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Deferring Harvard for a cybersecurity start-up

Kacy Zurkus | May 25, 2016
The new gap year gives opportunity for organizations to train talented students for the future of cybersecurity

harvard university

A former teacher of English who was quite passionate about teaching grammar, I can attest to the fact that sometimes students feel that what they learn in the classroom will never apply to them in the 'real' world. As a grown woman, I'm sorry to say that when I was a junior in high school, I felt that way about sine, cosine, and tangent. 

Advanced math wasn't fun for me because I didn't understand how I would or could ever use it in my life. This experience is one that many people, young and old, have had; however, with the high cost of college tuition, no one wants to experience this frustration at the university level.

Enter Michael Chen. He is a computer science major at Harvard who deferred his degree by one year to go work full time at a security technology startup. After spending his summers interning at large corporations like Microsoft, Chen felt discouraged that he wasn't gaining the experience he hoped for in his internships. Rather, he felt like his internships were mainly vanity projects that didn't provide much value.

Chen said, "Mainly, I was getting frustrated with how little nurturing or attention interns specifically or even first level developers got. My project was a pet intern project. I didn't really have the opportunity to experience working on something that really mattered, which I didn't get from school either."

Having only interned at large enterprises, Chen decided that perhaps working at a start-up might afford him the hands-on experience he hungered for. He searched the Boston area and discovered what seemed like a really appealing opportunity atThreat Stack, which Chen said has been "all experience."

"When I first started, within the first two weeks I was already pushing code to some of our production repositories. Now I'm one of the main developers on one of the projects. I've had the opportunity to interact with upper management here, where I couldn't talk with leaders at those bigger companies. They were either too high up, too busy, or just didn't care," Chen said. 

One of the most valuable skills Chen has learned from Brian Ahern, chairman and CEO, and Chris Gervais, vice president of engineering, Threat Stack is how to interact with people better. "Computer science people don't usually develop skills other than writing code, but you really need to understand how to interact with people if you want to continue your career," Chen said.

The gap year has proven to be beneficial not only for Chen but for Threat Stack as well. Ahern said, "Over the course of Michael's time here we've re-launched our product as a holistic Cloud Security Platform and raised a $15.3 million round of Series B funding, not typical events most "interns" get to be a real part of. We're happy to have helped him gain the kind of education you can't get in a Harvard classroom."


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