I am happy to provide input, because the “DFIR Rock Star” conversation is one that I always find interesting. I guess I could probably be considered an ‘incidental’ digital forensics rock star… one who stumbled into some semblance of fame without intending it, but also one who doesn’t mind the spotlight because of what it means for the work I do, and also because I might at some point influence some other bright and driven people into this great field.
You’re right. Geek will only get you so far. There are a few other things that really, really help. Here are a dozen of my best secrets to success:
- Passion. You’ve got to LOVE what you’re doing to the point of near-obsession. It has to mean more to you than just a paycheck or recognition in the field. For me, it’s the people-helping factor. When stuff gets hard or I’m buried in work to the point of feeling like I can’t possibly get done what I need to get done, that gets me through. In Law Enforcement, by the time digital evidence gets to me, someone’s had a really bad day, month, year, or life. They’ve been hurt and hurt badly, and I’ve got the chance to do something to help that person in a very meaningful way. Or, alternatively, they’ve been accused of something heinous and my work might possibly exonerate them. Either way, helping people is a great motivator. If you’re in this work solely for what it can bring to you – money, fame, power, even knowledge other people don’t have…at some point all of that becomes obsolete and empty.
- Problem solving. If the geek in you is strong but you’re problem solving skills are weak, you’ll likely stick to those things you “get.” You may become the best at that specific area, and maybe even become a momentary rock star if that area is trending. But one-trick-ponies get retired fast, and if you don’t absolutely love solving a puzzle in whatever form it comes to you in, you’ll fade quickly to the background. This field is awesome specifically because it presents problem after problem after problem. Those who rise to star-status do so because they identify the specific problems that affect a broader swath of the field, or maybe problems others have identified as ‘impossible’ (whatever THAT means) and they find a way to solve or work around them.
- Collaboration. If you think you’re geekness is the greatest geekiness of all the geeks, you’re sorely mistaken. The power of geek is only truly unleashed when it’s cooperative. You have to figure out how your skills, talents, knowledge, quirks and geekiness mesh best with those around you to solve the truly hard problems in order to reach Nerdvana. Those who want to fly solo all the time and don’t learn to harmonize with their fellow geeks will find that their energy gets stale fast. Cooperation and collaboration are SO important. You don’t lose credit by sharing success, and in fact it can multiply and you’ll find you achieve more than you possibly could on your own. To be successful on this point, it helps if you TRULY LIKE PEOPLE. And that’s a problem for many who have good geek skills but not good people skills. The flip side of this is that you also have to be able to trust your gut about people you don’t like, who are toxic, who are energy vampires, and you have to develop coping mechanisms to deal with them.
- Persistence. You have to have (and nurture) a mindset that you won’t quit when things get tough. I may not have as much technical knowledge, financial resources, equipment or specialized software as many of the rock stars in our field, but I am damned persistent, and that has always been an incredible asset for me. Expect to fail over and over again, and keep trying until you make progress.
- Open Mindedness. If you want to excel, you have to open your mind to things that are outside your comfort zone and consider all the possibilities and resources available to you. You can’t get stuck in your past successes and expect them to carry you forward forever. Embrace the possibilities. Embrace different and crazy seeming ideas. Be willing to laugh at yourself and to share your failures and mistakes with the world. Think about the ways that seemingly unrelated things are related and a about novel and unique solutions to problems, and explore things that interest you. Travel widely and take an honest interest in other cultures, ideas, places, and people.
- Know Thyself. Understand your strengths and weaknesses, and push yourself into new territory. I often say “I have a little OCD, but I know how to use it. I have a little ADHD, but I know how to use it.” I don’t suppress those aspects of my personality; I leverage them to help me solve problems. When something doesn’t “feel right” you have to trust your gut. You have to be willing to walk away from fame and fortune based on your personal convictions. If you sacrifice your own personal values for your work, you’re building a house of cards that will eventually implode.
- Balance. When the shit hits the fan and crap is flying at you at full speed, you have to be able to maintain your center. This means you have to have other things in your life that help you recognize who YOU are aside from your work. For me, it’s my dogs, yoga, meditation, singing and playing the banjo, knot tying, kayaking, hiking, etc… Those things give my soul, mind and body a break when I need a break and they feed me in ways that go beyond the geek. Of course, I would agree that being a banjo playing, meditating, knot-tying forensicator who’s also a cop possibly make me as geeky as it gets. All I know for sure is that having those other interests makes me better at my job and better able to handle the stress of criminals, pornography, trial testimony, caustic attorneys, occasionally bone-headed co-workers, and all the rest of the daily annoyances that can get in the way of being my best.
- No Excuses. If you make mistakes own them. If you’ve got work to do, do it. If you’ve got deadlines, meet them. Don’t give excuses instead of results – to yourself or anyone else. This is about personal and professional integrity. And if I can’t or don’t meet expectations, I focus on improving on whatever I’ve messed up on and also on realizing that there’s a huge difference between and EXCUSE and a legitimate REASON. I also forgive pretty easily – even myself.
- Luck. I’m talking about the kind of luck you make for yourself… because what you put out there to the world is what comes back to you. Be in the right place at the right time, step up to the challenge and put something forward in response to it. Put yourself out there and take risks. Do your best, ALWAYS. And, learn to parse out good opportunities from dead ends.
- Process. USE the scientific method. It works: figure out what specific question you want to answer, develop a hypothesis, try to predict the potential results, test based upon logical predicted outcomes, and analyze the results to determine what makes sense to do next. Adjust and repeat. When you’re successful, have someone replicate your results. Rely on peer review to back you up in your success, and then write it up so everyone knows how you did what you did. From the scientific method we can learn that failure is an expected part of the path to success, and that the general application of process gives us a framework for repeated successes.
- Resilience. Living a life in the techy fast lane can be demanding. There is significant stress in being really good at what you do and being at the top of your field. You will be challenged about your work and your opinions. Mud may be thrown in your direction and there will be those who don’t like you and are standing on the sidelines waiting and cheering for you to fail. Your name may be thrown about in ways you’re not happy with. You may find yourself tempted by offers for more money or different and better work by folks who want to benefit from your name recognition. There may be times when it seems that everyone wants something from you, and their motives may not always be clear. Developing resilience helps you to navigate through these obstacles without real and lasting damage to your psyche.
- CELEBRATE! When you’re successful, celebrate, soak it in, and share credit with those who helped you along the way. When other people are successful, celebrate them. Celebrate little successes and big ones. Don’t take progress or success for granted. Ever. Of course your office mates may think you’re crazy when you do the happy dance every time you successfully decode some new type of data or figure out how to do something you hadn’t previously known, but you have an excuse… you ARE an UberGeek after all, right? And, if you’re having fun, success is totally sweet.
There you go. So many of these points meld together that it’s sometimes hard to know where one idea ends and another begins, but I think blending them is truly a recipe for success. And, when I look around our field at the awesome geeks rise to the top of the field and stay there in comparison to other awesome geeks who struggle to have an impact, these 12 factors are at least some of the key differentiators.