Cyber skill success: adapt, overcome and pay it forward!

Cyber skill success: adapt, overcome and pay it forward!

Meredyth Grant

In this dog tags to data tags interview we talk to James Shaw about his career and how he’s transitioned from being a British Army veteran with no cyber skills to a fully blown infrastructure engineer with Awaken. Over to you James!

So, first of all, I just want to start my blog of with a massive thank you to my mentor and boss Paul, who not only opened the door for me to for interviews with various CTOs and CEOs but who also took a chance on me, even though I had absolutely zero tech skills.

James Shaw 2021
James Shaw in Afghanistan

Grateful? That is literally an understatement, he could have easily found someone with at least some of the required skillset (saving him time on mentoring) but he didn’t, he took a chance on me and has played a vital role in helping me to attain my current stage of qualifications.

Secondly, a huge thank you to TechVets, if it wasn’t for TV, I would not have met Paul, or the amazing community behind it, so thank you TechVets! 

While the journey has been very bumpy, it has also been extremely rewarding along the way, facing challenges far beyond what I thoughtI could manage. My armed forces career came crashing down and I suffered a mental health battle spanning 7-8 years which had a significant impact on my day to day life. With few transferable qualifications to kick start my next career, my life was a mess. 

I kick started my life by getting a tech apprenticeship which ran between Dec 2013 and Nov 2015. In this time I completed my Level 3 Apprentice in IT, before taking some time out to care become a carer for my nan. 

In December 2016, my tech career began, I got my first help desk job with a really fascinating company called Secure Information Assurance. They were soon acquired by UKFast and in July 2018 I requested a transfer to their technical team so that I could begin upskilling my technical knowledge. I met new people and began to build up my knowledge around systems such as Linux, networking, windows, backup recovery, virtualisation tools and more. As I grew more ambitious, I began looking for more opportunities and in November 2019 I left UKFast for pastures new.

Starting a new career with Cloud53, I started to learn a bit more around clustering tools and specifically galera clusters (I eventually learnt how to host my own discord bot too, proper overkill on the resources but a good learning experience). I also started building some basic knowledge around WatchGuard firewalls which was fun, but again my ambitions outweighed what they could offer, so in August 2020 I joined BCN Group

At BCN Group, I learnt even more around networking and virtualisation tools, and met some fantastic people, but I started to lose my passion for IT Support and decided I wanted something completely different or an infrastructure role, but these were few and far between. 

I began seeking out a junior infrastructure role and spent around two years applying Infra/Dev ops/Sys Admin roles but I was always refused, and it always came down to lack of skillset. This was hugely demoralising because I knew it was the field I wanted to get into, but noone wanted to take a risk on me, so I decided I needed to get trained up formally. Passion just wasn’t enough to get me across the starting line. 

This is where TechVets and my mentor Paul played a vital role. Paul, a veteran himself,  willingly took a risk on me and in Dec 2020 I finally became an infrastructure engineer where I could upskill in the role. Once I am fully trained and experienced I will try to help someone else in the same way that Paul supported me. 

My experience so far with Paul and Awaken has been extremely challenging, mainly because I have never worked in Public Cloud (AWS) or on automation tools such as Ansible/Terraform, nor have I ever created my own automation scripts through PowerShell/SQL queries. I walked into the role not quite knowing what to expect, and remembered the phrase from my military training that no plan survives contact. 

At the beginning I did really struggle, and I was worried that I had bitten off more than I could chew, but I kept going. I wasn’t prepared to throw it all away after I had landed my dream job. I adapted and strove to overcome the new obstacles that appeared in front of me.

I learnt performance testing, which was a bit of a nightmare, but very rewarding both for myself and the business. It gave us incredibly detailed data on what our application can handle under load, on current systems and those that are newly built. It also allowed me to build up my knowledge about this tool and create a standard template to utilise and customise for future performance tests.

I have learnt so much since starting, from building a SQL cluster with standardised SQL builds to completing the SQL documentation, pen test report and database administrators report (these blew my brain apart!). At first it was tricky, but now that i’ve done this several times over on a manual basis, I understand the process bette and know that it’s secure. By manually going through the process I could identify the parts that could be automated and slowly start to compile a PowerShell script to configure certain things for SQL, such as disks, folder structure, users, permissions etc. I then used Microsoft’s basic SQL query templates to slowly build my own SQL queries to build availability groups, listeners and database, etc. It’s still not fully automated but it has been a strong learning experience and exceptionally rewarding. 

Learning about the ins and outs of AWS has also been really rewarding. Public cloud software will only get more and more popular as higher numbers of businesses adopt cloud technologies. It’s important to seize upon these opportunities both as individuals and as businesses. 

My key takeaway point to others who have or are thinking about leaving the military and embarking on a tech career is to keep digging in. Times will get tough, and you just need to get stubborn, adapt and stoke the fire in your belly. Some days will always be harder than others. 

Finally, a huge  shoutout to everyone that has supported me in my tech career, from those at SIA, UKFast, C53, BCN and TechVets. Without your assistance in building my technical skills, I wouldn’t be where I am today. And a special thanks to those that stood by me in my darkest days I’ll never forget the kindness you shared and I’ll always pay that forward to others.

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