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Deferring Harvard for a cybersecurity start-up

May 25, 20164 mins
CareersCloud SecurityIT Jobs

The new gap year gives opportunity for organizations to train talented students for the future of cybersecurity

A former teacher of English who was quite passionate about teaching grammar, I can attest to the fact that sometimes students feel that what they learn in the classroom will never apply to them in the ‘real’ world. As a grown woman, I’m sorry to say that when I was a junior in high school, I felt that way about sine, cosine, and tangent. 

Advanced math wasn’t fun for me because I didn’t understand how I would or could ever use it in my life. This experience is one that many people, young and old, have had; however, with the high cost of college tuition, no one wants to experience this frustration at the university level.

Enter Michael Chen. He is a computer science major at Harvard who deferred his degree by one year to go work full time at a security technology startup. After spending his summers interning at large corporations like Microsoft, Chen felt discouraged that he wasn’t gaining the experience he hoped for in his internships. Rather, he felt like his internships were mainly vanity projects that didn’t provide much value.

Chen said, “Mainly, I was getting frustrated with how little nurturing or attention interns specifically or even first level developers got. My project was a pet intern project. I didn’t really have the opportunity to experience working on something that really mattered, which I didn’t get from school either.”

Having only interned at large enterprises, Chen decided that perhaps working at a start-up might afford him the hands-on experience he hungered for. He searched the Boston area and discovered what seemed like a really appealing opportunity at Threat Stack, which Chen said has been “all experience.”

“When I first started, within the first two weeks I was already pushing code to some of our production repositories. Now I’m one of the main developers on one of the projects. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with upper management here, where I couldn’t talk with leaders at those bigger companies. They were either too high up, too busy, or just didn’t care,” Chen said.

One of the most valuable skills Chen has learned from Brian Ahern, chairman and CEO, and Chris Gervais, vice president of engineering, Threat Stack is how to interact with people better. “Computer science people don’t usually develop skills other than writing code, but you really need to understand how to interact with people if you want to continue your career,” Chen said.

The gap year has proven to be beneficial not only for Chen but for Threat Stack as well. Ahern said, “Over the course of Michael’s time here we’ve re-launched our product as a holistic Cloud Security Platform and raised a $15.3 million round of Series B funding, not typical events most “interns” get to be a real part of. We’re happy to have helped him gain the kind of education you can’t get in a Harvard classroom.”

Classroom learning does lay groundwork students need to consider the different paths they might want to explore. What Chen did learn at Harvard, said Gervais, provided him with a strong base of knowledge. “It was important to Michael to get real experience that would help him decide whether or not the startup environment and cybersecurity field was the right choice for him, and I think he’s been able to find confidence in that decision through his time here. On our end, he’s a real asset to the team in a way that no summer intern could ever be,” Gervais continued.

Many college students around the world take advantage of internships and they can prove to be great experiences that often lead to future careers. “At Harvard most are discovered by word of mouth,” Chen said. “You are expected to go to the most well known institutions. You are supposed to be happy at Microsoft, Facebook, or Google, but that wasn’t true for me, and I would not have enjoyed my time if I stayed,” he continued.

For those college students who are struggling to determine where your career should go, Chen said, “I would really encourage people to take a gap year, especially at a start-up. The experience you get is unattainable anywhere else. You can really see all parts of the company.”

And while you explore and grow, college can wait. At least for a year. 


Kacy Zurkus is a freelance writer for CSO and has contributed to several other publications including The Parallax, and K12 Tech Decisions. She covers a variety of security and risk topics as well as technology in education, privacy and dating. She has also self-published a memoir, Finding My Way Home: A Memoir about Life, Love, and Family under the pseudonym "C.K. O'Neil."

Zurkus has nearly 20 years experience as a high school teacher on English and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University (2011). She earned a Master's in Education from University of Massachusetts (1999) and a BA in English from Regis College (1996). Recently, The University of Southern California invited Zurkus to give a guest lecture on social engineering.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Kacy Zurkus and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.

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