Joann Gerena and Jaidie Vargas are members of the Women in CyberSecurity (WiCyS) organization and cybersecurity professionals at Lockheed Martin. Their stories are similar but uniquely different – both starting their post-high school journeys by sampling college and joining the United States military. Each served in different branches, the US Air Force and the US Navy.
In the following interview, Jaidie and Joann candidly discuss their journey to cyber – from military benefits to WiCyS resources to knowledge and connections acquired at Lockheed Martin.
Question: What was your plan after high school?
In high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or be. I always dreamt of going to college or joining the military but didn’t know how I would do either. I knew I wanted to do something of value and something that mattered. During my senior year of high school, many of my friends joined the military. When I tried, my parents didn’t agree with me and since I was underage, I couldn’t join. Instead, I enrolled at the local community college. Shortly after my graduation, 9/11 occurred. My friends from high school who joined before me were all now deployed. Something stirred inside me – and it didn’t take long after the initial shock and fear of those times that I made the choice to join myself. I didn’t consider jobs or benefits, I walked into the recruiter’s office and said, “I want to serve.”
I always had dreams and aspirations of what would be “cool” to do after high school. My teachers and parents always said I had to go to college because college equates to success, so I knew I somehow had to fit college into my future. My parents did not have an easy journey; they immigrated from Mexico before I was born. They constantly reminded me to take advantage of the educational opportunities in the U.S. because those opportunities were scarce elsewhere. The idea of failure and disappointing my parents was petrifying! So, I decided to pursue psychology, and I initially thought I wanted to be a forensic psychologist; but the goal felt so unreachable. I ended up attending city college before deciding that forensic psychology wasn’t the right career for me.
Question: How did you end up on the cyber path?
Most of my service was as a logistician – a planner and coordinator of worst-case scenarios, disaster recovery efforts, and contingency planning. I didn’t know it then, but that role helped prepare me for a career in cybersecurity – by problem-solving, identifying potential issues, and building projects from bare minimum essentials. While going to school for security management, I avoided anything that involved technology. I always believed that I was not technical enough to be in anything that was IT-centric. During a course on computer crimes, I came across cases of early computer crimes that did not involve computers but very clever social engineering tactics and payphones. This is when I realized it takes more than just a person who understands computers to be in cyber. It also takes a person who understands other people and the threat they pose. For the first time, I started looking at myself as potentially embarking on the path to cybersecurity.
I quickly realized post-high school that I didn’t want to stay in college, go to a trade school, or end up with a family at a young age. I didn’t know what the future held for me, but I knew that I wanted to get out of my home city to explore the world, so I enlisted in the Navy. Once enlisted, I was provided with the choice of waiting a few extra months to pick up a combat nurse (hospital corpsman) role or to go with an information technology (IT) profession. The IT role would allow me to leave much sooner to boot camp. I went with IT and fell in love with the industry. I enjoy everything about cyber. It has been one of the best decisions I’ve made, and I am passionate about bringing others up and along the path to cyber!
Question: What were a few resources that helped you set yourself on the cyber path?
First and foremost, it is important to be open about your dreams and aspirations, not only to yourself but your leaders. Sometimes others see the potential we don’t see ourselves. I have been my biggest critic and doubted myself until a leader challenged me to try something new. It was then that I realized I might just have what it takes. The resources I was able to leverage because of my military service were instrumental to switching gears and career paths. The military educational benefits paid for my college degrees, certification training, and certification exams. Although I did not have an IT job in the Air Force, many of the skills I did acquire throughout my military career applied as college credits toward my degree in security management and helped me obtain a security job with Lockheed Martin. I tried to use all resources available to me as I entered the cybersecurity field. In addition to videos on YouTube and courses on the Federal Virtual Training Environment (FedVTE), I also looked for organizations like WiCyS, Onward 2 Opportunity (O2O), and FRSecure for training material, guidance, mentorship, and coaching.
I had a lot of great mentors in the Navy that pushed me to pursue roles that would help advance my knowledge and allow me to pursue higher education. Now, there are even more resources available to active-duty military, veterans, and military spouses who want to pursue a role in the tech industry. In the Navy, there are programs like NavyCool that provide free vouchers for IT certifications. An excellent tuition assistance program also paid for more than half of my cyber bachelor’s degree. There are so many resources one can gather through LinkedIn or a simple Google search in the social media age. These include FedVTE, Skillsoft, Udemy, Cybrary, CyberBrain, and companies like Microsoft and AWS offering free military training.
Question: How did the military help with the transition?
My experience in the military mostly related to project management, responding to worst-case scenarios, and problem-solving under stressful circumstances. I felt those skills prepared me for just about anything. Whether in a technical or administrative job, everyone on a team has to do their part to achieve the ultimate business goal, they just need to figure out how to do it together. The military trained me to be a leader as well as a follower, the important part is distinguishing when to be one or the other. Joining Lockheed Martin after separating from the Air Force eased the transition for me. Sharing the same core values and working alongside other prior service team members. Being a part of Lockheed Martin found the use of my skills and helped me continue my service to the warfighter as a cybersecurity professional.
The DOD has a program called SkillBridge, where service members can participate in internship programs with industry partners, such as Lockheed Martin and many other organizations. At the time, I wasn’t aware of this program, but I was able to take advantage of a few additional transitioning courses that helped with some of the transitioning processes. As a transitioning service member, I had to become my own advocate and seek the opportunities and resources I needed, which prepared me for life on my “own,” post-military. When it came to applying for roles, I knew that I wanted to continue working with cyber, so I found positions that matched my experience and applied to everything!
Question: How did Lockheed Martin help the transition or growth?
I did not start my career at Lockheed Martin in cybersecurity. It took my management to see the potential in me and encourage me to explore beyond my comfort zone. I have had some amazing mentors within Lockheed Martin who have challenged me by providing me with new opportunities as my skills and abilities grew. Little by little, my curiosity within cybersecurity grew and so did my desire to learn more. I wanted to be in a role where the challenges, learning opportunities, and growth potential don’t seem to slow down. Cybersecurity is growing so fast I can’t specifically name a position where I would like to be. I find myself preparing for a job that might not exist today but will in the future. What I have learned is I have to be the one to remove my own doubts and my own limitations. I now enjoy encouraging those who are just as intimidated by the field as I was and sharing my story with them.
Lockheed Martin is the second company I have worked for since I transitioned from the military. Within Lockheed Martin, I was able to immerse myself in the world of cyber. Lockheed Martin also allowed me to complete my bachelor’s degree while working full-time. In addition, I was also able to earn the ISACA® Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification which was paid for through their tuition assistance program. Lockheed Martin has so many programs and resources to take advantage of! There are leadership development programs and fellowship programs for those pursuing a technical route. I appreciate the resources available to me and the network of mentors I have built here. Lockheed Martin also hosts several sciences, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) outreach opportunities that I have participated in virtually and in person (pre-Covid). Lockheed Martin also offers a few internships for a diverse crowd, from students to transitioning military cohorts. In addition to all the opportunities above, Lockheed Martin hosts Cyberquest, DevSecOps Conference, and capture the flag (CTF) – all opportunities to have fun while furthering knowledge.
Question: How has WiCyS helped with the transition or growth?
I joined WiCyS as soon as I passed the CompTIA® Security+ exam. A coworker recommended the organization and as soon as I joined, I was impressed. I was excited to see a central location for women in cybersecurity to network and share their stories – WiCyS encompasses women from all walks of life and professional backgrounds. It gave me an outlet to explore opportunities like Capture the Flag (CTF) events, conferences, webinars, and mentors. WiCyS has given me the confidence to believe in myself and strives for growth as I grow my knowledge, skills, and abilities. I used that confidence to take the ISACA® Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) exam and, I passed! When you surround yourself with positive, accomplished, and professional individuals, the possibilities are endless.
I joined WiCyS while in the military because I was looking for an organization that could provide me with resources. It was tough to find other female mentors with whom I could relate because of the lack of women in the military. Furthermore, when you narrow it down to the tech fields, the percentage of women’s participation declines. I needed a community of women in cyber that I could look up to, which I found with WiCyS. The WiCyS community provides mentorship, conferences, panel discussions, and some of the most unique professional development events with leading industry professionals from all career levels. My mission is to increase diversity in the industry, and I love that I’m able to give back to my community through WiCyS and Lockheed Martin.
Cybersecurity engineers at Lockheed Martin play a critical role in protecting our nations’ most important programs, systems, and infrastructure. They develop and implement secure architecture designs, ensuring cyber resiliency is built into every solution and driving secure operations. Click the links below for more information about cyber career opportunities at Lockheed Martin.