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Shea McNama transitions skills and career from IT to cybersecurity

Shea McNama portrait
Shea McNama. Photo provided by McNama.

Information technology (IT) professionals are crucial to almost every business in the modern world. Businesses often use computers, mobile devices, software programs, websites and many more technologies to run their businesses. Every now and then, it is expected for issues and errors to arise when businesses interact with these technologies. IT specialists are tasked to deal with ambiguity as technology issues occur randomly and without warning.

That is why it is no surprise when someone with an IT background decides to transition into cybersecurity. The role of a cybersecurity practitioner also handles ambiguity with a background and knowledge in IT. To be highly skilled, both professions require a deep understanding of computer systems, network infrastructure and cyber operations to identify the various risks across the digital landscape. By analyzing systems and troubleshooting to resolve any issues, these transferable skills may entice IT professionals toward a career in cybersecurity.

Shea McNama, a student in Boise State’s Master of Science in Cyber Operations and Resilience, saw these connections between IT and cybersecurity, which ultimately led him toward the path of protecting critical information and the critical infrastructure of Idaho’s transportation systems.

Early Career

Before moving to Idaho, McNama grew up in Salinas, California — not too far from Silicon Valley, the hub of technology and innovation. “I learned how to build computers. I grew up with the 1983 IBM home computer as my first home computer. It was all DOS-based, which is where I learned about DOS,” he reflected.

Although he grew up when businesses like Apple and Google were still climbing towards global success, McNama was also immersed in Salinas’ produce culture. He received a Bachelor of Science in Business Management from California State University, Monterey Bay, and a Bachelor of Science in Culinary Arts from Johnson Wales University. These two degrees provided McNama with a duality of skills as a chef and an IT specialist.

McNama even used his IT skills for food-related companies such as Falcon Transportation and Dole. “I worked as a network administrator for a couple of companies. I helped build their network from the bottom up.”

He loved how every day was a new challenge. As he progressed forward on his path, McNama yearned for something more fulfilling — a career that felt like it would make a difference in people’s lives. That is when he found the field of cybersecurity.

Catapulting into Cybersecurity

In total, McNama worked for about 16 years in IT. While he may have had a very thriving trajectory, McNama also got into a career in law enforcement in Idaho. However, he had to step down after an injury two years into the role. As he was determining his new path, his daughter and son motivated him to find a new focus and return to school — but with a catch.

He agreed to go back to school and pick a worthy career as long as his two kids would also go to college or trade school and pick worthy careers. So, the whole family committed to becoming skilled in a craft. Cybersecurity made sense for McNama as he had the IT skills and drive from law enforcement to stop criminals. Now, it was a matter of which university to choose from to start his cybersecurity journey. That is where McNama found Boise State University’s cyber operation and resilience program.

Since McNama was in Idaho, he saw the opportunity to take some classes at Boise State to earn the program’s cyber operations certificates. While he was taking classes, the program started offering bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. McNama saw his chance once the invitation was shown to him.

Just like he enjoyed the fast-paced dynamic of the technology realm, McNama enjoyed the accelerated courses because they helped him stay focused since he did not have an opportunity to start slacking. He also enjoyed how the cyber operations and resilience program fell out of traditional teachings. “This program is way more interactive than book studies. Also, we have instructors who still work in cybersecurity rather than professors purely in academia,” he said.

With cybersecurity constantly evolving, McNama believes that having instructors still working in the field helps students stay up-to-date with the latest tools and technologies to be ready after graduation.

McNama has completed his Bachelor of Science in Cyber Operations and Resilience and is now on track to receive his Master of Science in Cyber Operations and Resilience with additional certificates. He also currently works in digital forensics for the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD).

Advice for Taking the Jump

McNama says the skills that he learned in IT were definitely transferable, like being able to stay calm and think outside of the box. When he lived and worked in California, a rolling blackout wiped out four different companies’ power and network. None of the surge protectors worked, which meant McNama and five other workers spent 96 hours of rebuilding about 300 workstations. Now working at ITD, he also faced a significant cyber issue, with over 500 trucks not being tracked and connected to ITD’s network. He was able to remain calm and even used some new skills he learned from the cyber operations and resilience program to troubleshoot the issue and eventually found where the disconnect was.

Technical skills are obviously important when working in tech. However, McNama mentions that people skills are just as important. While pursuing his degrees, McNama initially worked for the ITD as a plow driver. As he was developing his cybersecurity and plow-driving skills, he networked with folks in the IT department at ITD.

“Whenever I met with anyone from IT, I would always talk about how I am in cybersecurity classes and how I have done IT in the past,” he said. Once a position opened in ITD’s cybersecurity department, McNama was already in the back of the department’s minds as a worthy candidate.

Overall, McNama mentions that perseverance is key. “Don’t give up. Something will eventually open. It may not be exactly what you want, but it may be the foot in the door to what you want to be.”

Until then, McNama advises staying motivated by continuing to learn, being aware of the current topics in cybersecurity and keeping up with the evolving threats, tools and technology.

Learn More about Cyber Operations and Resilience

Are you interested in seeing how Boise State’s cyber operations and resilience program can help jumpstart your career in cybersecurity? View our website to learn about different options for undergraduate and graduate programs.

Boise State Cybersecurity Programs

Written by Ranier Lieberman.