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Former army pilot safety lands a new career

Mick Cullen has swapped piloting helicopters for a new career in cyber security – staying on the frontlines and defending Australia from its enemies, albeit from behind the keyboard.

After flying for the Australian Army for nine years, former helicopter pilot Mick became a flying instructor for 11 years at Redcliffe, but his training school position was redundant in December 2020.

"Being a pilot means moving to where the work is and where helicopters operate, which limited my career choices. My family and I are settled in the Redcliffe area, so moving would have disrupted our lives," explained Mick.

So when he weighed up what to do with his career, the opportunity to become a cyber security professional ticked a lot of boxes.

"Having completed a Bachelor of Information Technology before joining the Army, as well as consulting and running digital marketing teams in the past, meant I knew I wanted to stay in the computing field."

"I decided that if I was going to re-skill and invest time into a new career, I wanted to make sure my new career would be sustainable. And with cyber security professionals in such high demand, my decision to retrain was easy. Plus, I like the adversarial side of the profession."

Mick also liked that cyber security was a global business with remote-work opportunities, which might allow him to operate outside regular business hours and keep time free during the day to look after his children.

While searching for a course, Mick discovered that he could study at TAFE Queensland, accessing JobTrainer funding, which made the decision to enrol at TAFE Queensland's Bracken Ridge campus an easy one.

"Having JobTrainer to fund my study meant changing careers was more accessible for me. Because the entire course cost me $48, I could keep working and volunteering and not empty my bank account. Because the campus was close by, it also meant less disruption for my family and me," said Mick.

Now halfway through the course, Mick is thriving under TAFE Queensland's expert teachers in industry-standard facilities and learning through osmosis from his classmates in a hands-on environment.

The course sees Mick developing a wide range of technical skills, including learning Python and SQL coding languages, implementing security infrastructure, and detecting breaches in network security to protect an organization against any malicious cyber activity.

"The key benefits of the class are the hands-on learning, access to mentors with industry experience, and the opportunity to network with students from various IT backgrounds who are also going into the cyber security field," he said.

"What I'm learning from TAFE is so complimentary to my other IT qualifications. I'd used virtual labs in the past, but being in a classroom handling hardware and racks of actual network equipment is a great way to consolidate skills."

As well as the equipment Mick uses to train when in the classroom, he also cites the assignments he's required to complete during the course, geared towards real-world tasks.

"Completing practical exercises like risk assessments and writing policy gives you real job skills and a solid portfolio to show potential employers the range of cyber-related tasks that you've already exercised in TAFE."

Changing from a career flying helicopters to becoming a cyber security professional may seem like a significant shift that requires years of retraining, but Mick said that most people have transferrable skills and they don't know it.

"A big part of flying is being good at learning and operating in systems. An aircraft is made up of a variety of systems, so you've got to be good at ingesting data, turning it into information and then making decisions off that."

"Cyber security is like a massive umbrella with so many different specialties, and the advantage of this course is you get to sample each of them, which helps you identify where you want to go."

In January 2021 Mick began work as a software developer, a stepping stone to a position in cyber security, with the social impact company With You With Me, which help people break into the IT field based on their aptitude rather than their experience.

"In that role, I’ll be working alongside Services Australia, and I'll be helping their digital transformation team to support various agencies to improve the user experience for Australians accessing government services."

"Being back in the work environment with professionals has enabled me to get software development experience and continue building my skill set."

"The same company has many cyber positions that I might be able to transition across to in time. I've still got the remainder of the TAFE course to go, and that's my medium-term goal."

"Whatever happens, I'm excited to find out where life and the cyber field ends up taking me. With help of the JobTrainer funding, I'm qualifying to enter an industry that will give me lifelong learning with the skills to adapt as it changes and evolves," concluded Mick.