Cyber Spotlight: Dan Sorensen and Understanding Culture to Protect a Nation
By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, InCyberDefense
During a recent TED talk given by NYU professor Scott Galloway, he made a wonderful point about what to do if you want to live to be 100. Genetics and healthy living aside, his main point was those who live to be 100 all have one thing in common: their need to help other humans.
Get started on your cybersecurity degree at American Military University.
Some individuals have a true passion for helping others. Some volunteer while others hope to make our country a safer place. At InCyberDefense, we love putting the spotlight on veterans who not only are succeeding and thriving but who have a deep desire to make our nation a safer place for all of us.
I recently spoke with Air Force veteran Dan Sorensen, a malware analyst in the 781st Military Intelligence Battalion (Cyber), at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. He’s also, an American Military University graduate. Dan’s story is one of using language and culture to better understand threats that may be facing our country.
Wes O’Donnell: Dan, thank you so much for taking the time to chat. Can you tell us a little about your military background?
Dan Sorensen: After high school I went down to Mexico and performed some humanitarian work, helped build orphanages, worked with various churches and organizations to help the needy and less fortunate, I helped distribute thousands of shoeboxes containing supplies and gifts to those less fortunate around the holidays. I traveled all around became fluent in Spanish, then taught English as a second language to others and transcribed and translated as well. When I came back, the military looked attractive because they had some linguist programs that I could put to use with my experience in learning a language and culture already. I joined as a Hebrew linguist as I initially signed up for a six-year enlistment. Thinking that I could try to finish a 4-year degree in that time period.
My heart has always been to help others and my goal is to live to be 100 years old by eating and living healthy, learning something new all the time and being able to give back to my family, my community and my nation. When I joined the military, that goal of helping other people became a reality.
I joined in 2002 and served as a linguist. I was promoted early and made Staff Sergeant pretty fast. I really had this drive to continue learning while serving and I was fortunate enough to be selected for the Airman Education Commissioning Program (AECP) scholarship.
Note: The Airman Education and Commissioning Program (AECP) offers active duty Air Force enlisted personnel the opportunity to earn a commission while completing their bachelor’s degree. Students are a part of the AFROTC courses and earn their baccalaureate degree then attend Officer Training School (OTS) before being commissioned. During this time, the students receive full military pay and benefits, as if they were serving on active duty as well as receive tuition and a stipend for books.
The school I chose was the University of Texas in Austin for my undergrad. I studied Hebrew language and literature and got a second major in Middle Eastern studies. I did my honors thesis in Hebrew on how women are portrayed in the book of Proverbs. I studied not only biblical Hebrew but modern as well and learned so much on how the middle east got to where it’s at today and what makes it unique through its culture, language, and history.
I think most exciting was studying the cultural aspects of the Middle East and understanding the intent and motivation behind people. I’ve always enjoyed studying what makes us who we are, what motivates and affects us to make the decisions we do. As far as the military, it was a great opportunity to forecast the linguistic needs in the next five to 10 years: What languages would be in the most demand from a national security point of view?
After finishing my degree, I transitioned back into the full-time military as an officer. So, I served as an intelligence officer until leaving the military in 2016.
Once I left active duty, I joined the Maryland Air National Guard and joined the U.S. Army as a DoD civilian employee, which allowed me to continue to protect the country.
Wes: So, you didn’t do a full 20 years and retire after the Air Force. I have to imagine that you had 14 years of active duty already behind you, the thought of just staying in so you could retire and get those benefits must have crossed your mind? What was that transition like?
Dan: You know, it depends on what you’re looking for in life. I started the military later than most, in my mid-twenties. For me personally, I couldn’t really see retirement in the military as the right path for me at the time. I served 5000 days on active duty and that seemed like a nice round number [laughs].
I looked at various things in my life, including the Air Force pyramid and my lifelong goals just didn’t align with active duty requirements at the time. I loved the military so much, it was a wonderful time in my life, but it was time to close that chapter and open a new one.
Wes: Did you attend American Military University while serving as an officer in the Air Force?
Dan: Correct. While serving as an intelligence officer, I continued to have a strong passion for continuing my education. That’s when AMU came on my radar. I was able to transfer some of my technical skills and training credits very easily into AMU. I earned my Master of Arts in Military Strategic Intelligence and the big takeaway from AMU was that my education really allowed me to see a bigger picture; how many seemingly unconnected parts fit into the whole. A 3D puzzle, if you will, and being able to see the whole thing. AMU really showed me how the DoD, other agencies and academia all fit into the intelligence community, how to communicate better, how to better pass information back and forth from an interagency perspective.
Ultimately, after earning my associates from the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Hebrew, and then my undergraduate at UT Austin with my double major, it was my Master’s Degree from AMU that really allowed me to see how all of the pieces fit together and really opened my world on how to network with all of our intelligence partners toward a common goal and understanding of the picture.
Wes: What got you interested in cybersecurity?
Dan: One of the things that struck me at AMU and while serving was how everything is moving toward cyber defense, especially with DHS and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Critical infrastructure and Key Resources (CIKR).
Once I saw how cybersecurity fits into the national security apparatus, and said to myself, “you know if I want to have a job until I’m 70 or 80 years old,” why not look into cyber? I also found that I had a knack for the technological side of it. I started taking courses.
Wes: For some of our readers who may be looking at careers in cyber but have no training or experience, what is your best advice for how to get started?
Dan: Looking at some of the most successful people in the world, one of the things that I’ve noticed is that they start right where they are at. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
My advice is to start right where you’re at and start learning from every source you can get it from.
There is a lesson here and I think it is that you will be successful at things that you enjoy doing. So, you have to have some level of passion for cybersecurity to begin with. Learn everything you can about that topic: Start watching YouTube videos, reading books, getting trained to get certified, and of course a formal education.
Wes: Let’s pivot over to the CyberPatriot program. How did you get involved with that?
Note: CyberPatriot is the National Youth Cyber Education Program created by the Air Force Association to inspire K-12 students toward careers in cybersecurity or other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines critical to our nation’s future.
Dan: When that first came on my radar, it appealed to me because it’s all about getting young people excited about cyber defense. And I think that’s part of the key to helping solve the shortage issue of trained cybersecurity professionals in America. Plus, when you teach something, you learn it better yourself. It’s a win for everybody.
Wes: What’s on the horizon for you?
Dan: I always believe in continuous learning. For me, I had the realization that there is always someone behind the keyboard. It’s not just malware, it’s the person who wrote it. Understanding the culture behind that fascinates me; behavior analysis of malware and specifically the intent behind.
I want to complete my Ph.D. and I noticed that there are not a lot of cybersecurity Ph.D.s out there. I want to understand the future and how cyber will evolve moving forward. I think the future will really be influenced by automation and machine learning.
Wes: What book are you reading right now?
Dan: I really lean more towards nonfiction and leadership books. I’m reading books on industrial control threat intelligence and the “Psychology of Intelligence Analysis” by Richards J. Heuer Jr. as I find it interesting to learn more about not only how things work, but why things work the way they do and what motivates people to act and react.
Wes: Dan, we hear a lot of bad things in the press about veteran suicide and PTSD. These are important issues, but it is always refreshing to talk to veterans who are doing great things. I want to thank you for your time. It was a pleasure speaking to you.
Dan: Anytime Wes, thank you.