You hear a lot about self-taught programmers. And sometimes you hear about self-taught hackers, kids with a knack for computers that turn to the dark side.
But today we bring you the story of a woman who taught herself how to catch hackers.
In one big jump, Ashley Hamilton changed careers from a line cook at a popular San Francisco eatery to a computer security guru. She didn’t know how to program. She didn’t know how to hack. But by studying books, using some free websites and entering contests, she learned.
Today, Hamilton is an application security engineer for WhiteHat Security in Santa Clara, Calif. But in 2011, she was working at San Francisco restaurant Locanda. She went to culinary school and had been cooking for her whole career.
But standing on her feet for 12 hours was wearing her down, she told Business Insider. Out of the blue, a friend of hers that worked for WhiteHat Security asked her to interview at his company.
WhiteHat protects websites from hackers. It checks them for vulnerabilities and alerts companies if hackers have slipped some evil code in.
Ashley had always liked computers so, nervously, she agreed to the interview.
“My dad was a software engineer. The day he found out my mum was pregnant, he bought me a computer,” she laughs. “But I wasn’t a kid hacker. I mostly just focused on using the computer.”
Before her interview, she was even less of a geek.”I was working so much in the kitchens, I hadn’t been using a computer much for about the last five years.”
Her plan? Study and learn. She bought some books on hacking. She also found some free websites that let you legally learn and practice website hacking skills.
On interview day, WhiteHat surprised her by asking mostly logic questions around security. They didn’t ask her to actually hack, or catch a hacker. She impressed them and “they offered me the job on the spot.”
WhiteHat actually seeks out people with aptitude, like Hamilton, and then trains them to become security pros, a spokesperson told us.
With heavy supervision and a lot more training, Hamilton became an entry-level Application Security Engineer. Her job was to verify that a website had been hacked.
Flash forward two years, and with no more formal training, Hamilton has become a top team leader in the company’s research center, where they are hired to try and break into websites and find new threats.
Hamilton didn’t tell us her salary, but computer security engineers make between $US80,000 and $US120,000, depending on location and experience, according to Glassdoor.
Here’s the tools she used to teach herself to stop hackers:
- The Web Application Hacker’s Handbook (her bible)
- Head First SQL (another favourite book)
- WebGoat, which is a site and free software that teaches web hacking.
- XSS Challenge, a contest that teaches hacking.
- Various “Capture the Flag” competitions, a popular way to learn about security, like this one put on by NYU.
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