As demand for digital skills to deal with cybersecurity issues grows, apprenticeships offer a path for interested people to retrain.
However, too many see a lack of technical skills as disqualifying them from digital fields. But mature students can offer companies a range of much-needed soft skills, while on-the-job training and education help fill in the blanks.
Dedicated cybersecurity firm Quorum Cyber is one such company discovering the benefits of hiring apprentices, and in turn, benefiting those apprentices with access to hands-on experience.
Digit spoke with two of Quorum Cyber’s graduate apprentices, Elizabeth Momola and Rachel McAlpine, about their apprenticeships and experience in cybersecurity.
Both Momola and McAlpine came to the apprenticeships as mature students. To gain more technical skills, McAlpine first took a Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP) Course in science, before going onto university.
“Whilst I was doing the SWAP course, I found the apprenticeships and thought it was an amazing opportunity,” she said. “Not only are you doing your degree, you’re working at the same time, so you can earn a wage.”
After attending university full time for one year, McAlpine found out that Quorum Cyber was looking for apprentices during her second year and switched to the apprenticeship for the remainder of her degree.
Meanwhile, Momola joined Quorum Cyber having worked in various roles in the past and deciding to move into cybersecurity. With two young children, the traditional university path did not seem viable.
“Being in my 30s with two kids and financial obligations, giving up a job to study full time wasn’t an option for me. I was looking for something that would be an entry point where I didn’t have to have the knowledge or skills and where I could learn on the job,” she said.
“And that’s when I came across apprenticeships.scot and learned about graduate apprenticeships.”
Having started her apprenticeship programme at a different company, Momola decided to switch over to working at a dedicated cybersecurity firm.
“I felt that if I wanted to be at the top of the game, I needed to have as much learning experience and I needed to be exposed to as many things as possible,” she said. “From my perspective, the best way to learn things is by actually taking part in them.
“I approached Quorum Cyber and asked if they have any openings for graduate apprentices.” Whilst the company was not seeking apprentices at the time, after explaining the benefits of the apprenticeship scheme, Momola joined Quorum Cyber as its first apprentice, blazing a trail that McAlpine was able to follow.
“It is very easy to switch apprenticeships,” Momola said. “The government funding is tied to the apprentice, not to the company. From an employer perspective, there was just one form that needed to be filled in and sent to Skills Development Scotland.”
With both currently studying at Edinburgh Napier University, Momola and McAlpine are currently learning coding skills, along with digital forensics and cybersecurity, such as the methods threat actors use to access clients’ data.
By working at Quorum Cyber in addition to studying, both can apply their new cybersecurity skills to their job.
“That’s why I like the graduate apprenticeship – going into second year, I find that the two really feed into each other,” McAlpine said. “I can then recognise the work that I’m doing at Quorum Cyber so there’s that understanding you build.”
At Quorum Cyber, the apprentices have been applying their knowledge to analysing tickets raised by clients. They have also been dealing with phishing attacks on the company’s clients, who forward potentially malicious emails to Quorum Cyber.
“We get to take a deeper dive into them and analyse the files connected to those emails and the people who are sending them,” McAlpine said.
Momola added: “We need to analyse what sorts of signals come in and determine whether they are malicious or benign. With every signal, we learn something new about where the data is coming from.”
In addition, Momola is involved in leading test phishing campaigns for Quorum Cyber’s customers. “We send out a mock-up of phishing emails, and we see which users in the company would actually open an email or click on the link or provide credentials.”
By working at a dedicated cybersecurity company, the apprentices can work with a diverse range of industry-standard technology.
“Some of our customers have hybrid environments, some cloud-based, some on-prem, some in Azure, some in AWS – we’re looking at technologies that allow us to monitor all of those environments from one central point,” Momola said.
“Because there’re the two main products, Microsoft and AWS, getting the chance to really understand those technologies at this stage is great – they’re the future, because they’re both cloud-based and they’re the ones that are going to be here for the long run,” McAlpine added.
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In addition to their current duties, Quorum Cyber’s management moves the apprentices around the company’s different teams to ensure they have the broadest learning experience.
“I got the opportunity to take part in my first incident response, which was amazing,” Momola said. “That just shows how many opportunities we have to actually explore different parts of the services that Quorum Cyber offers.
“And it wasn’t just a matter of me sitting there passively and looking at other people doing things, but I was actually able to actively engage and use the knowledge that I have.
“Once we learn all the basic information, then we’ll be able to make a conscious decision as to which direction you want to go, whether you want to go into pen testing, or incident response or consultancy,” she added.
Momola and McAlpine’s contributions to Quorum Cyber have been recognised by the company’s management.
Head of Managed Services David McKenzie said: “Elizabeth and Rachel are fantastic additions to our team, their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn is astounding and we are honoured that they have chosen to grow and develop with Quorum Cyber.
“They are an excellent example of Napier’s Graduate Apprenticeship scheme, the contribution it makes to businesses and how it allows organisations to contribute back to society. We are now offering Graduate Apprenticeship’s internally to our own staff and are incredibly pleased that more of our staff are already enrolled to help further their education and career.
“We have landed two of the most talented individuals we have seen in recent years through this scheme and this will only add to the value we have, as an organisation, as we continue to grow in our mission to help good people win.”
Despite their relatively short careers in cybersecurity, both were positive about their apprenticeship experiences.
“I know there’s like a lot of other people who would benefit from this kind of opportunity,” McAlpine said. “I would definitely recommend the apprenticeship, because there’re literally no cons, it’s all pros, it all works in your favour.”
Momola advised prospective apprentices not to be limited by the position advertised. “I feel that there’s still a lot of companies that don’t know about this programme and the benefits that come from having an apprentice.
“Reaching out to the companies directly is a good thing to do. When I reached out to Quorum Cyber, they did not have any apprentices employed.”
With cybersecurity specialists in short supply, apprenticeships not only help teach the needed technical skills, but help companies access experienced professionals who have gained vital skills in their previous careers.
“It doesn’t matter what age you are, what background you have – I didn’t have a tech background,” McAlpine said. “It’s your apprenticeship and you can take it where you need to go.”