Ali Hadi and Jessica Hyde on Accessible, Affordable Digital Forensics Training

Christa: As cyber crimes and incidents rise, so does the need for well prepared, professional, digital forensics and incident response practitioners. However, while there’s no shortage of digital forensics training and education, whether it’s accessible enough and addresses enough of the right technology is another question.

Today the Forensic Focus podcast welcomes Ali Hadi, founder of Cyber 5W and director of the computer and digital forensics program at Champlain College, and Jessica Hyde, owner and founder of Hexordia and adjunct professor at George Mason University. Their partnership aims to bring digital forensics training to everyone who wants it at an affordable price.

I’m your podcast host, Christa Miller. Welcome Jessica and Ali.

Jessica: Hi Christa.

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Ali: Hi Christa.

Christa: It’s good to have you here.

Jessica: So excited.

Ali: Yeah. Thank you very much.

Christa: Likewise. Likewise. You’re welcome.

All right. So I want to start with your joint announcement from October, which specifically calls out gatekeeping in digital forensics training and education. How did the industry evolve the way? Was it simple supply and demand economics, or were other factors in play?

Jessica: Wow, that’s a great question. In terms of how the industry got this way, I think that there was a time where digital forensics was not as a populous skillset, right? When we got into this field, a lot of us were coming into this field from other places, be it law enforcement, computer science. There weren’t these programs that were dedicated directly towards digital forensics, computer forensics education.

And because of that, the training that grew in the field grew from [the] law enforcement side. There were definitely law enforcement agencies and organizations that develop training, which is oftentimes only accessible to government employees, law enforcement personnel, not to most people.

And then there became training that was available that was particularly created to help corporate examiners. And because it was targeted at hiring and charging corporations, it wasn’t really targeted at people who were coming straight into the field directly from both a cost and design perspective. So everyone was looking at people who already had other skills and were almost doing a lateral movement.

Now we have an influx of positions because everything has a cyber component in terms of crime, in every organization in the world, an agency is vulnerable to cyber crime. That means that now there is a plethora of positions and roles and that the training and education mechanisms needed to adapt, to adjust to people who were coming into the field without having already been an engineer, a computer scientist, or a law enforcement professional. It wasn’t built.

Christa: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It sounds like it was — I don’t wanna, I think “slapdash” is the wrong word, but it’s just sort of reactive, maybe, rather than proactive. Does that sound accurate?

Jessica: Yeah. And that’s starting to change, right? Because now there are great programs. Like the one that Ali teaches that are geared towards people coming in, as opposed to the program I teach at the university I teach at is only a master’s level program and there isn’t a bachelor’s program. So the assumption is that people are coming in with other skill sets from other fields and then building on those.

Christa: So, yeah, I think I just answered my own next question. I did have a question here about how the gap between training and degree programs and the people who are seeking to level up their skills go unfilled for so long.

And I think I asked that in terms of not the people that are entering the profession, but people that are making transitions, really, that might be going from law enforcement to corporate, or even changing careers from something else into digital forensics. And so it just seems to be at the point that we’re at now, it seems like that’s a gap that’s gone unfilled for really long.

Jessica: I think that’s a really good point because there are students who are coming out of high school and starting directly into these fantastic Bachelor’s programs, which are really focused on getting people into digital forensics and those students are doing fantastic. I love it. I get to work with those students, you know, from the Champlain Digital Forensics Association on the CTFs that we build at Magnet. And I get to work with students who’ve come through all these great programs at different schools, New Haven, Bloomsburg, et cetera.

The difference is, there’s a lot of opportunity for people with immense skills in other fields to lat move. The soft skills that are needed for dealing with people on their worst day. I know people who have come from healthcare who are migrating into digital forensics. Actually, one of my interns is moving from the healthcare field to digital forensics. And she is incredible at the understanding of how to deal with people in their worst days, because that’s what healthcare professionals do.

So that skill didn’t need to be taught. Just the technical skills, just the binary and what those people bring terms of perspective and troubleshooting is immensely valuable to furthering our profession. And so it’s thinking of ways to allow people from different backgrounds who maybe don’t have that same access to enter the field, because we need ’em!

Christa: Well, and it would be interesting to see in particular, how that might evolve post pandemic or even during pandemic, right, as burnout is — I mean, burnout being a thing in both fields, right, healthcare and digital forensics, but maybe it’s something that, one is less burnout than the other.

Jessica: I’ve met so many great lat movers, and I’ve mentored so many great lat movers. And I think that we sometimes think of lat moves as just, law enforcement leaves law enforcement, they go into IR. No, I’m talking completely different professions.

Christa: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jessica: And a lot of these people already have Bachelor’s degrees. They’re not gonna go back and start their BS, right? And they might not feel they have the prerequisites to go directly into a computer forensics Master’s program. So what’s the path for them without law enforcement? That really is a gap, I think, that we’re helping with here.

Christa: Yeah. Yeah. Before we talk about the training itself that you’re offering, I’d like to know more about how each of you got into education to begin with. Over your respective years of experience, what did you see that made you each want to offer these courses in this way?

Ali: So, first of all, if I start: for me, I was working — while working in the industry, I’m going to talk a little bit about how I got into education itself in general, before talking about, let’s say these content, digital forensics, et cetera.

While working in the industry, I’ve always, been teaching my team, training them on whatever we were doing, and from that, I was also asked to train customers or clients that we were dealing with. So even though I wasn’t in a teaching role, but I was still teaching my team all the time, I was — even clients, multiple times I had to be called out and just give them a bootcamp or whatever, to get them going on whatever system we were working on.

So education came from there, and I really liked it. And I liked it because I see the feedback that comes back to me as a person. I think teaching others helped me also grow, in general, whether in whatever I was doing, I think really teaching helped me evolve and grow, much better than where I probably would end up being by just like doing a day to day job. Nothing against that, but I think I personally learned a lot by, from education itself.

So that’s one. Two, also, it was like a family request that they kept asking me to get into higher education, get my Bachelor’s, then get a Master degree, get even further than that. Then there were other coincidences that had to come into play. They all, I would say, aligned together and got me into education.

Otherwise I would’ve probably just stayed in the industry, working without moving to academia. Now, for courses in digital forensics, I would say I’ve already created content for other professional training providers. So this is not something new to me.

But the thing is, during my creation of the content for those, I would say professional content providers, I’ve always had to do the training or the content in the way they want it to be. So it has always — I always have to follow whatever, they want the content this way. They want the output this way, they want this amount of content in a specific subject, cut out maybe some subjects.

So it was always based on their requirements, not on requirements that me as an educator see my students need. So if I feel that there are gaps that should be filled, I can’t put those gaps, or I can’t work on them because that’s going to require extra hours from me. And then probably that means, whoever I was working for, they need to pay me more extra. So it’s probably something like that.

So content wasn’t done the way I wanted. That’s one. Also even testing wise, my test should be in a way that I really assess student skills. It’s not about that I don’t want you just to go out and over, hang a paper on the wall or a certificate and say, I have this certificate. No, I want you to hang the certificate, definitely be proud of that, but prove it in the field, prove that this certificate that you have, you actually have the skills to really apply it at the end.

Working in the field will require, like if I’m your employ, if I’m an employer, I want you to show me what you are capable of doing, not show me what you hang on your wall. That’s good. I appreciate it. I respect it. But that’s something for you. For me, I need your skills.

So testing wise, I would say, is very important to us. And while talking with Jessica, multiple times, we both, our ideas really came aligned together. We both agree on probably everything. There was even how the partnership went on. It was very smooth, very easy to collaborate with Jessica. I’m not saying by the way, this is just because she’s on the call, but it was really very smooth to get into this because she also, as an educator understands what I’m saying. And she agrees with me probably if not 100%, probably 99%, what I say.

Jessica: Yeah. You know, I likewise getting into education. It started just in my normal professional place. So even when I was in the Marine Corps, we would constantly be giving hip pocket classes to junior Marines. That means being ready to, on the fly, know how to get their attention, show the material, and then have them demonstrate that they understand the material so they could do the things they needed to do.

When I moved into digital forensics, I was everything from a certified IPC trainer, meaning I taught how to solders and rework 7711, 7722. Not that that means anything to anybody, just to clarify. And I wrote courses for teaching people how to handle mobile forensics in the field, courses — and these were just regular trainings I was developing as a part of my role in addition to training new employees as you move up.

So the move into education, into academic education, was actually fantastic because it allows me to have this given space to dedicate to it. And it’s not so much for me. I get more out of my classes than my students do. I just want to be a hundred percent honest. I get to find out what people are thinking, what problems they see, what questions they have and the questions they have and the perspectives they bring, especially when they’re from all differing backgrounds, are oftentimes things I haven’t thought of.

I have to teach tonight, and I am so excited because I can’t wait to hear what my students ask. I can’t wait to see how they see things and how they have questions. And sometimes those lead to great research. The best classes are when the question from the student, the teacher doesn’t know. And instead of saying, “We’re not going to talk about that,” saying, “I don’t know, let’s pull up some evidence and check”; “I don’t know. That’s a great project. Why don’t we work on that outside of the classroom, that would be a great paper to submit to a conference, let’s work on that.”

Or, my students at George Mason, they may hate me for this, but I, like Ali, agree and something that’s performative that they can bring and demonstrate, demonstrative, to their future employers. So students in my class get a choice of projects, and oftentimes it’s doing brand new research and then they have to put a public blog post out about it. Or, so several of my students do that.

Other of my students, some can’t blog publicly, but that demonstrates to me, they understand the entire forensics process that I’m teaching them. Other of my students write SOPs. Now, regardless of what project they pick of the five choices they get, they have something that they can put with their resume. They can give a link to their GitHub or a link to their blog post. Or actually show a physical copy of that SOP or a digital copy to their prospective employer and say, “This is how I can demonstrably show my work.”

And I think that that is one of the greatest things to me. Again, my teachers might not — my students may not appreciate that it’s not all just multiple choice tests, that they actually have to do the work, but doing the work — doing is how you learn. And that’s how they come up with new questions.

And that’s how the class changes every single term and how we all learn from each other. Again, I learn more from my students than they’ll ever learn from me. And the greatest part is that we’re taking those same concepts and applying that to the training we’re building, where we’re ensuring that these students are not only demonstrating that they’ve been able to utilize and practically apply the knowledge they’ve obtained, but we’re giving them something demonstrable that’s more than just a certificate on the wall.

Christa: So that’s a really good lead in to my next question, which is the courses themselves. So they’re modular, first of all, designed for practitioners that are seeking to brush up rusty skills or learn new ones or overhaul their careers entirely. And you talked a little bit before, Jessica, about pathways. What kinds of pathways are you making available to people in each of those situations? And what if someone isn’t sure where to start?

Jessica: Well, that’s a great idea. And that’s part of the whole goal of the pathway. So for people who are already in the field and maybe encounter a new technical problem they haven’t addressed before, they can go directly to that module and just pick up that module.

But for folks who are new to the field, or don’t know where to start, that’s the entire goal of the pathways, the pathways give them an actual path that they can follow of different courses in a specific sequence that will bring them to their goal of learning, either everything there is that we have available, they can always do that, or they can learn, do the intro to forensics courses and then go through the Windows and then through the mobile and do those separate pathways.

And so there’s pathways to pathways, if that makes sense. But, for people who will already have a skillset, maybe you don’t know Linux forensics, if you want to learn Linux forensics, Ali’s probably the best person in the world to write and teach those courses and the Linux forensics. And if — you can check that by watching any of his presentations, he’s given all over the world on Linux, which really excites me. I learn every time I have to do Linux, I’m watching Ali’s stuff and going back through, and he knows that!

But you can then go and just take that coursework in Linux or solve the thing you need for that case that day, and then go back and take more of the courses. So the flexibility allows it to be adaptable to both the person who’s already in the field and is looking to brush up or learn a specific new skill, or utilizing the pathways if you’re new to the industry to get a fuller understanding, or new to a specific area inside the industry.

Ali: Yeah. If I’m to add to what Jessica said also, is there are also, other than the intro to digital forensics, Windows, et cetera, Jessica brought in the mobile, which actually made, I would say, our whole curriculum, if we can call it that way, much stronger.

There’s also the case studies. So for people who already have skills, but they want to test them, but let’s say they don’t have — they don’t work for a company that does digital forensics, but they want to test their skills. There are case studies which we either create — actually we create all of them, at least for now. And those are real great cases that a student or a professional will want to see, how can I bring all my skills together to solve this case? They can just go through those case studies.

Another thing which we are going to be adding: we are working on it, it’s not public on the website yet, is also more malware analysis. I’ve seen this. And I would say I got lots of messages and feedback from students who’ve taken my malware analysis training, that even cooperates — I don’t want to specify names — who do malware analysis, by the way.

And I know at least two or three students who took my course and they took those other courses, they said you can’t compare between them for a reason, it’s clear the way I’m presenting the content is more educational than from other, I would say, training providers. It’s more, their professionals are teaching others how to do stuff.

So the things that, the ways the content is presented is different. I’m not saying, by the way, that their instructors are not good, or whoever created that, it’s good, but it’s not taking someone with zero level skills to where they should be. It’s assuming that they have this, they have that. And lots of students really don’t have those, I would say, small pieces, which they just need to be able to draw a line between one dot and the other, those are missing.

And I know also, myself, and I tell this to all of my students, I’m sure those trainings probably — if you take them after you take my course, because I know those people who wrote the content, some of them I know who wrote them — I know they are probably, skill wise, probably much better than me in that area. I can’t compare myself to them and I don’t want to compare myself to them. But in terms of the training, how it’s developed, it’s completely different.

And I always tell my students, if you go back now and take their course, I’m sure you are gonna learn a lot from it because now you have, I would say, let’s say the foundations, all of the knowledge that you need to now go to a next level. And I’ve always recommended people to go to those courses.

So it’s really not — we don’t want to say here at Cyber 5W and Hexordia that we have the best courses and don’t look elsewhere. No, but at least we want to put you on the path that later on, you can just guide, you can draw your own path. You can continue by your own, by yourself and then decide what you want to do.

Jessica: I think what Ali brings up there is very key to your first question, which is that the trainings that currently exist came out of a world where people were coming from other adjacent fields. So, because they’re starting with the digital forensics concepts at the assumption of the adjacent fields, They are assuming the same knowledge that they had when they broke into the field.

I think that one of the things that Ali and I both have gained from both having previously, when we just spoke about our past, worked as trainers in industry to other people in industry, to working to being educators in a collegiate setting, is that we understand — now we’ve learned, those things that we thought were assumed knowledge bases — we’re able to start with the zero assumption.

Now, for the person who’s already learned, that actually doesn’t create a blockade. It’s not like you’re fill — it’s not like you’re going back and learning things you learned 10 years ago. It is literally just adding more nuance to things that otherwise are just said without the one sentence of background and that’s intermixed between the learning. So it’s literally just filling in those gaps for someone who doesn’t have a background.

And if you do have a background, you won’t even notice those, if that makes sense, where we’ve designed these such that if you’re already working in the field, it’s not like you’re gonna be like, “Oh, I know that. Oh, I know that.” You may, right? Because you may be just refreshing on something. But it’s going to feel natural that those additions are in there.

It’s almost like, you know when you know an acronym, and let’s say somebody says the acronym, but instead of saying OSDFCon, they say Open Source Digital Forensics Con, or OSDFCon, Open Source Digital Forensics Con, it’s almost like we’re just giving the parenthetical of what the abbreviation stands for. That’s probably the best way to explain it.

And that helps with the accessibility to people who do not have the — and this goes away along with preventing gatekeeping — the gatekeeping isn’t necessarily financial or access. Some of the gatekeeping is just that the educational materials don’t explain the abbreviations per se. And so we’re just taking that step. And again, if you know what the abbreviation is, you don’t mind that it’s in the parenthetical right after.

Christa: So, you’ve both talked about flexibility of this training, and one thing that was notable to me when I was first reading about it was how short and self directed the courses are. So, going to the practical aspect of taking the training, what’s your advice to learners on how to fit the coursework into their day to day schedules around their jobs, their kids? I think a lot of people are still working remotely at least part of the time, which can fuzz boundaries a little bit, so what advice do you have for actually making the most of these courses?

Ali: So the idea here is wasn’t really about making the content short, because by the way, they are not short. Some of them are very long, but the whole idea here was centric around the skill, some skill that is we want a student to learn.

So our courses are more focused on learning a skill. And if that skill requires — just an example, if that skill requires three videos and we need to create three videos, if it requires 10 pages of content and we need to create 10 pages of content — so it’s really centered around the skill and how much it information and how much exercises, how much hands on lab — by the way, all of them have hands on labs, except probably the intro and creating a report or how to write reports — probably those are the only ones that don’t have hands on lab piece in it, everything else does.

And all of the exercises are based on that. Making sure that the student, once they enroll in a course, at the end of the course with all the exercises, with all the content, they are able to say that I now have this skillset. I am able, for example, I know how to acquire evidence. I know how to, let’s say, deal with evidence. I know how to, let’s say deal with this type of artifact on a Windows system.

And we show them also multiple ways to do it. So it’s also not focusing on a tool. So we don’t do — it’s not a tools course, even though there are courses, by the way, that will cover one single tool. But that’s just because probably that tool is used in multiple skillsets. So we might have a course doing that. I don’t want to mention names now, but the idea here is not about a tool. It’s about learning the skills, the fundamental, the knowledge to do that part of skill with multiple different tools.

Jessica: I think that’s a great point. And I just want to clarify that these courses do not replace vendor tool specific training. That’s a completely different purpose, right? These courses familiarize you with the concepts, the understanding, the background that is necessary to be able to understand and testify and explain and report on and verify and validate those evidentiary findings.

Tool specific courses are absolutely critical specifically for those who are going to be testifying to the results from a tool. And to being able to use a tool more efficiently and to its best. So this is complementary, and I would say it’s probably something that’s better done before taking those courses to get the fundamentals.

In terms of the flexibility, I think you are spot on in the fact that because these are hands on yet self-directed courses, it allows them to be more flexible and available to people who may be working, who maybe are working shift work. Maybe they’re in the SOC and they’re on the overnight shift and they can’t sit through a class nine to five. Even if they were able to get the time off, their biological clocks aren’t there. This allows people to learn when it is best for them.

Even on the longer modules, they can stop and come back, Cyber 5W does a great job of reminding you weekly, if you’re in the middle of a course and where you are on your progress with that. So it is really perfect, and because you’re studying and perfecting a specific skill, you get to focus on one thing at a time and do that in a time that fits you.

It also means, in all honesty, that you’re not spending a week straight doing a boot camp style where you drink from a fire hose, which is very good in many areas. However, if you are the kind of person who’s got a lot of different responsibilities, and you’re trying to squeeze that time in, it may be very difficult.

This enables a model in which you can get that content. You don’t feel the pressure to take it all within one week and you can take it as you need it in the time that you have in the spurts. And I actually, I think from a learning perspective, um, my understanding of the research is that people do better when they learn in small increments, instead of sitting through an eight hour long course, it is actually better for retention. So I like the fact that we allow that.

Now, if somebody wants to do a week long course, we’re happy to do that. If somebody wants to either to view the content directly, or work with us independently to set up another type of structured course, we’re happy to do that. We have the materials and the content, which, that’s already been developed, but we’ve purposely made this adaptable so it is that self serve on demand that has become something that people are just used to working in this environment now, which is great, because I think it gives best — again, this is all about removing gatekeeping.

And people who have alternative schedules and have other responsibilities, or — this provides them the ability to do it. If you are working and you need to work your current job and you can’t afford to take a week off, because that is not the circumstance you’re in and you have childcare and you have adult parental care or whatever else it is in your world, this has the flexibility that you can do it from 5 to 5:30 in the morning every day, if that’s when your junket of time is and your brain’s smart then. Or your lunch break or in the evenings or on the weekends, or whatever works for your schedule, which I think is part of the beauty.

Christa: So all of that said, how are you staying up to date with new technology? How often are you updating the course materials and instruction? I mean, it sounds like for on demand courses, you could conceivably be updating things pretty much constantly.

Jessica: I think that’s part of the beauty.

Ali: I think by the way, this field, especially, probably all technology fields require keeping up to date. Otherwise you’ll be left behind, to be honest with you. But I think in our field, especially. I look at it that we are on the top of all the technology, because we need to learn everything below that.

So that’s one of our, I would say that’s the main problem in digital forensics especially, because you need to know everything below you and everything below that is always changing. So the way probably I’m keeping myself up to date, and I’m sure Jessica’s probably the same, is just by doing research. We just continuously do research. If we find something new, we will add that into our content, especially at the college. I would say for now, we do that, for courses at Cyber 5W, what we are going to be doing together, the course content, I wouldn’t say we are going to be updating them.

And I’m gonna explain what I mean by that. It’s not that the courses will be old and now they mean nothing. It’s just that we will be adding new content. It’s gonna be like an upgrade. There’s a — think of it like Windows 10, then you have Windows 11. Windows 11 comes up. That doesn’t mean we need to get rid of Windows 10. It just means if you need to go to something new, deal with something different, then there’s another course.

So we won’t be eliminating any of our courses. At least, I don’t think what we have today is going to be removed from now until maybe 10 years from now. But we will be just continuously adding new, I would say a new version or an upgrade to the course. Like if my, for example, if I have a module or a course on a specific artifact, but that artifact was covering, let’s say everything before Windows 11, we probably will say, before 10, before 11, post 11, we can do that. Then we’ll add just a new course which will say, these are the differences on Windows 11 or on Windows 12, if 12 comes out and stuff like that.

So it’s really always gonna be upgrading, adding new content for the students instead of just saying, “Oh, your certificate now expires, and now you need to get this new certificate.” We won’t be doing that. If you get our certificate, for example, if you’re a digital forensic analyst, then you are an analyst, but if you want to be now an analyst in, let’s say, new content, because we will also verify that, then probably it’s going to be good to you to do recertification for whatever is new and that’s gonna be for their benefit. But yeah, that’s how probably we are staying up to date and making the content updated as well.

Christa: I did want to find out more about certification, and I think when you made the announcement in October, the idea was that certificate would be available. So I wanted to find out what is currently available now, what’s coming, and how will these certifications fill additional gaps?

Jessica: Oh! All right, so I’m super excited about the certifications. The certifications that we’re doing require the student, the person who’s going for the certification, to actually conduct an examination on the material and then draft a forensics report on their findings. And then that report is what is reviewed.

What’s really great here, speaking of updating, I know at least on the mobile side — and Ali can correct me if it’s different on the courses he’s developing — our intention is to actually have a new set of questions for that analysis every two months.

And the reason for that is not just for the test integrity. It’s so that once the dead[line] of that date has passed, you able to now show that report to a prospective employer. This is that demonstrable evidence that you know how to write a forensics report and you can conduct an investigation.

So in terms of updating, not only are we going to be constantly updating in terms of new artifacts, new operating systems, new devices, and how to handle them, et cetera, but we’re going to be constantly updating and adding to the content to reflect and allow people the ability to demonstrate and share their learnings.

And this makes me ecstatic because I don’t feel like there is a widely available way that people today are able to do a certification exam and then have something other than just a certificate saying they passed. This actually allows them to show employers how they pass.

And this also provides employers instant credibility with what we are doing in terms of certification, which will help the certification gain acceptance in the community because employers will directly know whether or not those results are valued to them.

Ali: Yes. And also to add, yeah, we will be doing the same thing, Jessica, definitely because of the, we both agree on the exam integrity. And at the end, we both agree that we don’t just want the paper hanged on the wall. We want to prove you have the skills to actually do this type of job.
Also to add probably to that is, there will be an interview with the student, by the way. So the student is not just going to be submitting a report. They will be interviewed by by professionals. I’m not going to mention who’s going to be doing that, for now, but there will be an interview to get more into the details of the report. Why is it done this way? Why didn’t they do it this way? Just to make sure also that that’s what they were doing, actually, that’s what they did.

And about, if I go back to answer what current certifications we have now, so in February we will launch our first, which is for the introductory pathway. There will be that certificate done, this February. And we pushed back our main certificate, which is the Cyber 5W Digital Forensic Analyst, the CDFA. We pushed it back a little, just for one reason: parts of it is done. Part of it is not, and there are not really multiple reasons behind that, but we pushed that one back, but that one will be focusing on not just one pathway.

So a student who wants to go into, and that certificate, they will either need to show that they have like some years of experience in the field. If they say, “Ali, I don’t want to take either yours or Jessica’s courses, and I just want to take the certificate.” Okay. We respect that. We don’t, we are not going to enforce people to take our courses to be able to get certified, but at least provide us, or show us some evidence that you’ve been doing this for maybe one or two years. We haven’t decided that part of it yet, that you’ve already been practicing these skills in the field.

And then, yeah, we can allow you to take the certification because at the end, the certification is gonna be just like I said, prove that you can really do this type of job. So the CDFA will be pushed back, but for February, we will have our introductory certificate done, hopefully it will be before the end of 2022, our main certificate will go live. So that’s, that’s probably about certifications and what we currently have today.

Another thing, by the way, if I add to this, is if we look at, in the field, there are so many certificates that, yeah, probably if I wanted to join like two digital forensics and I look at all these certifications, there are so many of them, by the way, and I know it’s good because our field now evolved. It’s not like we can’t just say just operating systems. No, there is Windows, there’s Linux, there’s Mac, et cetera.

So we can’t just say that, but for a person that just wants to enter this path, it will be so distracting. And also it will be so challenging for them, even probably financial wise. Like I probably don’t have the budget to chase five different certificates to, at the end, call myself a digital forensic professional.

So our certifications also want to solve that gap at least for a couple of, like five, six years until our program is much more, I would say at least the standards and the main path are well organized, well structured, robust, people can join them. After that, we might go into specifics, but at least for now, I don’t want the student to be worried about, “Oh, do I need five certificate to — then people will start appreciate what I do and then will be considering me a professional?”

We don’t want that to happen. Probably one certificate is enough to demonstrate that you know how to do this. And then once you are in the field, it’s up to you, you might say, “I want to just focus on Windows. I just want to focus on Linux, et cetera.” But at least we want to put them on that path.

Jessica: There are two things that Ali said that I really wanna key in on. One is that he’s talking just about accessibility and that’s what we wanted to build: an accessible curriculum that, no matter who you are, where you’re coming from, that you can — for a reasonable price on the time that works for you — learn these skills.

And it may take you a very long time to get through it. If you’re working very part-time. It is a lot of… but at the end, you’re going to not have just a certificate. You’re going to have a certificate that demonstrates how to do the whole. And he kept saying the job because the job is not just knowing the artifacts, the operating systems, the job is also being able to write the report and explain your findings and being able to speak to your findings.

And so we look at the whole process. I always joked with my old team teams and my current teams that if you can’t write the report, you didn’t do the work, right? It doesn’t matter what you researched, what you learned. If you can’t put it into writing that’s acceptable. And by doing this, and by having the report writing courses incorporated, we are actually making sure that the students are prepared for the real world.

And we both work in digital forensics as well as examiners in multiple environments. So we also understand what it takes to do the work and what we look for when we’ve hired other examiners to work for us. So we’re hoping that we’re treating the whole student and preparing that student to demonstrate the wholeness of their capabilities to their employer.

Christa: So you both touched on something in terms of accessibility that I wanted to call out specifically and ask about. People, in some regards, can be challenged sometimes to afford even $50. For instance, when it might mean choosing between a utilities bill or groceries versus the training itself. I know you’re offering free courses, but, will there be scholarships at any point for especially cash strapped learners?

Jessica: That is a fantastic question. And it is definitely something that I’m passionate about to find the right ways to do. However, we have not worked out the technical details yet, of that, for the future. And I think a more appropriate time is once all of the courses are positioned and the content is available, so that we’re offering a fully robust offering at the time that we begin looking into the best ways to assist students who, even though this is a lower cost option, may still see it as a threshold.

We are definitely, and we’ve both spoken about this, passionate about supporting diverse learners coming from diverse backgrounds, lat movers, veterans, folks who have — BIPOC folks, folks who have just not had opportunities available to them. And we look forward to working out those details as the curriculum becomes more robust on the site.

Ali: I just wanted to add one thing to what Jessica said that, yeah, some of those details are, I would say, we definitely will be doing them once everything is complete, but we also, by the way, currently, if a student — and we mentioned, it’s also written on the website, — if a student says, “I can’t afford your your course, even if it’s $50,” and they have an .edu account, so they are a student at some college or at some university or whatever, we will just give them a voucher to waive the cost off. We will not charge them that. Even if it’s $50, I know $50, like you said, it’s probably a bill utility for some students. We will just remove that to them.

So I think for now this is the best we can provide, but we’ll definitely be looking into scholarships once once all of this get — the complete, I would say umbrellas, all done.

Jessica: And I would wanna just add to that, that we also recognize that not everybody has access to be able to get into a collegiate program. So we understand that there are people who want to take these courses who may not already be part of an academic institution where they have a .edu email address. So we want to work out the details about how we can find ways in the future to make those offerings available. But as mentioned, that is something that we still have to work through.

Christa: Sure, sure. I want to go back to something you touched on, Jessica, you were talking about making this more accessible to a more diverse audience. Is it fair to say that this training could also work in conjunction with initiatives like the Cyber Sleuth Science Lab or GenCyber or other programs that are aimed at youth? And if so, how?

Jessica: So I will give the full disclaimer that I’m on the advisory board for Cyber Sleuth Science Labs and have been for, oh, three, four years now, maybe longer, it’s been a while. So total disclaimer, and 100% we’ve had conversations with Daryl, Eoghan — I know I have — where they’re very aware of what we’re doing and 100% sharing a lot of that feedback and lessons learned. They are targeted at this time at high school age students, which is a little bit different of a grouping than we are.

So we’re looking at adult learners, but possibly straight out of high school. But they are dealing with middle school and high school students. So I volunteer with an organization as well, called Play Like a Girl, which works on doing STEM and sports for middle school girls — and so we’ve — in inner cities. And so I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a couple of organizations that are really focused on meeting the needs of inner city youth, and BIPOC folks and really trying to bring them education.

And this is an immense field for people who are coming from those backgrounds because there may be a different understanding of the justice system. And at the end of the day, digital forensics is about finding truth in evidence, and what a better way to empower people than to give them the skills to be able to help folks in their own community. I think it’s amazing.

So do we have really big ambitions and have we already been working, speaking with those organizations? Absolutely. Have we made any specific plans with those organizations? No, but we’re definitely interested in having talks there and in seeing what we can do to ensure that our content is equally diverse, that our content is approachable and that our content is accessible.

So we can definitely do it from a financial perspective. We can definitely do it from the learning objectives and making sure that we’re meeting the needs of folks who do not have the backgrounds that are considered prerequisites and other trainings or expected, regardless if it’s their listed prerequisites or not.

So we’re doing everything we can in that regard to make this content accessible, but we’d love to get as many learnings and work with as many of those groups. I’d like to work with Black Girls Who Code and Black Girls Hack and other fantastic organizations, where I’ve been fortunate enough to meet people and who I know are doing fantastic things in the industry.

And if you have an organization and you’d like to give us feedback, we would love to get that feedback on our courses and on our content. And we’d love to hear how we can be more accessible to you and the people who you work with and the people in your community. So if you have that information, please, please, please drop us a line. We would love any input or ideas or concepts as to how we can work better with more people and for more people.

Christa: Final question, on that note. Can other experts contribute courses or expertise? Jessica, I think you just touched on that a little bit. What else do you need in that regard?

Ali: So, yeah, I would say that would be great, by the way, it’ll speed things up because currently we are a small team just trying to do all of this course development and there’s a lot of work to be done. So if we can get other experts who are interested in joining, then that’s definitely — we welcome that. And actually even this collaboration, me and Jessica, that’s just at least one proof that it worked.

So yeah, we’ll, we are open to other professionals if they want to contribute. As long as, I would say, the mindset aligns the same, the goal here is to help make this content accessible. Like you, we were saying along all this interview, as long as that’s the goal here, then we are definitely open to work with other professionals.

Jessica: I’d also say that another great thing that people can do if they wanna help — and I know I’ve already been working with some professionals — is beta testing. Some of the labs and the tests for us, we would definitely be open if people want to sneak peek some of the content ahead of time in order to provide some feedback. We absolutely welcome that.

I mean, we both, Ali and I, both have people who we use for — not who we “use” — who work with us to test the content before it is put out, and tech edit. But if anybody wants to beta test a proficiency — or certification, not proficiency — certification exam, or if anybody wants to beta test a lab, I know that’s something that we’re definitely happy to share and get feedback on because again, we just wanna make it the best content that is the most accessible that we can.

Christa: Yeah. Well, Jessica, Ali, thank you again so much for joining us on the Forensic Focus podcast today.

Jessica: Thank you.

Ali: Yeah. Thank you too, Christa. Thank you for having us.

Christa: Of course, I’m really looking forward to learning more about what’s coming this year and what you’re going to have in store next. Thanks also to our listeners. You’ll be able to find this recording and transcription, along with more articles, information and forums, at Stay safe and well.

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