A master's degree in cybersecurity strengthens IT specialist's ability to help protect important data for U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Starting his career in 1995 as a computer technician and instructor, Robert Rutledge has worn multiple hats in the information technology field. His roles have ranged from systems engineer to network security administrator to PC network administrator, and he has worked across a wide range of industries.

Each experience, he says, has increased his skill base leading him closer to a career in cybersecurity.

"There are so many different areas of IT that it can make the field a little intimidating," Robert says. "But you quickly realize where you can add the most value. Programming is not in my wheelhouse. But networking and security, that's where I can make an impact for an organization."

Robert works for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in St. Petersburg, Fla., as an information technology specialist. He manages the capacity and performance of the enterprise's hardware and software systems, including the security, network connectivity and maintenance of the systems.

Robert says enrolling in Saint Leo's online master's program in cybersecurity is making him a well-rounded IT professional. While highly technical, the program also teaches students

"The meat and potatoes of IT – when you get into the systems and start analyzing the details – that's what I love. I wanted to expand my education but not lose sight of what I think is most important in this field. I found that direction at Saint Leo."

Just a few classes away from completing his degree, Robert shares some insight into the cybersecurity field.

What makes cybersecurity a rewarding career field?

Robert: At the end of the day, the work you do in this field comes down to securing and protecting personal information.

When I first started in IT, we used to be able to secure a system with firewalls, but as we continue moving into this high-tech environment, things are getting more complex. You can't rely on the hardware alone to solve the problems anymore. You have to train people to recognize vulnerabilities, and you have to know how to prevent them.

Hackers have been using social engineering to trick users into providing personal information, and we need to help users protect themselves from these threats. As we continue to evolve in IT, things change on a daily basis, and there's always something new to investigate.

What skills are most important?

Robert: The field is so dynamic you often have to take your past experiences and current knowledge and formulate solutions on the fly. We're always creating something new to identify vulnerabilities, and the courses at Saint Leo give you a strong logical foundation for this dynamic, open-thinking philosophy.

One of my favorite courses was about ethical hacking. The course doesn't show you how to break into something, but it gives you the tools to extract information. For example, if there's a certain protocol being used, you know what vulnerabilities a hacker might exploit.

It's really about a new mindset. There are so many different avenues and solutions to take given the variety of challenges you'll face in the cyber environment. If you can have a sound approach to address the challenges, especially when you can look at it from the hacker's point of view, it opens your eyes.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get started in cybersecurity?

Robert: Have an open mind. There was a point in my career when I thought things were cut and dry. I've learned that you have to be flexible. IT people sometimes are stigmatized as not being great at listening, but that's changing as quickly as cyberspace changes.

Now, you have to be dynamic and let your shield down to absorb information from others. In this role, you're either teaching somebody something or you're learning. A lot of times you're doing both.

I'll be honest, I never saw myself getting a master's degree, but now I wish I had done it sooner. But the timing worked out well. I was able to start at Saint Leo when the program was relatively new, and I've taken away so much already. I know I have more to learn, but that's going to continue well beyond my degree – that's just the nature of cybersecurity.

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