28 November 2017

Anchors (Almost) A'Weigh

When I was a kid, I had a period of a few years where I dedicated myself to the pursuit of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis.  I'm not really sure what particularly drove that decision, but I went after it for a while with a 4.0 GPA and a voluntary sacrifice of my summer break to the UMKC HSSMTI program (High School Science, Math, and Technology Institute) (long gone).  Plans change, and I never got beyond the pre-candidate questionnaire.  At the time, lacking much aptitude and interest in sports, I wasn't a great candidate (the stereotypical midshipman is going to be quarterback of the football team AND valedictorian).  My GPA, with the pressure now off, let itself go a bit (insert callous jokes about GPAs after getting married).  I went the civilian route, got a degree from UMKC, and an IT career...no complaints.  But, perhaps I have some unaccounted-for Viking blood, as I still "yearned for the tang of salt breezes" and the one football game I make certain to watch every year (see aforementioned lack of interest) is Army-Navy.  Sea-faring spirit, and all. 

Fast-forward (yes, children, once upon a time video and audio was stored on magnetic tape media, and to skip ahead you pressed the Fast Forward button) a couple decades to Fall 2017.  For whatever reason, general health probably being a reasonable explanation, I decided that the extra ballast I'd been stowing all these years was not particularly required, and I changed my diet (rather drastically...don't ask me for tips, you won't like it...unless you really like celery).  I lost a lot initially, and kept it up for the next several months, eventually getting down into my targeted range the following summer.  I charted my progress because OF COURSE I DID I'M A DATA PROFESSIONAL

Now, as a parenthetical, I should point out my wife has a history of making offhand suggestions that end up driving me to sweeping changes or undertakings.  In 2012, for instance, I came home one day particularly annoyed with my job of the past 9 years, and my wife casually said I could look for a new job, which instantly dropped the scales from my eyes and set me on a rather intense quest to learn a new discipline (SQL database administration), amass certifications, and acquire a new job as a DBA.  With one interim gig in the meantime, I had the DBA job in approximately 8 months, but it was not an easy path.  Watching Brent Ozar videos every night instead of TV shows, going to PASS (Professional Association of SQL Server) meetings locally, constantly learning and reading, discovering how annoying a bad IT recruiter can be, etc.  All driven by my wife's mild suggestion that if I didn't like my job that much, I could get a new one (which was a nice way to say "quit-yer-bitchin", but she got more than she bargained for).  Last November, she did the same thing again...this time saying, hey, now that you lost so much weight, if you wanted to, maybe you could join the Navy Reserve.  Oh, foolish woman!  DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE DONE MUAHAHAHAHA

So yeah, that was the start of this journey (because I sadistically love spoiling the ending for people...I remain a civilian).  My old boss was/is an O-6 / Captain in the Reserve, so after doing some initial research, I gave him a call and we talked.  There was a program that actually was appropriate for me, the DCO (Direct Commission Officer) accession path.  An 1825 officer (Information Professional) was my targeted community, and the DCO program essentially brought in established professionals into the Reserve with a minimal two-week indoctrination (DCOIP) instead of Officer Candidate School.  The program was extremely competitive, though, so I had some work to do.  I called my local OR (officer recruiter...you get used to the acronyms-for-every-last-thing after a while) and we started getting the ball rolling in early December, as I recall.  We had missed the annual selection board that year, so I had to prepare a package for submission to the FY18 boards, which convened the following December. 

First up was the background check; this was rather impressive, the DoD now knows more about me than I do.  Very thorough.  Forms, forms, and more forms followed, and after reviewing the PRT guidelines, I started doing something I've never done before:  run when I am not forced to do so.  I mean, it doesn't even sound like me...running?  Like, for fun?  But yeah, the Navy wants me in tip-top...no, make that relatively reasonable...condition so out to the trails I went.  Shin splints almost immediately resulted as I pushed myself much further than I should have, and I purchased some running shoes and worked my way up to running (the test is a 1.5 mile run, which remained my standard).  Later in the spring, I clocked my fastest mile ever, which is not at all fast relative to anyone else who runs, at 7:47.  In high school, I was one of the kids who was elated to break under 10 minutes.  So there was definite progress there; likewise with curlups and pushups, which you have to max out in 2 minutes each.

Meanwhile, I had a lot to learn just in terms of culture.  Taking a 35 year old (yes I'm rounding down, my birthday was in July, give me a break!) civilian with no prior service and chucking him into the Navy seems fraught with problems, so I was determined to learn as much as I could.  I bought a copy of the Bluejacket's Guide, the de facto "so you've joined the Navy" text which now occupies a somewhat revered spot on my bookshelf, as well as a copy of the Naval Officer's Guide by the same publisher.  I picked up an early 80s copy of Jane's Fighting Ships from eBay, which was less practical, but was a great Christmas gift.  Naval movies went into a pretty regular rotation, and Bogart/Queeg's "Ahh but the STRAWBERRIES!" became my go-to phrase to insert as a non-sequitur in random situations.  The PBS series Carrier was a good introduction, I think, to Navy culture....the good, and the bad.  I'm trying to think of how to word this in an inoffensive way...there's certainly an "of the people" element to the military.  Maybe I still ended up being offensive.  But Seaman Jones from Hunt for Red October notwithstanding, casual topics for discussion would be unlikely to include, say, the proper pacing for Mahler's Ninth Symphony (BERNSTEIN DRUG HIS FEET!! SEE ALSO THE AUFERSTEHUNG).  Blue collar folks joined by a common Navy culture, with many great aspects and assuredly a few warts (I would have to stop using words like "assuredly" if I wanted to avoid getting shoved in my locker). 

Meanwhile I had researched some necessary things to memorize in anticipation of the "Knife and Fork School" up in Newport, RI.  I developed the ability to dramatically recite the Sailor's Creed over the introduction section of the Village People's "In the Navy"; these are the skills that really set your top-notch naval officers apart from the crowd, let me tell you.  I also now have committed to memory the Eleven General Orders of the Sentry and can...or could, it may be fading a bit now...recite any of them when requested by number.  They provide a list of basic sorts of things you should know and remedial skills...such as survival swimming, and proper military bed making.  Yeah, that one would take some work for me, I admit.  I also picked up a safety razor and basic traditional shaving supplies and "relearned" how to shave, my upper lip having not seen the light of day since the late 90s.  First time I subjected the family to the debearded version of myself, everyone fell apart in hysterics.  I can sing all THREE verses of Anchors Aweigh, at least the recently rewritten version.

But back to the more academic side...my recruiter gave me a list of professional certifications that the Navy particularly viewed as desirable.  I have plenty of database tech certifications, but what the Navy was interested in was predominantly security and risk related certifications.  Of the ones listed, the only one familiar to me at the time was Security+ from CompTIA.  I started in researching this in January, and watching training videos, taking practice tests, and reading instructional material.  A lot of it is familiar to me with a networking background, and just general exposure to security concerns working in an enterprise IT environment.  Security+ was one of the more basic certifications admittedly...I took and passed it in February. 

Because I can't let well enough alone...I then started considered taking another certification test.  The one I settled on was the ISC(2) CISSP, Certified Information Systems Security Professional.  Where Security+ gives you a good foundation, the CISSP is extremely thorough and rigorous, intended for only experienced security professionals, often higher level managers.  I technically fit the qualifications thanks to the security aspects of my job experience in database work, but admittedly, barely.  What followed was a pretty insane few months of constant study.  I read a half dozen books for preparation, several of them well over 1000 pages of small print.  Multiple video lecture series (the Cybrary series by Kelly Handerhan gets my approval) as well as audio lectures and podcasts.  There near the end, almost every waking moment had Shon Harris's lectures from 15 years ago in my ears, and I suppose, even beyond waking moments, as I'd often wake up in the middle of the night with her still talking (having failed to shut it off for the night).  I sourced practice tests from another half-dozen sources, some online, some in hard copy, some provided with the books on a CD, etc.  All told I think I did 5500 unique practice exam questions, with around 8000 total with retakes.  I've never studied for anything this hard in my life, I admit.  Some of it is less relevant to me, but some of it (particularly cryptography) was utterly fascinating and I remain an enthusiastic student of cryptography.  If anyone out there wants my tips for conquering the CISSP, I have my approach which I can gladly share, but it's not something I'd recommend as a fun and diverting way to spend a few months.

The morning prior to the scheduled exam (May 27) we were woken up at 3AM with a bat flying around in my son's room.  That was a fun diversion, but I got him outside finally, and got back to sleep, contented with my plausible excuse should I fail the exam.  The exam is, as I say, rigorous and intense at 6 hours with 250 questions, and we aren't talking "which is the correct syntax" type questions.  They are thorough, complicated, brain-bending questions that want you to pick the best answer from a selection of good ones.  I am a fast test taker generally, and finished just under two hours.  Waves of relief ensued after I received my provisional pass notification, and I was mentally spent the rest of the day, unable to choose so much as where to have lunch (250 hard decisions is enough for one day).  So I was pleased to lock that one down, and of all my certifications it is the one I am most proud of.

The more research I did, the more I was convinced that my chances would be improved with a Master's degree.  So, what to do?  Enroll, of course!  June 1st was my start date with Western Governors University with their online program for a Masters of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance.  My thinking was it would be too late for this year, but if I didn't get selected, I could possibly have it wrapped up by next year.  WGU is an interesting school...their pricing is very competitive and you are charged by fixed 6 month terms, not per credit hour.  So the faster you go, the less you pay.  Luckily for me, their Cybersecurity masters was principally framed around the 8 domains of the CISSP.  I went into the program with a very solid footing from the previous several months of study.  June was a good month and I knocked out several classes, and then July came round and I was gone for 3 weeks on a family road trip.  But upon returning, I kept at it.  As a part of the degree, I achieved two additional IT certifications, both from EC Council.  Certified Ethical Hacker is interesting but a little lightweight, focusing more on tool syntax than deeper principles, and Certified Hacking Forensics Investigator was fine, but dated and very much not in line with anything I'll be doing professionally, so I'll probably let that certification expire.  Short story, I finished this degree and graduated on November 7th, finishing well within the single term, so with corporate tuition reimbursement my company offers, there's very little I'll have to pay for this degree. 

During this time I was working on laying the groundwork for my package to submit to the board.  Getting interviews scheduled with reserve officers in my community was essential, as well as getting through the MEPS medical, and collecting letters of reference.  I had to pick up a new suit, because my old suit was huge on me when I was...likewise huge...and after the weight loss, was completely ludicrous, I mean, circus-fat clown suit how-did-this-ever-look-reasonable-on-me.  I probably needed one anyway!  A handful of folks I worked with were kind enough to furnish DoD forms and references, and then it just became a matter of me emailing my recruiter EVERY WEEK trying to get him to get my visit to MEPS for a medical scheduled.  Finally he got word back from the bureaucratic Vogons that run that joint that they didn't want to proceed because I, in a fit of full disclosure/honesty, had put childhood asthma down on a form of my medical history.  I had experienced no adult symptoms.  But they were willing to reconsider if I, at my own expense, had a pulmonary function test done showing I didn't have asthma.  I finally got my doctor to order the test, and a few weeks later I had the results as well as my doctor's letter saying his opinion was that I no longer had asthma.  Start the bureaucratic clock over again, we can't do anything quickly...  I eventually heard back from my recruiter, they had DQ'ed me because something in the pulmonary test showed an anomaly, or some number was outside of preferred ranges.  BUT they would reconsider if I had ANOTHER test done at my expense, wherein they pump you full of poisonous gas (methacholine) (it probably isn't poisonous, I'm only kidding) (I think?!) and see how your lungs react.  Back to the iron lung after weeks of back and forth trying to get it scheduled.  At this point, the writing on the wall was becoming more and more legible to me...even if I got through the asthma thing, I started realizing my high myopia may be disqualifying as well.  So perhaps it was merciful that on the 4th round of methacholine, I noted my numbers drop in realtime, and realized, dammit, maybe I do still have some asthma.  Que sera, sera.

I submitted the test results, thanked my recruiter profusely (at times I would get frustrated by the lack of response, but I know he is just a cog in the machine of bureaucratic stupidity and is a victim of the same just like everyone else), and then resolved to lick my wounds with a variety of new goals (climb a 14k foot mountain?  maybe next year).  My old boss (the O-6) told me what I already knew (I think his exact words, in how you deal with Navy medical, is "LIE LIE LIE!") and it's a shame I won't be able to work for him in the future as an Ensign, but it was good to reconnect with him after several years regardless.

So if I look back on the last year, I have:
- Lost 50-60lbs of weight that I no longer required, and not managed to find it again
- Learned how to run, and actually started to enjoy it a bit
- Achieved four information security certifications, including the CISSP
- Started and finished a Masters degree program

All of the above (possibly excluding the first one which I was already working on) I would not have even considered doing but for the Navy, so at this point, I have those benefits without the costs, which were considerable.  Aside from the soul-crushing drudgery of drill weekends where I would probably be watching boring training or sexual harassment awareness videos for 8 hours at a time (or worse, making sure a bunch of enlisteds in my charge are doing likewise), the new training regimen for IP Reserve officers was considerable.  Besides the initial 2 week DCOIP, there is several more weeks of training in the following year, and the new IP Basic course in Dam Neck Virginia has to be completed by the third year after being commissioned, and it is a 20 week course, same as the active duty IP officers.  So, trading DBA pay for O-1 ensign pay is a considerable financial cost, but more importantly, being away from my family for 5 months was something Debra and I had to accept.  It would be the same, of course, if I was called up for a deployment, except probably longer and worse (my boss was deployed to the Horn of Africa, not exactly Honolulu in terms of deployment location desirability).  So we accepted the cost and carried on...you take the oath when commissioning, which I was prepared and waiting to do, you understand what's involved.  But now, that's no longer a cost we have to pay, and all my weekends are my own, which I can't complain about.

So that's a good summation of my past year.  It's probably a merciful circumstance for my ego that the disqualification was outside of my control, and I don't enter into a cycle of several years getting a package together and receiving a non-select notification year after year.  Given my recruiter's advice that other branches may have different standards for medical, I briefly looked into the Air Force Reserve, the Coast Guard Reserve, and very very briefly, the Army Reserve, but admittedly, my heart wasn't there (said heart beats Blue and Gold!) and they ended up not having a program that matched up, or DQ'ing me for age or having dependents.  I got through my Bargaining phase of Kuebler-Ross and finally landed in Acceptance.  And with a couple months gone by, I can look back fondly (and with a bit of humor) at the whole adventure. 

Next up, I'm learning Hawaiian steel guitar, after intending to do so for many years.  So maybe someday I'll end up at Pearl Harbor and visit the USS Missouri and Arizona, albeit as a civilian!

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