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From Academia to Industry

A personal 3 year retrospective

Since more than three years I left academia and joined adidas Runtastic as an information security engineer. In this blog posts I discuss what made me move to industry and what I learned so far.

After finishing my masters in Stockholm, I worked in academia for almost 10 years. This blog thus exclusively covered academia and research so far: e.g. my visit to CERN as a summer student. My personal drive for research came from the freedom to work on interesting (socio)technical issues and frequent traveling. These two motivational factors converged to burdens over time: frequent travels with family is a challenge, and then there is constant pressure to publish or perish. After completing my PhD, I faced yet another challenge: the need to create a constant stream of research funding. In academia, I was used to hop from grant to grant (and temporary employment contracts) from 2007 onwards.

The search for a stable family-friendly research environment eventually led me to the FH St. Pölten. The downside of being a lecturer was the high amount of teaching and the ongoing shift of teaching towards weekends and evenings (to better cater to working information security students). In addition to teaching, I was happy to work some extra hours on my Usable Privacy Project.

In 2017, I finally decided to leave academia for industry. Even though my blog paints a different story, I spend an considerable amount in industry before my time in academia (e.g. at uniforce, RHI Magnesita, unicredit Bank Austria). To this extend I did not jump entirely into cold water after academia. The remainder of this blog post covers my personal transition from academia back to industry.

First off some misconceptions I observed in my transition phase:

Misconceptions in computer security academia vs. industry

academics: we lack skills (imposter syndrome)

In academia, I personally always had the constant fear that I lack (technical) skills and that somebody will find out soon. In the light of the ivory tower misconception, I thus (wrongly) assumed that I lack privacy and security skills for industry.

academics: it is easy to apply bleeding-edge knowledge in industry

On the other extreme of “the fear of missing skills”, I personally had the misconception that it is easy to apply current privacy & security best-practices in industry (e.g. all API endpoints with TLS 1.3 support, U2F based multi-factor authentication …). Turned it is even tricky to enable TLS at some endpoints at all taking months of alignment meetings.

industry: “academia is super relaxed with little working hours”

When I interviewed for my job at Runtastic, I was told towards the end of the interview: “We just wanted to let you know that we expect some extra hours here at Runtastic; not like at the FH”. Once I asked how much they expected, I was puzzled: “10 hours” – “per week?” – “no 10 hours extra per month”.

I laughed hard about the 10 extra hours per month requirement.

While there might be lecturers and maybe even researchers who work little hours, I experienced the exact opposite. Especially as a postdoc, researchers work like crazy, so 60 hours per week are an absolute minimum. This took me some time (and visits) to realize, but academics work crazy hours. My working hours in my last three years industry where considerable less than for any academic on tenure track.

industry: academics live in ivory towers and solve rubric cubes

The other misconception from industry, I often witnessed, is the belief that all academics live in ivory towers (looking at you, sensor-net / semantic web bubble). At SBA research, I was lucky to contribute to some high-impact (pop-science) security exploits of real-world services (e.g. Dropbox, Facebook, WhatsApp). So while the ivory tower misconception might be true for some academics, the majority of academic (infosec) research is very much applicable to industry (beware of ‘bleeding edge’ and industry though).

Useful skills from academia for industry

After initial doubts I found the skills I required as a researcher were very helpful for privacy & security engineering in industry …

experience with open source software

Open Source Software thrives in the academic community and a considerable amount of systems in industry now also rely on OSS (Linux, PostgreSQL) instead of commercial vendor software (Windows Server, Oracle).

communication & project management skills

Over time you have to learn how to address your target audience at conference talks and students you teach: what is the background of my audience?, which basic knowledge do they have?, etc.
This skill comes in handy at industry for holding internal trainings (~= teaching) and presentations (~=conference talks).

Personal learning from the past 3 years

PhDs are a great base for industry

Part of the issue I wanted to discuss in this blog post, is the potential fear of postdocs to lack skills for industry (cmp. imposter syndrome). I therefore hope some of the skills discussed above encourage you to believe in the skills you acquired during a PhD in information security.

Every single time, it is about people not tech

The other big learning I had over the past three years in industry (and this happens every single time): decisions in industry are exclusively based on the people you are working with. I was first surprised that people in industry want to “foster a data-driven decision culture”. In academia you always had to show at least some data to make your case, in industry decisions are often based solely on intuition or vendor who lobby for their products.

Finally, there is another interesting perk in industry: you get to solve interesting real world challenges and do not have to solve your own research problems (“Im eigenen Saft schmoren”).

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