Lessons From Time In The Industry

I recently had the opportunity to give a presentation to the class taught by a good friend of mine.  She’d asked me well in advance, and over the weeks leading up to the presentation, I went back and forth on the subject matter…what would I talk about to a group of folks just coming into the industry?  I ultimately gave a presentation on Registry analysis, but I had compiled some notes on various other topics, including one of which I’d titled, “Lessons Learned In The Industry”.  By the time we got to the presentation, I had more than a few pages of notes, with edit marks, sticky notes, and I’d even written up a couple of Word documents that were now sitting on my desktop.

Instead of crumbling the notes up and deleting the Word docs, I thought it might be a good idea to get the notes written out into some semblance of a presentation, and blog post was as good a place to start as any.  Also, this gives me the opportunity to put something down in writing and edit it, hopefully making it into something that makes a bit of sense before publishing it.

A little bit about myself to provide some context; I started in “information security” about 30 years ago.  If I had to tie my time in the field back to a single point in time, my first real introduction to ‘security’ came in my initial military training.  This training didn’t involve computers, but had to do with information security overall.  A lot of the training involved terrorism awareness (i.e., unusually heavy or dense packages, misspelled names or addresses, stains on packages, etc.), cryptographic equipment, communications security, authentication, etc.  All of this maps directly to the ‘cyber’ realm today, except for perhaps the issue of misspellings.  As a community, we’ve gotten to a point where misspellings and issues with grammar are accepted as the norm.

Getting Started
We all start someplace.  I started down the road of computer-based information security while I was in graduate school.  As I’ve mentioned before, I was in grad school at a very interesting time for the computer industry.  Not only was I attending school on the outskirts of Silicon Valley, but new versions of operating systems were coming out (Windows 95, Windows NT, OS/2 Warp, etc.), and some network security tools (SATAN) were just being developed and released.  After finishing my degree program, I took a class in Java programming out of SJSU, in which the professor spent a lot of time talking about “shippable places”.  This is all to say that there was a lot going on in the industry at the time, and a lot of different paths one could follow.

All in all, these were very interesting times, and I was in an very interesting place.  Things were no more or less interesting than they are now, just different.  I was transitioning from military to civilian life, and needed to find “my place”, and like many who are just coming into the industry, there was a LOT out there!  So much so, it could be very overwhelming.  All of this is to simply say, I get it. Been there. My recommendation to you, if you’re new to the field, is to not overwhelm yourself.  Being overwhelmed is self-inflicted; don’t do that to yourself.  Yes, there is a lot to learn, but you don’t have to know all of it now.  And you’re never going to know all of it.  No one does.

Pick an area of interest, and learn about it.  At the very least, you may decide, “meh, this isn’t for me.” And you know what?  That’s great.  That’s okay. That’s freakin’ awesome!  Don’t do something you don’t enjoy.  That’s the great thing about this industry - there are so many things out there, like hard, technical skills, soft skills, etc., that there’s something for everyone. You can be the best technical writer, the best policy analyst, or the best malware reverse engineer you can be.  You can be a great pen tester, or you can opt for the ‘blue’ side, in DFIR.  Within each of those broad areas, you can further specialize.  But the point is, don’t try to boil the ocean.

Be a good generalist, but also specialize in something.  Become good at something.  Then become good at something else.  But also understand, you don’t have to be great at everything.  Understand that, deep in your bones.  Know it.  Because you’re going to run into “gatekeepers” in this field (just as you will in any other field) who are going to tell you that in order to be a success, you have to model yourself after them.  Not true.  In fact, some of those folks who demand that you be great at everything have some pretty major holes in their own armor.

One of the things I’ve done is look to an area that doesn’t already have a great deal of attention.  For example, when I was a kid, I played soccer. At the time, everyone wanted to be a forward…forwards scored goals and got all the glory.  No one wanted to be a defender, a fullback, the last line of defense before the goal keeper.  But instead of competing for a forward slot, I ended up getting pretty good at being a defender. Jump forward 20-odd years, and I was working in a shop with half a dozen folks who all swore that Linux was the only true operating system in existence, and no one was taking a good hard look at Windows from the perspective of performing vulnerability assessments.  And yet, all of our customers had infrastructures that consisted of mostly Windows systems.  So, I started digging into Windows systems, with the goal of understanding how to not only determine the point-in-time state of the system, but also how to look across all systems and determine the state of processes and procedures for that environment.  Along the way, I ran across this fascinating thing called the “Registry”, and the more I dug into it, the more I learned that I didn’t know.  Further, the more I dug into the Registry, the more I learned that few, if any, other analysts were really interested in the Registry.  In those early days, when I would take a break from learning about the Registry and talk to others, I’d learn that most acknowledged that it existed, and some even knew something about it.

Just because I’ve written two books on the Windows Registry doesn’t make me an “expert”. Nor has it led to me being sought out, nor recruited, as an expert.  But you know what?  I enjoy digging into the Registry, seeing what’s there, and then looking to see how user and adversary behaviors are reflected in the Registry.

A great way to see how far you’ve come in a learning something is to put together a presentation, and teach what you know to others.  This can be as simply as a “lunch-and-learn” brown bag training session for your team, even done remotely.  This can really help you put your thoughts in order, and as you’re developing the presentation, maybe even see gaps in your knowledge and understanding.  Start with what academics call a “literature search”…see what else is already out there.  If you don’t have something ground-breaking or earth-shattering, don’t worry about it…we all don’t know everything, and it’s more than likely that most of what you’re going to present is going to be beneficial to others, anyway.

Speaking of presenting, Brett Shavers recently published a really good article covering the three most common fears folks encounter when speaking in DFIR.  Not only does my own experience show that Brett’s right, but by putting a name to the fears, we call them out of the shadows and into the light where we can address and overcome them.

The Most Important Thing
The most important thing in the industry is you.  Self-care is critically important in this industry.  There will be a good deal of stress placed on you; some, or most of it may be self-inflicted.  You need to ensure that your physical, emotional/mental, and spiritual needs are met.

As an incident responder and consultant, there were times when I was flying out to some remote location. I didn’t always have control of when that would occur; many times, a customer would call for immediate response on the West Coast after I’d already put in a full day’s work.  This meant that I would get rest as I needed it, stay hydrated, eat healthy (something you can’t always do on the road), and be sure to take vitamin supplements, as needed.  To this day, I like to keep Airborne on hand, and will be more focused on taking it when I know I’m traveling.

From an emotional perspective, put the time in to learn about and understand yourself.  Understand what works for you and what doesn’t.

I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test a lot over the years.  It started when I was on active duty, and the whole time I’ve been a very strong ISTJ, and I haven’t really deviated from that over the years.  What does that mean?  Well, as an “introvert”, I recognize how engaging with crowds or large groups of people affect me.  I can go to a conference, engage and participate, but at some point, I’m going to need some “me time”.  This can be as simple as getting away for a few minutes, taking a nap, or getting some exercise.  I know that when I do this, I can return refreshed and ready to engage again, rather than be exhausted, sullen, and moody.  People recognize when everything about your body languages says, “I just want to get out of here”.  When I’ve been to multi-day user conferences, try to plan for down time, so I can recharge.

A great book to read, for anyone, is Chapman’s The Five Love Languages.  Reading this book and thoughtfully applying the content to ourselves is a great way to begin, or continue, developing self-awareness.  This book applies to relationships, and not just relationships with a spouse or better half, but any relationship.  You can apply what you learn from this book to your kids, family members, friends, and it will even apply when you’re doing incident response.  For example, different customers will respond in different ways; some will get a sense of your credibility because they see you doing things, but others may react better to direct, concise verbal reports, or to you just spending the time to listen to them.

Further develop self-awareness by studying emotional intelligence.  Understand your “triggers”, learn to recognize those internal forces that cause you to react or feel a certain way, and do this before responding.  Develop an understanding of why you react the way you do, before you respond.  If someone says something to you, verbally, via email or Twitter, etc., what is it that causes you to react the way you do?  Is your reaction negative or positive?  Remember, not everyone has the same perspective you do, and someone who’s responding to you, especially online, is going to be in a place that you can’t see and may not understand.  So, look at your reactions before responding.

Develop A Network
No one of us knows everything.  I know, I know…that’s not easy to hear.  It’s easy for us to sit back and assume that someone else knows everything, and then use that as an excuse to not engage with them.  This means that we miss an opportunity to develop our network.  The reason for this is that there is no one person that knows everything or has seen everything in this industry, and sometimes, just seeing a different perspective, even seeing the same thing but from a different point of view, can be very enlightening.

Developing a network goes far beyond clicking “Like”, or “RT”. Or even beyond clicking both “Like” and “RT”.  It goes well beyond just sending someone a connection request, and then doing absolutely nothing beyond that.  Developing a meaningful network requires effort, not only in reaching out to others, but also responding when others reach out.

Stories abound of people not getting jobs through the traditional application submission process, but finding a great job via their network.  This happens because those people put in the effort to build their network.  They reached out to others, and responded when others reached out.

When you are engaged in developing a meaningful network, whether online or in-person/IRL, there are some of things you can do to make things work for you.

First, Be Present.  Nothing says you’re simply not interested in the other person more than being distracted and somewhere else mentally. If you’re going to attend a social function, a conference presentation or a meeting, and if you absolutely cannot be away from your phone and your email, don’t go.  Reschedule.  Send someone else.

What does not being present look like?  Someone goes to a conference, one for which all of the speakers had to send in their slide decks for inclusion on the conference DVD or at the conference web site.  I’ve been to conferences where the schedule and all of the presentations were available on a smartphone app, so any attendee could access them at any time, and didn’t have to be sure to download them prior to the conference.  Then at the beginning of the presentation, the speaker states, “…these slides are available on the conference …”.  However, by the end of the presentation, someone still asks if and where the slides will be available.

USMC Gen. John Allen has been in the news recently, and I associated with him back when he was a Major, and we were both stationed at The Basic School (he commanded the Infantry Officers Course).  One of the things he’d have his instructors do is ask leading questions before a class, and if the student officers were not “present”, they would reschedule the class for a less convenient time.

Being Present leads to Ask Good Questions.  If you’re read a blog post, an article, or just attended a conference presentation or webinar, be sure to ask questions relevant to the topic.  If someone puts forth the effort to develop a conference presentation or article about something they did, maybe it’s best to leave the “…did you also do these other things…” questions for another time, or medium.  Don’t subvert or abscond with the context, using it as an opportunity for your own agenda.  If you have a question about something ancillary to the topic, be sure to ask, but do so in a manner and at a time when doing so doesn’t derail the conversation.

Learn to Communicate, in both written and verbal form.  None of us are born with the innate ability to clearly and concisely communicate, it’s something we learn over time, through experience and with feedback.  I have had experience writing, in various forms (reports, performance reviews, etc.), throughout my career, and I still had to work through understanding my boss’s preferred writing style…what they preferred to see with respect to format and content in reports…at various jobs.  Very few of us are just inherently good communicators, and most of us need to work at it.  A little bit of effort in this area will go a long way.

Think about it.  Say you’re a DFIR analyst or technical threat hunter.  Now, you have to clearly and concisely communicate your findings and their impact to a customer, someone who’s not as technical as you are, and someone who has a different perspective and an entirely different set of concerns than you.  This is also someone who’s looking to you, as the ‘expert’, to communicate with them in a means that they can understand.  This means that you can’t communicate to them as you would your peers.

Seek Feedback.  I found this to be highly effective when working high-stress IR engagements (I know what you’re thinking, “…aren’t they all??”).  By finding the appropriate time to ask my point of contact, “how’re we doing?” or “how’re things going at this point?”, I’d get valuable information about their expectations and perspective.  From that feedback, I could then compartmentalize those things that I needed to address immediately, and those things I needed push up to my manager immediately.

This isn’t limited to customers.  As an analyst, seek feedback from your peers and your manager, and if you’re a manager, seek feedback from your subordinates.  Create a culture where it’s easy to do this, without fear that it will be “used against” someone, but will instead be used to make everyone better analysts, better teammates, and stronger peers.

When it comes to your network, and making it stronger, Stop Assuming. What is one of the assumptions I hear from people?  “I assumed you were too busy to answer my email.”  Nothing is further from the truth.  I know that some people where “busy” like a badge of honor, so I get it.  But that’s not me.  Yes, I have reached out to people, via what I thought was their preferred medium (i.e., email, Twitter, etc.) and not received so much as an acknowledgement.  But so what?  I have no idea what’s going on in their life.  The simple fact is that I’ve always tried to respond in a timely manner, even if it’s just a “hey, I got your email and I’ll take the time here soon to give it the attention it deserves”.  Don’t let the assumption that “…they’re too busy…” be your self-inflicted excuse for not asking someone a question.

There are other assumptions I hear, but the point is, you can assume something and limit yourself through a self-imposed obstacle, or you can just ask.

The last thing is to keep the “3 Foot World” principle in mind.  You can only directly affect those things within three feet of you, within arm’s reach.  I got this principle from reading a first-person account by a member of SEAL Team 6, as he was recounting going through specialized training in rock climbing.  The thing is, it applies to life equally well.  We have to understand that the only thing that we can control is ourselves…how we respond to things…and the only things that we can directly impact are those things within our 3 Foot World.

What does this mean?  Well, when I was doing incident response on a regular basis, I realized early on that these events are stressful for everyone involved.  However, I cannot control when an adversary is going to suddenly become visible to a customer, and I cannot control how the customer is going to respond.  However, what I could control was my own “3 Foot World”, and I did that by developing a process to be prepared for those calls for immediate response that invariably came in at 10:45pm on a Friday.

Before GPS was readily available, I’d get the address of where I was going in relation to the closest airport, and print out 3 different levels or “views”, to have with me.  That way, I knew how to get where I was going once I was on the ground.  Once GPS devices got to a point where they were affordable, one of those went into my carry-on bag.  Copies of all imaging documentation, along with any other important templates, went into both my carry-on bag and my checked Pelican case.  I had a hard copy of all important phone numbers (my boss, the customer, etc.), in case all I was left with was a credit card, or just a quarter, to make a phone call (i.e., “my cell phone died” was no excuse).

Everything that went into my carry-on bag went into the same place.  The same was true for my Pelican case…everything went into the same place, and got repacked in the same place when the engagement was complete.  Tableau imagers, laptops, cables, documentation…everything went into the same place.  Also, when there was time, priority was placed on ensuring that software was updated between engagements.  Did I have the latest copies of commercial tools, were my processes up-to-date?

The purpose of all of this was to provide the best service I could to a customer, given that I’m going to be engaging with them during a really stressful time, very likely when they were exhausted, as well as when emotions were running high.  Showing up on-time and prepared may seem like a little thing, but when you’re meeting with someone for the first time and they’ve been pulling 20+ hr days for 10 consecutive days, and the first thing out of your mouth is, “Sorry I’m late…” or “…I forgot this very important item that I need to do my job…”…needless to say, that does not make for a good first impression.

Recognize the “3 Foot World” principle, and apply it.

Article Link: https://windowsir.blogspot.com/2019/05/lessons-from-time-in-industry.html