S’porean mum of 3, 35, starts new cybersecurity career, wins S$10,000 as class MVP during training
Neo Sihui was a graphic designer for 15 years, but decided on a mid-career switch after her husband introduced her to the training opportunity.
Have you ever had a time in your life where you felt like everything was coming together nicely for you, with life’s different puzzle pieces just falling into place, even without you having done too much to make it happen?
Neo Sihui, 35, might have been feeling a little bit like that, when we met her a few weeks ago.
And not only because of the S$10,000 MVP cash prize she had been awarded, just prior to the meeting with us.
As Neo reflected, she was at a point in her life where things had fallen into place across both her personal and professional lives.
And her S$10,000 MVP prize was significant as added affirmation on a journey that she was already moving into with confidence and momentum.
“I was very lucky along the way,” said Neo, reflecting on some of her life decisions with us at the Clarke Quay office of Red Alpha, a local cybersecurity talent development company.
In many ways, Neo might seem like an unlikely candidate for a cybersecurity training programme, given her background as a graphic designer for the past 15 years.
After all, her previous exposure to cybersecurity was limited to what she saw on TV and in movies.
“I didn't have a degree, nor background, so [a cybersecurity career] was not something that I really actually considered,” said Neo.
Fast forward to today, and Neo said — with a glimmer of delight evident in her eyes – that she rewatched Netflix drama "Mr Robot" recently, and found herself able to understand what the characters were talking about.
Deciding on a cybersecurity training programme
Being able to rewatch "Mr Robot" with fresh eyes was just one of many small, but significant milestones for Neo in the past few months since she was introduced to Red Alpha’s Alpha Specialist Training Programme (ASTP).
She was, at the time, already applying for jobs, as she was reaching the end of a different IT course that — like Red Alpha’s ASTP — also provided her with a training allowance.
But Neo saw the value in what the ASTP was offering: the 40-month programme, encompasses an intensive bootcamp, industry placement and advanced upskilling.
“There was this opportunity, so I just took it,” she said.
Embarking on a mid-career switch
As unconventional as her mid-career switch may seem, Neo reminded us that her previous design career was also unconventional, as it was “not super common” to pursue a creative career back when she was pursuing a diploma in what was then called Digital Media Design, in the 2000s.
In fact, before she discovered her current affinity for cybersecurity and a full-fledged IT career, Neo dabbled in various fields ranging from 3D animation and 3D modelling, to graphic design, web design, and even a little programming.
“I wasn’t really picky and choosy,” Neo said. After all, not having a singular passion — unlike some of her peers — meant that she was happy to move around, as long as it paid the bills.
“Some people know very early in their lives, like what they really really want to be. For me, it's like, I really didn't know.”
In this way, open-mindedness to new things has been Neo’s mindset all along, and she now sees how it was helpful in bringing her through motherhood and onward to her new career.
“If you asked me, like, five years ago, would I be here [now] doing this? I'll be like, ‘No, I'm still doing 3D modeling. I'm still doing design.’
So a lot can change.”
Rigorous selection process
And a lot can change, too, in the dynamic field of cybersecurity.
Which is why getting selected for ASTP involved going through a rigorous process that assessed applicants’ aptitude as well as existing knowledge, with greater emphasis being placed on aptitude.
For example, applicants were assessed on how quickly they could pick up an entirely new programming language — a stage that was designed to level the playing field between those who have little to no experience, and those with a coding background.
Meanwhile, technical tests helped instructors understand the technical knowledge that trainees have, so that the bootcamp’s training materials could be more tailored to their needs.
The rigorous selection process was developed by cybersecurity training company DART, the same company who is responsible for Red Alpha’s bootcamp.
This means that the selection process for Red Alpha’s training programme is similar to the ones used by government agencies and military organisations to recruit cyber professionals — an area where DART is also involved.
Getting the offer
Neo recalls the feeling when she received the email offer from Red Alpha.
“It was at night. I was quite happy. I told my husband immediately,” said Neo.
After weighing the pros and cons, she decided that the opportunity offered by Red Alpha was too good to pass up.
With that, she joined the first batch of ASTP trainees.
Neo shared that she was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly her learning progressed in the first two months of the course.
With one instructor for every six trainees, Neo and her classmates were able to get dedicated attention and guidance.
To make sure that everyone was on track in the course, the instructors would sit down with each trainee after every module, to exchange feedback and to provide individual help where required.
She took to the training eagerly, finding it to be not so much of the “super intense” experience she had anticipated, and even managed to have fun while going through the course.
“Going into this, [I thought] it was definitely not going to be easy. But for me, I felt like it was so much fun that it was not difficult.”
Neo may be uniquely suited to the field that she has landed up in, thanks to her affinity for problem-solving.
She said that while she was progressing through the different modules of the ASTP, she could see similarities between the hands-on approach required to complete her training exercises on one hand, and the way she would perform repairs on her cellphones and tablets by ordering spare parts online.
In fact, Neo quickly impressed the instructors with her potential and quickly grasped the programming language Python, under the first module of the bootcamp.
She continued to excel, doing especially well in Penetration Testing.
Her great performance and team spirit led to her being named the MVP of the second month of the bootcamp and getting the S$10,000 cash prize.
Balancing training and motherhood
But she also faced unique challenges, as a mother of three in a full-time training program.
One thing that helped was her husband’s willingness to be at home for their three school-going kids, something that his job is able to accommodate.
Between the couple, parenting has always been a shared responsibility:
“We were like, if we're going to have kids, we should dedicate more time to the kids, we're not going to be workaholics… kids were always gonna be priority.”
That said, the full-time nature of the training programme was still a change of pace from her previous work arrangement.
Before, she moved between different jobs and roles, including phases where she could work freelance between jobs, and when she needed more time with her kids at home.
How is Neo coping with the new demands on her time? “You need to like it, you need to have passion,” she said.
Passion, and knowing how to strike a balance.
Neo had to stay focused during training hours in order to complete the required exercises, so that she was still able to devote time to her family after work.
Finding her feet, staying open minded
Next up for Neo: Two more months of rigorous 9-to-6 training.
But Neo is surely finding her feet in the field, and is already looking forward to the next phase — industry attachment.
“I get to apply what I learned, which is to continue doing what I like. Which is always fun.”
She has already been able to get insights from the industry thanks to Red Alpha’s Mentorship Programme.
Neo’s mentor is a lead consultant at local cybersecurity firm INTfinity Consulting, who is available to answer Neo’s questions about her training or the wider industry, from over 20 years of personal experience in the field.
Neo shared that she has yet to make any firm decisions on which area of cybersecurity she will go into, explaining that she would want to “try a bit of everything” across different specialisations, before settling down into the rest of her career.
After all, Neo said, cybersecurity is an ever-changing field where one needs to be adaptable and willing to learn in order to avoid becoming “outdated”.
“I guess to always look on the bright side of stuff and be more open minded would be a good mantra to live by.”
Upcoming Red Alpha training programmes
If you’re interested in a cybersecurity training programme with Red Alpha, the next run of ASTP is tentatively scheduled for Jun. to Oct. 2022, and applications are already open.
New training programme: Alpha Research Training Programme (ARTP)
With growing importance for cybersecurity, there is an increasing demand for cybersecurity professionals by businesses, big and small.
Red Alpha’s stable of partner organisations have been impressed by the quality the current ASTP cohort have displayed and have shared their overwhelming interest to recruit the ASTP trainees as cybersecurity specialists. They have also expressed interest in recruiting cybersecurity R&D professionals.
Hence, Red Alpha has developed a new training programme, the Alpha Research Training Programme (ARTP).
While the ASTP is an “entry level” programme catered to fresh graduates and mid-career switchers with no IT background required, the ARTP’s bootcamp is an advanced course.
This advanced programme is for individuals with a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) background.
ARTP trainees will be trained for Cybersecurity Researcher, Cybersecurity Advanced Threats and Vulnerabilities Analyst and Cybersecurity Developer roles.
The inaugural cohort of ARTP trainees will start in Nov. 2021, and will go through an intensive bootcamp till May 2022.
Applications for the ARTP will be accepted up till Sep. 30, 2021.
After a selection process involving a Skills Assessment Test and an interview round, the final selected individuals will form the inaugural cohort of ARTP trainees and will start an intensive bootcamp from Nov. 2021.