Lecturer Jade James on Her DFIR Career Transition From Lab to Academia

Christa: Among the many decisions a digital forensics professional will make in their career, whether to pursue a graduate degree is among the biggest. Costs in time, and sometimes money, factor in, as well as how a degree could shape your future.

Today the Forensic Focus podcast welcomes Jade James. Our longtime readers might know her name from the product reviews she’s written on our website, but for today, Jade, who is employed as a visiting university lecturer, is with us to talk about her brand new Master of Science degree in cyber security and forensics. I’m your podcast host, Christa Miller. Welcome Jade!

Jade: Hi, thank you for having me!

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Christa: Of course. I’m excited to learn more. I feel like I’ve been covering academia for the last year or so (research and so on), but I haven’t really had much of an opportunity to talk to the people behind the research, so this is exciting for me.

So I’ll lead off with a question I ask most everyone: tell us more about you, please. How did you first come to digital forensics? What made you decide this was the career for you?

Jade: OK, well, as a person, I am a single parent to a beautiful daughter. Professionally, right now, I’m currently a visiting lecturer at a university in the UK.

And I guess my interest in computers in general, it literally stemmed from receiving my first personal computer in (I’m going to say the year, it might make me sound really old though) in 1999. That’s when I got my first PC. And I was just so intrigued by it and I wanted to know everything about it: the ins and outs, the different settings, and the capabilities of it.

So that sort of spawned my interest in computers in general. And then this may sound pretty cliche, but I was introduced to a certain program by my dad, and that sort of spawned my love of forensics, and as I was completely blown away by this program, and it was just, like, “wow, this is what I want to do when I’m older”, because I was only 12 years old at the time.

Christa: Can you say what the program was? 

Jade: Yeah, CSI!

Christa: OK! Yep, OK, that’s not cheesy at all.

Jade: That’s what I was saying, it was pretty cliche, but yeah, when I first saw that program, it was just amazing, like all the science behind it. And even though I was interested in the roles of Catherine and Grissom as forensic scientists, my affections went more towards Archie in the lab, in the audio visual lab, doing the technical stuff. That’s where my passion lay.

Christa: That’s cool. Yeah, OK.

Jade: So that is sort of where my career in digital forensics actually started.

Christa: I have to admit, as a writer, I really started writing fan fiction. So I’m…talk about cliche, cheesy, it’s totally fine. We all have to start somewhere, right?

Jade: Yeah. 

Christa: So walk us through your career thus far. You’ve worked as a forensic analyst, a quality manager in a lab, most recently a lecturer teaching university students as you’ve been pursuing this degree. What led you along this particular career path?

Jade: Yeah, so I completed my first degree (my Bachelor’s) in 2013 and I was finding it quite difficult to get my foot into digital forensics, as it’s pretty much a catch 22. They are always looking for people with experience, but then you can’t get the experience without someone initially giving you that opportunity to gain that experience.

So after my first degree, it was quite difficult trying to get my foot in the door in regards to digital forensics. So I attended a graduate week for a forensic service provider, and at the end of this graduate week they chose a select few to have an interview for a graduate role, and I was one of the select few that was chosen, and at the end of it was between me and this other guy. And basically the guy was given the graduate role, and that was due to…he had more IT experience than I did.

So obviously feeling a bit defeated, I went away. I got my IT job like they suggested I did. And then a few months later, I received a phone call from this company, and they expressed an interest in having me in for another interview for the role. So that’s pretty much how I got into actually working for a digital forensics lab.

And from there, I’m really grateful for that opportunity, because it gave me experience that I needed and which still helps me later on in my career. I gained a lot of transferable skills and it sort of put me on the radar. I became a bit of a commodity.

And then I was told about an opportunity within a government agency in the UK, and I went through the interview process with them as well, and fortunately I got the job which was, again, an amazing opportunity. And within this role I was able to…I had access to the latest digital forensics tools, and I was able to gain experience, knowledge with these tools and use them in a more research based environment so I didn’t work on live cases, which took a bit of the pressure off, as working in digital forensics can be quite pressurized at times, because you’ve always got multiple cases on the go.

So again it was an opportunity for me to gain more experience and become more proficient in using digital forensics tools to their full capacity. And as well I used to travel a lot within the UK and abroad actually to give advice and guidance to law enforcement agencies and police forces about certain tools or techniques which can be used to combat crime. So it was a really rewarding opportunity.

And then, I guess due to personal circumstances, I moved to a police force within London and I started working there as a quality manager. Which was good because at the time police forces were going through ISO 17025 accreditation. So it was sort of nice to help out from the other side I guess, so not so much the technical but more of the actual documentation and paperwork that goes behind the accreditation.

And it was good but I sort of felt like I wanted to still be quite hands-on and to be more practical. So when the opportunity arose I moved on to a more practical position. Again I went back into the UK government and I worked for another government body. And again it was a really good opportunity. This time I was working on live cases and I got more experienced and more of a opportunity to go out in the field as well and actually attend searches and raids and actually help with the seizure of exhibits, which would  be brought back to the lab for us to analyze.

From then (I guess I’ll get into it a bit later on), I sort of decided to take a side step in my career and focus a bit more on my studies. So that’s when I started my Master’s degree. And while studying my Master’s degree I got involved with lecturing.

So I became a visiting lecturer at one university in London but more like guest capacity. So I go in once an academic year and just give a talk on the introduction of digital forensics to undergrad students on their forensic science degree. And then I became more involved in the lecturing at another university outside of London, in which I actually deliver modules towards postgraduate and undergraduate degrees. That was a bit of my career path up until now.

Christa: It’s really interesting just like hearing about how you kind of made the different decisions to grow really as a practitioner. So in the context of that career path, what was important to you about earning a Master’s degree to begin with?

Jade: So a Master’s degree is something I have contemplated throughout the years from finishing my Bachelor’s degree anyway. I knew I wanted to do that but it is sort of about time and funding as well. And within my employment, I was always sort of trying to get the funding within my employment, but it didn’t work out that way.

So then I sort of decided to just take it upon myself and just sort out the time and funding for myself: I created the time and funding. As well, at the time I felt like my career was a bit stagnant in digital forensics, and I felt like upping my game would help me move on in my career. As I had been told on multiple occasions that I needed to be more technical because… yeah I just seem to be having trouble getting a more senior role within digital forensics.

And I sort of started to realize that I do have the skills, and I do have the knowledge, it’s just I needed to be more confident about myself and about my abilities. But then I felt like the Master’s would help me with this anyway because then I could you know say to people, “you know I am technical, I do have the skills, I do have the knowledge because I was able to complete this Master’s”.

Christa: Right. Yeah, I’m a little bit surprised to hear that they wanted you to be more technical for senior roles because in my experience, usually they want more of the soft skills as opposed to the technical ones.

Jade: So even though there were times where I was acting up to a more senior role, it was all about qualifications and certifications as to like what you know. And as well it’s quite hard like progressing in digital forensics as well as it is quite a male dominated field, and as a female I have sort of felt that it’s quite difficult.

Christa: I can imagine too as a single mother that must be part of it. I mean I have another question for further on about challenges, so we can get to that in a bit. So I want to find out more first about how you went about pursuing the actual degree. What were your criteria for selecting a program? How did you arrive at those? And how did the university of Westminster fit?

Jade: So my Master’s journey commenced…again it was due to personal circumstances. I had suffered a very personal loss: I suffered a miscarriage. I started re-evaluating my priorities and just put things into perspective, and I just realized that at that time I didn’t want to do this anymore and I just wanted to spend more time with my child.

And, like I mentioned before, I just felt like my career was a bit stagnant, so I decided that I just wanted to take a step back and to just reevaluate things. But at the same time I still wanted to be working towards something. And this is where I felt like it would be the perfect time for me now to do this Master’s, to sort of give me something to work towards, because it didn’t feel like I was working towards anything.

I think it was May 2019, that’s when I actually started looking, “So if I’m going to do this Master’s, where am I going to do it?” And so I started looking at different universities in London. And obviously, due to my personal circumstances as well, it needed to fit into my home life: there needed to be work-life balance. So I needed a university that was close to home, and who I guess would be sensitive to my situation.

The University of Westminster, it just jumped out at me because the course itself, the course content, it really attracted me as there was aspects of cyber security and digital forensics. Because I guess I already have knowledge and experience in digital forensics, I thought would be interesting to actually learn more about cyber security, and this course was just the perfect mix of both because I was able to learn something new (as in cyber security), and then like refresh my knowledge and skills within digital forensics as well.

And with the course at the University of Westminster, it also had the opportunity: you could either go down the cyber security path or the digital forensics path. And I chose the digital digital forensics path, and I actually got to take a module of the cyber security path. So again it was just a really good mix of both. So yeah that was pretty much it.

Christa: So we talked a little bit before about challenges you faced on your career path, but I’m also curious about challenges that you encountered and had to overcome in your studies over the last few years, I know probably the pandemic being number one. But I’m sure there were others. How did you overcome them? Whether the pandemic or anything else that you encountered?

Jade: Actually to be honest, quite early on when I started my Master’s I suffered another personal loss. I suffered an ectopic pregnancy. So that this was my second loss in the same year: 2019. So at this point I was pretty numb and I didn’t even have time to grieve at this point because I had just started the Master’s.

So it did knock me back. And this is when I started deferring my assignments, and this meant that now the Master’s, which should have been one year, turned into two years. So already it was just like “Oh, am I actually even gonna finish this? What am I doing?” I should just give up now”, sort of thing. And then COVID hit, which didn’t help!

But luckily we had had all our on campus teaching, so we wasn’t actually due to attend campus for any of the modules, which was good. It didn’t really affect me in that way because I wasn’t due to attend the university in person anyway. But it was quite difficult, I guess accessing resources, like I wasn’t able to go to the library and get a textbook. And I’m the kind of person that likes to have the textbooks out in front of me, I don’t like reading off the screen yeah. But then I was able to…the library was able to start posting me textbooks. One challenge.

But then also with my daughter, she had to stay at home as well as the school’s closed, which meant that I now had to homeschool my daughter as well as complete my Master’s assignments. So I literally just put my head down and focused on the two of us. I literally put together a timetable. So between 9 and 3, Monday to Friday, I would do studies with my daughter, and then from 6 to 9pm in the evenings that’s when I would do my Master’s work.

That was pretty much it for like a solid four to five months of the first lockdown. So yeah that was obviously another challenge. And the assignments itself as well, it was sort of a big jump from Bachelor’s to Master’s. Before I was dealing with like 1,000 to 2,000 word counts, and now it’s jumped up to like 5,000 minimum plus! So it was sort of like, “whoa”!

Christa: As a journalist, I sympathize!

Jade: Yeah and it’s really hard…you just assume that people know what you’re talking about, so you think I don’t have to write as much because they already know what I’m talking about. But obviously you do need to explain yourself quite thoroughly to achieve the marks that you need. That was quite a few of my challenges I encountered whilst studying.

Christa: And those are big ones. You know, as a writer, it sometimes feels like child care and writing are two different sides of my brain and switching gears from one to the other can be very very difficult, so I can only imagine being a single mom, how that must have gone for you.

Jade: It was difficult because obviously, there’s always that guilt, like I literally had to shut myself away in my bedroom, because that’s where I’ve set up my little office. And I had to explain to my daughter that between 6 and 9, please just do not disturb me because I really need to do my work, like “Mummy needs to do her work”. And she totally understood, and it was fine, but there’s still always that guilt. I would always pop out and just be like “you OK? Mummy loves you”.

Christa: I feel like it gives them an opportunity to step up as well though. Being in a household and sort of…I feel like they feel a little more responsible, but then again mine are teens and so they’re like looking for that extra responsibility as opposed to a younger one.

Jade: Well my daughter was really supportive, and there’ll be times where if…I would set myself like, “I need to do 500 words today”, and I’d come out of my bedroom and she’d be like “did you do your 500 words?”, “yes I did!”. And there was times where she would make little posters for me saying like “congratulations, well done I’m completing this assignment”.

Christa: No that’s important though right? I mean, you know just to be in it sort of together.

Jade: Definitely in it together, just the two of us.

Christa: So did you have a Master’s thesis for this program?

Jade: Yeah so I wanted something that incorporated both aspects of cyber security and digital forensics. And for me, I felt like ransomware was where that happy medium was. So my dissertation, it was titled “The systematic analysis of ransomware using digital forensics tools”. And the aim of the project was to just basically have a deeper knowledge and understanding of ransomware and digital forensics.

Again this project was quite personal to me because, it wasn’t necessarily innovative: I didn’t do anything new. But it was a challenge I set to myself, and I just wanted to prove to other people that “yes I am technical and I can do these things”.

So for my project I set off into looking at ransomware. I looked at different types, and I built virtual machines to execute ransomware samples that I collected, so I could examine their behavior. And if I did have more time or wanted to do further work, I wanted to sort of look at if it was possible to detect these sort of behaviors, to maybe try and stop them from occurring before encryption of files or whatever happens takes place.

That was pretty much it. I selected different types of ransomware to use in my analysis, for example, I chose Petya as one of my samples because it made changes to the master boot record and the master file table as well. And as well because i was working in a virtual machine rather than like a Cuckoo Sandbox I thought I required a ransomware sample that didn’t need communication with C2 servers, so I chose Petya.

And then I chose WannaCry as well because in one of my previous assignments we had to do a really technical, detailed sort of journal article on WannaCry and the NHS attack in May 2017. So I just thought it would just be logical to continue with that because I already have knowledge of that attack and that ransomware. So yeah I used WannaCry as well. And as well because it has similar properties to Petya as well, for example, they both target Windows systems, and I was only looking at Windows systems as opposed to Apple or Linux.

And then I used server because I needed something to compare the results as well because, well Petya completely behaves differently to WannaCry, so I needed something that was more similar to WannaCry, so I could have a means of comparison.So that was my thinking behind my dissertation.

Christa: It’s interesting stuff. I mean I know it feels like it’s one of the more rapidly evolving areas of digital forensics.

Jade: Well it’s not even just in digital forensics, cyber security. Ransomware is something that seems to be happening more and more these days. More organizations are falling victim to ransomware attacks. So I think it is somewhat of an interesting topic, and I probably will continue to study it in more detail.

Christa: Looking forward to seeing that! So I want to flip a little bit. As you’ve been earning your degree, you’ve also been teaching. What was important to you about that? I know you mentioned earlier about being able to talk to students about the digital forensics path. Having been both a student and a lecturer is there anything that stands out to you about the students that are in your classes? What’s involved with teaching etc? Talk a little bit more about that.

Jade: With the lecturing, I was actually quite nervous when I first started it, because I had just sort of…well I was in the process of getting my masters myself, so I felt like a bit of a fraud. Like how can I stand there in front of all these students and pretend to know what I’m talking about when I haven’t technically finished my master’s myself? And then I came across something called imposter syndrome as well, it’s actually a real thing!

Christa: Yep it is!

Jade: So actually completing, successfully, my master’s obviously helped with that, and gave me a bit of a boost that I needed in regards to my teaching. And I definitely have become more confident with it and I think it’s important to…you need to have a passion to speak to these students and you need to show enthusiasm, and I think you need that in general with digital forensics anyway. I feel like it attracts a certain type of person. You need to have a certain like frame of mind for it, and it’s definitely not for the lighthearted.

So with the lecturing as well, it just seemed…it’s definitely something that I was considering, probably later on in my career. But I’m happy to be doing it right now because obviously it’s still valuable experience. But I would like I guess more experience with practical, hands-on, more practical roles to sort of help with my knowledge and experience so that I can pass that on to these students.

Christa: Is there anything that stands out to you about the students that are coming into your classes? Just in terms of like…I guess in context of your own experience, but also having worked in the field for the number of years that you have?

Jade: So, for some reason there seems to be an influx of international students, I guess. I’m not sure why that is. I guess I can be a bit biased and say that the university I do work for is actually quite a good university so I can imagine why we seem to be getting a higher intake each year.

And there definitely seems to be more of a passion and enthusiasm going into digital forensics, as the modules I teach towards the Master’s I get a lot of the students actually asking me more about the digital forensics rather than the cyber security side of it. I’ve had quite a few students this week actually (well yesterday I guess!) coming up to me and asking me how I got into digital forensics and asking for advice on how they can pursue a career in it.

Christa: That’s good! Have you found it challenging to provide the kind of foundational knowledge that will carry students through such a rapidly changing landscape, or are there other kind of challenges with teaching in particular?

Jade: Obviously it’s quite a difficult job to do and there is a lot of pressure on you to sort of…because everyone’s looking at you like you have all the answers, and I do have my qualifications and my experience, but I wouldn’t consider myself to be an expert, I don’t know everything.

So I guess it’s quite challenging to keep up and for me to keep up with existing trends and you know knowledge, tools, techniques so that I can give the correct information to the students who I’m teaching. And, like you said, it is so rapidly changing, it’s very hard to keep up and I guess I find that as well as me teaching the students, they also teach me a thing or two as well, which I can go away and look at and learn about myself and then I can pass that knowledge onto the other students that I teach as well.

Christa: Oh cool. Can you give an example of something like that?

Jade: I guess, with teaching there is a bit of give and take. So as well as me teaching the students, I also learn a thing or two from them. So for example, I’ve just recently started teaching on a module which goes towards a Bachelor’s degree in computer science. And with this module, it’s not stuff that I’m unfamiliar with, but I’m obviously unfamiliar with the course structure itself because I’ve come in quite a late stage.

So I’ve had to sort of hit the ground running and try and familiarize myself with the course content as much as possible. And the students are at a stage where they’re having to do a practical assignment in ethical hacking and penetration testing, so I’m obviously familiar with the concept of it, and I’m able to conduct pen testing myself, but in regards to their assignment, I’m still trying to get my head around it.

So in the past couple of weeks I’ve literally been sitting with the students whilst they’re going through their practical work, and just asking them like “so how do you do this?” or “what do you need to do there?” and they’ve been happily just like showing me and we sort of like discovered artifacts together and things and so it’s actually been quite nice and then obviously with that knowledge I’ve then been able to pass it on to other students who are completing the same practical assignment and help them out.

Christa: Very cool. So when students are coming to you for advice on how to get started or I guess make a transition or just where to go with their careers, what advice do you give them? I mean whether they’re getting a new degree or they’re moving, transitioning from either a lab environment into teaching or they’re making some other transitioning career in their career, what are you telling them?

Jade: I get asked quite a lot either through LinkedIn or my university emails, I always get asked “how can I work in digital forensics?”, “how can i pursue a career?” or “do you think I should do a masters myself?”

I guess in regards to gaining employment in digital forensics, I just basically try to say that perseverance is key. You just need to keep at it. You will probably encounter quite a lot of rejection, because there’s so many practitioners up against you for the same role, it might be disheartening to not get the role that you’re trying to achieve. It’s not anything to do with your capabilities, it’s just the fact that there’s so many people trying to get into the same role as you. So definitely perseverance is key: you just need to keep going, keep trying.

I advise them to maybe attend conferences and digital forensics seminars, because these are places in which you can pick up knowledge, you can learn about the latest, tools, trends techniques and that potentially used by criminals.

It’s also a good place to do networking as well. I think it’s important to actually put yourself out there and make a name or face for yourself because sometimes it’s not even about what you know, it’s about who you know. And people will keep you in mind for future job opportunities as well, because people like to work with like-minded people, so if something comes up they may keep you in mind and like try and bring you in, and get you on the team.

So things like professional social media such as LinkedIn, I advise that. Because it’s a way of getting yourself out there. And I also advise things like if it is possible, if you’ve done any work and with individual forensics to maybe write a paper about it and maybe on research gates or some sort of medium where you could publish it. Again to just try and get yourself out there.

And I do advocate in further education, and it’s definitely important to up-skill and to attain certifications, either in specific tools or digital forensics in general. And I give advice on courses that I’ve attended in the past. And there’s even conferences as well in which you can attend and you know they offer training on them sometimes. There’s different things you can do, and I just sort of say to people that there’s no set path, it’s not a clear stepping stone path, it can vary. It just depends on the person.

Christa: So final question. Back to a more personal question. What’s next for you? You had been talking about wanting to make sure that you’re still getting practical experience to help with teaching. So are you sticking with academia, are you returning to forensic practice, still mixing both? What are your plans for the near future?

Jade: So right now, I am sticking with academia. I will continue lecturing, but I see it as well, I’m just taking a bit of a break, a well deserved break, from going back into a lab environment. I just want to weigh up my options and see what I can do now, where I can go from here. I would like to go back into full-time working within a digital forensics lab, because I do feel it’s important to have practical experience. But right now I’m just weighing up my options. Oh, I am interested as well in in completing a PhD.

Christa: OK! Excellent.

Jade: Definitely. But I need to actually sit down and write my proposal for it, but I’m not really sure what I want to study for the next 3 to 5 years of my life! So I’m not taking this decision too lightly.

Christa: That’s a good thing! Well, Jade, thank you again so much for joining us on the forensic focus podcast.

Jade: Thank you for having me.

Christa: I’ve enjoyed hearing more about your experience and how it informed your different roles and decisions.

Jade: You’re welcome.

Christa: Thanks also to our listeners. You’ll be able to find this recording and transcription along with more articles, information and forums at www.forensicfocus.com. Stay safe and well.

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