We met with Jason Denno to discuss the University of Arizona’s online cybersecurity program, what students can expect from a career in cybersecurity, what qualifications are required for a job in cybersecurity, and more. Enjoy!
Jason Denno from the University of Arizona discusses the school’s online bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity program. After working for over 20 years in the field of cybersecurity, Denno helped to reverse engineer the university’s program so that it is tailored to actual cybersecurity jobs in the field. With 600,000 cybersecurity jobs currently available in the US alone, this field will just continue to grow. The University of Arizona offers a two-year program that trains students for exactly what they will encounter in their professions. As a result of the blended curriculum that the program offers, students are able to feel exceptionally confident in their careers. He emphasizes that students do not need any prior knowledge or qualification to succeed in their cybersecurity program because their students come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Denno explains the benefits of their program compared to other online degrees in the field. He encourages any students who enjoy solving problems and being lifelong learners to consider a career in cybersecurity.
University of Arizona’s online cybersecurity programs rank highly with our algorithm that ranks schools based on the influence of their faculty and alumni related to the field of cybersecurity:
Considering a degree in computer science? Visit Our Computer Science Page, where you’ll find the best computer science colleges and universities, career information, interviews with top computer scientists, influential scholars in the field of computer science, great books, a history of the discipline, online computer science degrees, and more.
The University of Arizona has one of the most highly-ranked online programs in cybersecurity. If you would like to check out the full list, take a look at the Best Online Bachelor’s in Cybersecurity programs.
(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Karina: Hi my name is Karina Macosko from Academic Influence, and I am here with Jason Denno from the University of Arizona and Today, we are gonna be talking about another program, which is a Bachelor’s in Cybersecurity, and so just starting off, I typically ask this, tell us how your program got started and what was the original vision for that?
Jason Denno: Great, well, actually, I came here in 2016 to start this program. So there was a need from the defense community here outside of Fort Huachuca, we are right outside of Fort Huachuca, our campus is actually in Sierra Vista, Arizona. And there was a need for cyber professionals, so they needed a program like this, so I was brought in and I reverse engineered a cyber operations program from NSA’s most technical requirements that they have. And we built the program completely online to begin with as well, and then backed it into face-to-face, so it was really need-driven by the community and the industry, but we chose to build the most technical program in the nation and deliver it completely online with an in classroom like feel, because we have those live synchronous lectures and everything that I am sure we will get into.
Karina: Yeah, and so that is so interesting that you said reverse engineer because you actually worked in the cybersecurity field for 20 plus years, so you kind of knew what they were looking for, and that kind of leads me into my second question is, how prepared do you think people are for the qualifications that they are looking for in some of the major cybersecurity employers, after they come out of your program?
Jason Denno: After they come out of our program, they are extraordinarily prepared so we actually looked at... When we built our program, doing a different paradigm, I do this talk in national conferences called solving the cyber workforce dilemma, and the problem is, is that you have got all of these issues with education being too high level and too abstract and students not being able to understand everything they have learned and apply it to a specific situation. And then on the other hand, you have got training, which is really buttonology, you are learning how to do things and you can learn really well, but if the situation changes, not the one you were trained on, they do not have enough depth to really apply it all the time to the next situation.
And the certifications are a necessary evil in this field, but they really do not... They do not teach you anything, it just proved that you could remember just enough information to pass the test at the time you took it. So what we did is we built a active hybrid learning model, so we took the best of education and the best of training, and then we added in research and simulation-based education components and critical thinking, and we merged that all together, so our students learn the high level concepts and the methodologies, but then they have to do some research and some critical thinking, then they have to practice it in a simulation, and then they have to take all of that and do the thing that we taught them in the real world on real tools against real data. So we do not let a student pass a class unless they are capable, and we do not let them graduate unless they can bring everything together and prove that they have the real knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to actually operate in the real world, so our students are career-ready when they walk out the door.
Karina: Wow, that is awesome. And focusing on that real-world application, because I am assuming your audience is coming in, they wanna be prepared for the workforce, no doubt, but they also wanna get their degree with the most... No nonsense, I would say. And I think you kind of mentioned that when you said they do not want some broad overarching thing, they want to know exactly what they need to know and be prepared for the workforce. So your program, it is online, obviously, which is number one, I would say no-nonsense, kind of deal... How would you say it compares to other programs in terms of just getting the information you need, and being extremely qualified for the workforce?
Jason Denno: Well, again, I think what we have done in our program sets us apart from everyone else out there right now, and to give you an example, we are one of NSA’s, 24 centers of academic excellence in cyber operations.
Jason Denno: Now, there is hundreds of CAE CD cyber defense and research the Rs, there is only 24 of the highly technical schools that do the offense and the defense, now we are a Bachelors of Applied Science, so I only have juniors and seniors, and it is an applied degree. So I have to do everything the other 23 schools do in four years, we have to do in two years with our students. So when you say cutting out the nonsense that is exactly what we did, we cut out every single thing the student did not need and we crammed everything else and we got 10 pounds of stuff crammed in a five pound bag, and we tell the students, it is gonna be hard, but it is totally gonna be worth it when you are done. So those ethereal classes that they might have taken somewhere else, we do not have to deal with that, we can just get all hands on all the time and make sure that the student really understands and is really capable of doing something, and that is rare for a program, and that is why I think our students are so prepared when they come out because they are used to the fast pace, they are used to actually having to do it, and a lot of our students, they leave with that I am not sure what I actually know, stage. And they walk into their first job and they go, Oh, I actually know as much, if not more than the other people here, and they are a lot more comfortable and they are extraordinarily successful.
Karina: Wow, and that must be a good feeling compared to walking in and be like, "I went to school for four years, but I have no idea how to apply this." And you talked about it being extremely worth it, which I think it is absolutely true, not even just for the students, but also like you said, for the employers, because there is such a lack of people in this field. And so talk for a second. What is your target audience for this program? Is it people who are just coming out of college? People who are coming back for a degree? Or who is it?
Jason Denno: It is everything you can think of. About 2 1/2, three semesters ago, we graduated a 16-year-old Doogie Houser. The kid got all the way through his bachelor’s degree by the time he turned 16, and he was almost getting ready to turn 17. And I have a 69-year-old in the program right now. Our average student population is somewhere between 24 and 38, so we see a lot of career changers, we see a lot of people who are trying to level up in their career, but we have had over 40 people with PhDs come to our undergraduate program. And I do not mean professors, I mean students in our undergraduate Bachelors of Applied Science program. We have seen people with master’s degrees, multiple master’s degrees and PhDs come to our program so they can get the real skills because they go to these other programs and there is a lot of great programs all over the nation, not as good as ours of course, but they go to these other programs and they get this degree, or they get this certification and they are a cyber expert. And then they get into the field and go, "Oh, I do not have the skills I need."
And we see them come back to us, a lot of our students, I do not know the exact percentage, but I would say a little less than half are students coming back to us, ’cause they are like, "Okay, I gotta know how to really do this, I gotta really be career-ready." And that is 600,000 open jobs in the US right now. I am less worried about that 980,000 that we have filled because those positions are filled by a lot of folks who are great Americans, they have gone to these great programs and so forth, but they did not really get the hands-on skills. Now, they have got this false sense of security, "Well, I am a cyber professional and I hired nine other cyber professionals and we all have our four certificates we need, so our company is cyber secure." And then they get breached and go, "What happened?" It is because they are looking at it from the paperwork standpoint or the managerial standpoint, and they do not understand the intricate detail or the technical details that they need to be able to defend a company.
Karina: Oh, that is so interesting. And so the people who are coming back to get their degree, are those people who have already gotten a PhD or a master’s from the University of Arizona or another school, in cybersecurity and then they realize that they are not prepared?
Jason Denno: Some of them. I do not think we have any that have come from the University of Arizona but we have had...
Karina: So other colleges.
Jason Denno: I know I have had students with a PhD in cybersecurity from another university. I will not mention it ’cause I do not wanna... I think they are a good university but I do not wanna pick at them. But that student came in and he was like, "Listen, I can say all the words, but there is... I cannot do any of the things, I need you to teach me how to do the things." But then I had another student come in with a PhD in Aerospace Engineering, and he came here to learn cyber so he could apply that in aerospace engineering. It is a full gamut of things. We do have high school students who get their community college, AA, and concurrently while they are in high school, and then magically show up with us at 18 years old, ready as a junior. There are a few of those and a few of the graduate-level folks that have already done it on both ends. But out of the 255-ish or so that we have graduated so far, I would say the vast majority, well over 200 of them, were their first degree that they were working for. The others were typically coming back and trying to kinda level up or change careers.
Karina: Interesting, and so, like you mentioned there are thousands of career openings in cybersecurity. And so why do you think that is? Is it just because cybersecurity is such a new career path that it has not kind of caught up to the amount of people who are getting a degree in it, or is it just because we need so many cybersecurity people?
Jason Denno: Well, believe it or not, it is a very common question I get it, ’cause usually what I get is, Hey, how long is this career gonna be hot? I do not wanna get a degree and then have all my degrees not be worth it shortly thereafter. I usually answer that question, and I am getting to answer this question with a question. And I will ask them, Do you know every process running on your phone right now? And do you know if it is legitimate or not? Can you tell me if somebody’s on your phone with you? And more importantly, and usually the younger students in our program, I will ask them a follow-up question of, If an attacker’s on your phone, but you do not know it, your battery does not die any faster, your phone does not slow down, you see no evidence of him there at all. Do you even care? And you have no idea how many people say, "Well, I guess I do not." But the problem is, is that cybersecurity is being driven by a couple of things. Number one, it is the shiny new toy. Cyber, AI, quantum, those are all the big things that you wanna be part of. But believe it or not, it is you, it is me, it is all of us. We are making it worse. Do you have a smartphone?
Jason Denno: When you go to get your next smartphone, do you want it to be slower?
Karina: No. Yes I do.
Jason Denno: You want less features. You want less features though, right?
Jason Denno: And you wanna wait an extra year or two before it comes out?
Karina: Yeah, no.
Jason Denno: Right. So you want better, faster and cheaper, right? ’cause you... And that is the consumer mindset. So the consumer is saying, "I need this better, I need it faster, and I want it cheaper." For God sakes, I want it... I do not even wanna pay for it. I want them just to give it to me with my phone plan. So the consumer is driving this market, and Apple’s thinking, "Oh, I need to get all these consumers," or Android, Samsung is saying, "No, no, no, I want those consumers." So Apple is not gonna spend an extra two years doing the security on the phone, and neither is Samsung. I am not picking on the other company. They need to rush that to market to convince you to buy it ’cause that is what you want. So they are packing it with more features. They are gonna push it out faster, and they are gonna make it cheaper, which means they are not gonna test it as much because testing costs time, money, and energy. And the features, you wanna work in the command line. You wanna write in every single command into your keyboard that you are doing, or do you just wanna click on something?
Karina: Yeah, maybe I will just click on it. [chuckle]
Jason Denno: So you are getting abstracted further and further away from the technology where it is just this thing I touch and it does what I want it to do, or I talk it to, and it does what I want to. But we are rushing it to market, and we are making it cheaper. So we are not spending the time and energy it takes to secure the device, and we are creating more and more holes because the more features you put in that do not get tested, they get rushed to market, the more chances there is a security issue. So until the consumer either becomes extremely aware of everything that is happening on the device and can manage it themselves, or we all decide we want dumb flip phones that take three years to come to market, and they are like $900 or $1900, we are making this problem worse. So cyber professionals are gonna have very, very long careers.
Karina: Yeah. So basically in conclusion, cybersecurity is not going anywhere any time soon, and it is an incredible field to get into. [chuckle]
Jason Denno: Absolutely.
Karina: Yeah, and so just finishing out this interview, I know we have pushed a lot of information onto people, especially because cybersecurity is not a very well-known field. Even though we mentioned it is a huge field, I feel like people even maybe hear about data science more or computer science, even though those kind of go hand-in-hand. The more people you have in computer science, the more people you are gonna need in cybersecurity to kind of check the two. So just finishing up, is there anything that you would wanna say to prospective students who are maybe considering cybersecurity, or even if this is one of the first times that they are hearing about this booming field and the, what did you say, 6000 job openings? What would you wanna say to those students?
Jason Denno: Six hundred thousand.
Karina: Six hundred thousand job openings...
Jason Denno: Six hundred thousand just in the US.
Karina: Just in the US. So that alone makes people’s ears perk up and they are like, "Wow, maybe I should go back and get a degree in cybersecurity." So what do you wanna say to those students?
Jason Denno: Here is what I would say to the students. If you love solving problems, you are gonna love cyber. If you wanna be a lifeline learner, you are gonna love cyber, because, A, you have to keep learning or you fall behind every day, ’cause it constantly changes. And it is always interesting because it is not just something you are doing. There is a bad guy on the other side trying to get past you. So it is this constant tension you are working with, number one. Number two, we have been an unemployment... Zero percent unemployment for almost eight years now, and there is 600,000 current open jobs in the US right now. A year and a half ago, that was 350,000. The problem is getting worse, not better, which means, if you want an amazing career that easily goes into the six figures, if you have any skills and you work in a... You do not work in a tiny little town that only has one gas station, you can easily have a six-figure job with great career satisfaction with an amazing amount of things that will keep you interested if you come in this field because cars are getting more electronics. When is the last time we said we want wooden toys? Even toys are evil now. So this career is gonna be around forever. It is exciting, and you can do it. If you take one bite at a time, you can absolutely do it even if you have no experience.
Karina: Wow. Well, thank you. Yeah, I hope this is really encouraging to people. I do not want anybody to feel like we are pushing this career or even your university, but I just am genuinely so excited about cybersecurity, and I feel like you can definitely tell my enthusiasm, especially with your program. You guys are one of the leading cybersecurity online degrees right now, and so, yeah, I am just really excited for this field, and I hope other people could kind of share in my enthusiasm. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was really interesting just hearing about your program and hearing about the realm of cybersecurity. So thank you.
Jason Denno: Well, thank you so much, and I welcome every single student. We would love to have you.