By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Cybersecurity is a lucrative field, with many flocking to high-paying jobs to protect companies from constant and growing threats. But one of the most rewarding careers in that field doesn’t involve the private sector — just ask U.S. Cyber Command’s Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Michelle Stavig.
Stavig is a squadron superintendent who’s responsible for training and development of a group of elite military cyber personnel. She also advises senior leaders regarding morale, welfare and quality-of-life issues.
Stavig joined the Air Force more than 20 years ago, beginning her military career doing ground radio maintenance. Three years later, she became a computer programmer — something she loved — and was eventually able to go to college to further her education.
“The Air Force makes that easy. I got tuition assistance and [earned] my bachelor’s degree,” Stavig said, which made her more effective at work because of her enhanced skills and training.
Stavig continued moving up in the ranks as a computer programmer for nearly 14 years until the cybersecurity career field was created.
Cyberattacks have plagued corporate America in recent years, leading companies to hire and pay people well to protect their online interests. So why has Stavig stayed with the DoD for so long when she could have moved to the more profitable private sector?
It was an easy decision, she said.
“Working with defense is great because you not only get world-class training, but you’re also placed in a position where you can actually make a difference,” the senior master sergeant said. “So when we’re getting attacked by cyber adversaries, we actually have the legal authorities to do something about it.”
Cyber Command has three primary missions: Providing mission assurance for the operation and defense of the Department of Defense information environment, deterring or defeating strategic threats to U.S. interests and infrastructure, and supporting the achievement of joint force commander objectives.
For Stavig, it’s not about money.
“I really love the mission, and I love working with the professional people that we work with,” she said. “The opportunity presented itself to take on more leadership roles in the organization, and I jumped at the chance. I love a challenge, and this is definitely a challenging position.”
Stavig compared her job to an operating room, where highly skilled professionals have to make on-the-spot decisions.
“A lot of our cyber warriors are the same way. They’ve got the utmost skills and training,” she said, tying that hand-in-hand with the professional development that military cybersecurity recruits get. “We really focus on developing our cyber war fighters so they can make those critical decisions.”
Her advice for young people still contemplating government versus private-sector cybersecurity?
“Cyber is an emerging field, and it’s really accessible to everybody. I sometimes hear people say, ‘It’s too hard,’ or something like that. But there are definitely different levels, from the beginner to the advanced. We’ll definitely take you in, train you up and get you ready to rock and roll,” she said.
Stavig said continuing to work the cybersecurity mission for the government has given her great opportunities that she wouldn’t have gotten in the private sector.
“I definitely would have missed some of the cool missions I’ve been able to do, whether it be supporting the war fighters down range or defending our networks,” she said. “I’ve definitely had a lot of different and unique experiences, and also the leadership piece — being able to help out airmen and soldiers, sailors and Marines in a joint service environment. It’s been really amazing for me.”