It was my junior year of high school and I had no plans on what I wanted to do after school, either for work or college. One day I had a meeting with the school counselor, some teachers, and my mom to figure it out. I don’t recall much from the meeting but the counselor asked me, “What do you want to do after school?” I told them I wanted to work with computers. I recall the counselor was very quick to answer, “You have to be good at math to work with computers, and based on your grades you struggle in that area.” I remember feeling disappointed but not overly discouraged. I don’t remember leaving that meeting with any more of a vision of my future than I came in with. This meeting wasn’t for all junior year students, this meeting was because I was diagnosed with having learning disabilities back in third grade and often needed more help.
I recently tried to get a list of all my learning disabilities that I have but found that often they are generalized and just fall under the umbrella of ‘learning disability’. What I believe is one of the more common disabilities that I have is dyslexia. This is switching up letters like b’s and d’s, but sometimes it can be more – sometimes it can be whole words missing or words are added. Writing has always been a struggle, I don’t know if there’s a term for it. My mom would always say my mind works faster than I can write so I might miss a word or two while writing out a sentence. Of course spelling and grammar has always been my archnemesis; to this very day I just don’t get it sometimes. Reading comprehension was never easy for me. I believe I spent so much of my effort on trying to figure out how to say words that I would simply forget what the sentence was even about. For most of my academic career I had tests read to me, I knew the material, but I fought with words on the paper more. I also had trouble with speech; I know I was a late bloomer speaking. My parents struggled to understand me for a long time. Kids my age 4-5 were doing full coherent sentences, but I still struggled with saying a few words. I went for speech therapy and things got better but even in 4th grade I had to go back for therapy just because of my struggles.
The list could go on and on. I know there’s a whole spectrum of disabilities and some might have more or less struggles than myself, but it was enough to need assistance throughout my school career. So now you might see why I was told computers as a profession might not be my thing in that high school meeting. I’m happy to say that not only did I get a job in computers but I’ve been in the field over 15 years, with more than 5 years directly in security. So, having learning disabilities doesn’t mean you can’t get into the tech field or even security field.
So how do I overcome some of my challenges? Well, I can’t say you ever overcome a disability nor will ever, it’s just how things are. I believe getting to know your strengths and weaknesses will help you a lot when you face a problem or even picking a career.
One of the first I will talk about is reading comprehension. Like I said, this is something I still face today. I could read a whole article several times over and it just won’t compute. This is frustrating because I might interpret a sentence or paragraph one way, but it really means something different altogether. I do try to read to improve this skill, but I’ve embraced audio and video more whenever I can, especially for learning. When it comes to books that I want to read, audio books are my thing. Not only do I understand the material better, but I can often get through a book much faster. I believe I’ve trained myself that 2x is just my normal playback speed. This isn’t just with audio but I often find myself watching videos at 2x. I can read about a vulnerability all I want, but when I watch a video of it in action it just clicks with me. Even better, I can go back to that article about that vulnerability and I understand it even more. Certifications have also been a struggle. Certifications you would find from ISC2, CompTIA and SANS are all reading comprehension and knowledge about security. It wasn’t until later in my career I pivoted to platforms that have hands-on exams like eLearnSecurity and Securityblue.team. In some ways these hands-on exams became something I would look forward to, unlike dreading a standard test.
Dyslexia, like I said, is probably one of the more familiar learning disabilities. Unfortunately, this issue isn’t just mixing up letters, but numbers, too. So as an analyst this can be a struggle. I often say dyslexia isn’t a mixing of numbers and letters but seeing what I want to see. For example, if you’re looking at the process list in a Windows box, you might see explorer.exe and exploreer.exe. In my head, these processes can look identical at times. This disability could be a real hindrance for an analyst investigation, but knowing this I find myself scanning data over and over again. I might find nothing the first or second time, but I’m constantly second-guessing what I see. I know it’s a weakness so I know it’s just something I have to do. What’s interesting is sometimes I find stuff other analysts don’t because I’m questioning myself all the time to see if the data make sense. This questioning of myself often helps me dig deeper.
Now to writing. What is an analyst if not able to convey their ideas and thoughts in a report or ticket? Well, first I accept I’m not the best writer, but I do try to improve. Just like my reading comprehension, I try to write when I can and that is one of the main reasons for this blog. When it comes to writing this blog, luckily I have an amazing wife to do some editorial work on it for me. She goes through the posts to leave comments and help with any grammar/spelling issues. It helps me tremendously. Though not everybody can have somebody look through every word you write, there are free resources like Grammarly. Will it find all your mistakes? Absolutely not, but it’s a tool and it’s ok to use. Now, I am apprehensive about using Grammarly for notes in a ticket or incident document because of the sensitivity of the material, but using it in other places will give you feedback and identify common mistakes you might make. Over time you’ll be able to identify common mistakes and change these habits. Another trick I like to do is write a document and come back to it later and re-read it. It helps me find my mistakes sometimes. It’s not the best solution because my dyslexia might prohibit me from finding mistakes, but I try.
By finding my strengths and weaknesses I’ve pivoted in the tech world to find what I enjoy and my disabilities weren’t a huge hindrance to my work. For a while I tried programming and I’m not saying people with disabilities can’t program; I’m saying for me, programming exacerbated my disabilities so much that it felt impossible to improve on, so I moved in another direction. Even though programming would help me in my current security position, I’m ok with just modifying others’ code and I just know programming will never be my strong suit, but I can contribute in other ways.
If you face any of these challenges, it’s important to try to identify them, but be willing to look for help with things you struggle with. My disabilities will always be there for me. I could read all the books in the world, write ten thousand words a day, but my struggles that I face will be there. So, this isn’t a story to show my high school counselor that I can do anything I set my mind to. It’s a story to show how sometimes you need to adapt instead of powering through a problem.
Editor: Emily Domedion