think it was when I graduated that I was like “Well, that’s stupid. This is something I really enjoy. Why am I not doing it more often?” I ask everybody the same two questions and one of those questions is thinking back through your career journey, was there a decision that you really agonized over and man it went really well for you?
Michael Dopheide: Sure. I think that that has to be, I kind of mentioned already, when I left NCSA to join the bank, that was really, really hard for me. I was very happy with my work. I loved the team I was working with, they were all great people. It’s just like “I’m taking a real risk here starting a job that I really don’t know a lot about that sector.” But it really was career changing for me as far as not just financially getting out there, but as well as learning more about what I want out of a job and my long term career. Do I want to be a technical person all the time? I got a chance to try management, I got a chance to try corporate life, or R and E. That was extremely valuable for me even though it was pretty stressful at times.
Jay Schulman: I think you have a really interesting background having done both the corporate and the R and E side. Do you want to talk a little bit about the differences in having gone to the corporate world and then jump back again. I’m guessing that there’s a preference towards the R and E side, but maybe I’m wrong.
Michael Dopheide: Yeah, there is. There’s a couple things. When I was working for essentially the state of Illinois with some federal funding, there’s a lot of beuracracy there. You want to buy something you have to go through a bunch of red tape and you go through a bidding process and do all this stuff to try to just get work done. I thought that was frustrating and there’s no way the corporate world would be as bad. Boy was I wrong.
It’s basically the same kind of thing, but it’s corporate politics and do you have the budget and did the board of directors approve that budget? All the politics are kind of the same feel, just a different motivator. I didn’t see as much of a difference there as I thought I was going to. The big thing for me, what brought me back into R and E, was just I like being on the cutting edge, I like dealing with technology that’s maybe not supported by a vendor because a vendor’s not even capable of doing it yet. It’s new stuff.
I remember I was talking to them about using Bro IDS when I was working there in corporate, and they’re like “Well you can’t do that. We have 1 Gig at the border. That’s too much traffic.” There’s no way. Berkeley’s been doing 100 Gig for years. You have no idea what’s cutting edge right now. I had to get back into that space.
Jay Schulman: Thinking back, and I know it’s hard to think about the hypothetical, you talked a little bit about one of the kind of defining moments when you moved from NCSA to the financial sector was our wonderful governors here in the state of Illinois and messing some things up. Do you think if that didn’t happen, do you think you would have still accepted the job in the financial institution, or do you think you would have staid even longer than the nine and a half years?
Michael Dopheide: I think I would would still be at NCSA today. Maybe if the SI job opened up, I would have moved there, but when I was originally asked I turned them down. I was like “No, I’m happy here. I don’t care what your offer is. I’m not interested in leaving. I’m very, very happy here.” Then it essentially came down to a financial decision after multiple years of zero with no raises. I think the year before I left, we had a ferlow week actually. That state of Illinois budget issue was kind of a huge motivator unfortunately.
Jay Schulman: Yeah, it’s very interesting that they kind of pushed you to make a change which you kind of said was really for the best. Thinking back to the second question that we ask everybody is the idea of a do over. Certainly we don’t get to have these in real life, but if you could do something over differently again, what do you think it would be?
Michael Dopheide: Sure. I thought about that question knowing you were going to ask it. It’s a difficult thing to think back like “What would I do over?” There were a lot of definitely mistakes I’ve made, things that didn’t really go as well as I’d like. But most of those, looking back, as [inaudible 00:10:36] or hard as they were, they were good learning opportunities. If I could see the future and didn’t do those, I wouldn’t be as well rounded as I am today. The one thing I think that kind of stands out, again if I could see the future, is when I worked for that startup just before the tech boom, I’d say take the higher salary instead of the stock options. That would have benefited me a little bit better in the long run.
Jay Schulman: Wow, that’s really interesting. I think people often times are drawn to different types of rewards and different types of negotiations, so that’s very helpful. Thank you for joining us. If people heard things that were interesting to them and want to connect with you, how do they find you?
Michael Dopheide: Sure. If you can spell my last name I’m easy to find. It’s [email protected]. Please feel free to reach out. I’m happy to answer any questions or clarify anything.
Jay Schulman: Thanks to Dop for joining us today. As you heard from one of my questions, I’m a big believer in understanding how things work and getting your hands dirty with technology. I think it’s a big take away from today’s conversation. If you reach out to Dop, make sure he knows you heard from him here on the podcast. If you have any comments or questions about today’s podcast or want to join me talking about your career journey, shoot me an email at [email protected]. If you found this podcast valuable, let me know by leaving a comment on iTunes and thanks for listening to this episode of building a life and career in security podcast. Please subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or at jayschulman.com/podcast.
Speaker 3: Thank you for listening to the building a life and career in security podcast with Jay Schulman. For more information and to subscribe, go to jayschulman.com.