My journey into cyber security

Chelsea Jarvie is a cyber security consultant, public speaker and STEM ambassador. This article is her journey into…

Here is the very real story of my journey into cyber security.

I’ve studied and worked in the cyber security industry for almost 10 years now and I get asked a lot about how I started out and what my journey into cyber security was. I certainly don’t fit the stereotype of someone with a degree in Ethical Hacking so here’s my story of how I got started and what I do now!

So, who am I? 👩‍💻

My name is Chelsea Jarvie and I’m run a cyber security company called Neon Circle. I love working with businesses to help them understand the importance of cyber security, the risks they are carrying day-to-day and how to reduce them.

I started out by studying Ethical Hacking at Abertay University and I achieved a First-Class Honours degree in 2015. I’ve been a STEM ambassador since 2012 and love challenging the IT stereotype!

Leaving High School to pursue Pharmacy…or so I thought

In 2010 I was in 6th year of high school stressing and worn down trying to achieve two B’s in Advanced Higher Chemistry and Biology. I needed these grades to get my place on the Pharmacy degree at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen and I was determined to get in. On top of my Advanced Highers, I had to take Higher Computing as it was my only option when picking my subjects for 6th year, but I hated it. I really couldn’t have cared less if I passed or failed, my priority was Chemistry and Biology.

I finished up at school, enjoyed my summer and waited for my SQA results to tell me I was going to Aberdeen.

Results Day

The SQA letter arrived, I opened it and to my complete disbelief I had failed Chemistry and Biology. Not even a D, a FAIL. This meant I’ve hadn’t got into uni and I had no plan B. I felt like a complete failure. Everyone was going to uni and I was going nowhere.

I went over and over the results, fail and fail. Fail and fail ✖️ Then I realised, I got an A in Computing. Well thanks SQA, I didn’t need or want an A in Computing, that’s not getting me anywhere. Or so I thought! 😏

After I made it into the final stage of grief, acceptance, I called Dundee College to ask if there were any spaces I could apply for through clearing. I had no idea what I was going to do at college, but I thought if I got more Highers then maybe Robert Gordon would accept me next year. 🙏🙏

My Plan B

I was halfway through my year at Dundee College where I had decided to study Higher Psychology, Modern Studies and Philosophy (I don’t know why I chose these three 🤷‍♀️) and I was having the best time. I’d decided against Pharmacy and my Mum had talked me round into looking at careers in computing. She had always told me to consider computing, but I never listened to her! I knew I wanted to do a degree in something that would give me a clear career path at the end, not one that was vague. I also knew I found school computing incredibly boring and I couldn’t think of anything worse than doing it for the rest of my life.

But then I found Ethical Hacking at Abertay University. I wasn’t a hacker, I hadn’t hacked anything in my life, or even considered it, but I did like the idea of helping keep people’s information safe. I applied and was invited to an interview.

The Worst News

My interview was in the afternoon in Dundee and my Mum offered to drive me through. She had a hospital appointment in the morning, then we would drive to my interview and go for dinner afterwards. Mum’s hospital appointment was delayed for so long that I had to leave and go to the interview myself, but Mum would meet me afterwards. I got to Abertay and was nervously waiting for my interview which was delayed; I text my mum to see how she got on.

Mum had waited until after my interview was due to finish to tell me she hadn’t been given good news, she had breast cancer. Breast cancer, my Mum?

I don’t know how much time had passed but then I was called for my interview.

I’m not quite sure how I managed to get through it, but I answered all the questions and I asked a few prepared questions, like are there many women on the course? If so, how do women get on? Neither answer I cared about or listened to after hearing my Mum’s news. The minute my interview was done, I left and cried and cried and cried. Then tried to find out where my Mum was. 😭😭

Trying to Cope

My mum is my best friend, and at 18 I couldn’t image how on earth me and my younger brother would cope without her. We had no idea what was in store for us.

I got a conditional for Abertay, I had to get two B’s. Deja Vu. But this time, I was juggling studying with taking my Mum to hospital appointments, visiting her during operations and the heart wrenching idea that we might lose her. My Mum kept saying, don’t let this distract you, you have to get into Uni but this was distracting me, I was totally heartbroken. 💔

But I kept my head down, I studied, I took Mum to her daily radiotherapy session and prepared for my exams. August came around again, me and my Mum were awaiting the SQA envelope. It arrived and I opened it…two B’s. I’d done it. 💪 I’d got into Ethical Hacking….but I had no idea what this really meant, whether I’d enjoy it or if I’d be any good at it!

Over the summer, Mum’s operations had gone well, her radiotherapy went well, and her results were good. Things were looking up. 🙌

This is a picture of me and my Mum in New York in 2017 😊 

The start of my cyber security journey

I started my degree at Abertay in September 2011. On the first day of uni I walked in and found it hard to spot any other women. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I thought; oh this is not for me, I don’t fit in, all these guys clearly hack stuff in their spare time, I’m not going to do well here. 🤦‍♀️

I struggled through first year but came out with a distinction. In second year, I had another wobble and considered leaving the course, but my Mum told me I needed to stick it out. I had been nudged into the women in tech scene in my second year and decided to become a STEM ambassador. Once I realised this network existed, I found out about more and more opportunities. I attended BCS Women events and found out about Equate Scotland. I then applied to go to Target Jobs IT’s Not Just For The Boys conference in London and somehow managed to get a place.

This was my first experience of travelling to London by myself. It was November 2012 and I was nervous and excited and couldn’t believe I’d been chosen to go to this conference! I wanted to do an internship before my third year. That was my goal for the event, get an internship. I had plenty of copies of my CV printed out and neatly stored in my pink wallet, and I spoke to all the employers. None of them would give me a chance as their intern programme was for people in their penultimate year of uni.

I left having had a brilliant day, awestruck by London but disheartened I hadn’t achieved my goal.

A chance opportunity

Right after Christmas, I received a phone call from Prudential saying they had been passed my CV from someone at the event in London and wondered if I’d be interested in a 10-week internship in Stirling, Scotland. I couldn’t believe it! What were the chances! Of course I said yes, I was thrilled.

I carried on through my second year, with more energy now I had been given an opportunity, and I finished up with another distinction just before my internship started.

I had never been inside an office before which may sound silly but neither of my parents are industry folks. I arrived for my first day and was led to a meeting room through all these banks of desks where people were wearing headsets. I thought, this must be the call centre, I wonder where I’ll be sitting?

I had my introduction meeting and then taken to my desk, right in the middle of the call centre. As I was introduced to people, I realised… this wasn’t the call centre, this was IT but they were on conference calls nearly all day. I was shocked. I had no idea this was office life! 

I was given a few projects to carry out over the summer, homework from the team in the form of old movies I’d never seen and a real insight into the world of cyber security. The team were great, I enjoyed working with them but I was back to uni to start my third year.

The Final Push

The final two years of uni, I had set myself the challenge of getting a First-Class Honours degree. I’d gotten over the fact I stood out and I embraced it. I had been awarded distinction for first and second year, so I was just as good as everyone else in the class. 

I threw everything into studying, attending events, promoting women in tech and trying to build my network. I didn’t do much apart from study! But I did it. I got my First-Class Honours Degree in Ethical Hacking and I was bursting with pride! On top of that I also won UK Computer Science Undergraduate of the Year. 🤩

This is a picture of me and Dominic Snaith from my course, graduating in 2015. Check out his LinkedIn page, he’s an excellent security advisor.

Between 2010 and 2015 my journey into cyber security was a rollercoaster. 🎢 I started off being so sure I’d study Pharmacy to eventually graduating with a degree in Ethical Hacking. I started out at Uni unsure of myself and out of my comfort zone. Above all, I started out as a kid and graduated as…well a slightly more mature kid!

My journey into cyber security was only just starting in 2015. I left uni and went into the big bad world!

If you want to hear more from me, then please follow me on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter!

I hope you found my article interesting and if you know someone who might benefit from it then feel free to share this with them! If you are interested in getting into cyber security, then check out my tips on how to break in! Also, if you want to reach out and share your story, or you have any questions then get in touch.

Have a great day! 

Chelsea J 😍

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