Career path: Golf course, rock band, NIST
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Computer scientist Richard Ayers has worked in the IT Lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology since 2002. He is a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Tulsa with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer sciences, but he came to IT in a roundabout way that included stints as a golfer and professional musician.
His path eventually led to the Cyber Corps' Scholarships for Service program, which funds students in undergraduate and graduate computer sciences programs in exchange for a commitment to work for the government.
“I really grew up on the golf course, and that was pretty much my life,” Ayers said. “I was born in Georgia, I lived in Missouri for a while, and I really got into junior golf in Arkansas. From 9 to 17, that’s pretty much all I did was play golf. The age of 14 was my best year; I played 15 tournaments and won every one of them and was ranked No. 1 in the state.”
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Around the age of 9, he also began teaching himself to play guitar, and after burning out on the national junior golf circuit, he found that music became his primary interest. “What kid doesn’t want to be a rock star?” he asked.
While studying architecture at Louisiana Tech University, he joined a band and began playing weekend gigs. “I played with numerous rock bands and happened to get involved with a group that got signed by promoters and put us on tour,” he said.
After two years of touring, sometimes playing as many as six shows a week, the luster of life on the road began to wear off. “I had fun, but it was an eye-opener,” he said. “You really have to have a lot of luck in the music business to make a living at it. It’s an extremely difficult profession.”
Ayers talked with GCN reporter William Jackson about his path to a government career as a computer scientist.
GCN: How did you come from this background to IT?
AYERS: I started out studying architecture, and then I went on the road, and after touring, I relocated to the Tulsa, Okla., area. I was burned out from being a musician and I went for a job interview in a market research firm. Technology has always interested me, and they noticed that I had a knack for fixing computers, so I got into the IT department as a junior programmer. I really knew nothing about programming. But some guys who were very knowledgeable about programming taught me. Another mentor gave me some freelance programming jobs, and I finally ended up managing a group of programmers at the company.
At that point, I said decided it would be beneficial to go back to school and study computer science. I went to the University of Tulsa, and with all of the classes I had taken at Louisiana Tech, I only needed 18 computer credits to complete a bachelor’s degree.
How did you become involved in Cyber Corps?
One of my advisers talked to me about the possibility of getting involved in Cyber Corps in 2001. It was just starting, and we at the University of Tulsa were the first Cyber Corps class.
How valuable was the Scholarships for Service program to you?
It was tremendous. Not only do you get a free master’s degree — this was at a private university, and tuition is not cheap — but you had to study your ass off, and they wanted you to make a 3.8 grade [point] average or above.
On a four-point scale?
Yes. They had very high expectations, and that’s how they chose which students became involved in the Cyber Corps. I did very well on my bachelor’s degree. It was like golf and music — when I get involved with something, I like to do the best I can possibly do, and I think my adviser saw that and suggested that I get involved. I was 30 at the time, and most of the other kids were 19 or 20. But I was still a kid at heart, and I got along with them.
We received a stipend, and all the books were covered, and that was our job: We went to school. The opportunities were great. I got to do a presentation at Microsoft in front of a huge crowd. My adviser was very big on presenting at conferences, and that was very beneficial. It takes practice to get comfortable. Being a musician and being on stage a lot, that also helped.
The opportunity of doing an internship at NIST was huge, and that’s what I did during the summer. Then I came back, finished the degree, and under the Scholarship for Service, there was a two-year minimum of government work.
Did you initially intend to have a government career beyond the service obligation?
Before I got involved with Cyber Corps, I had never even thought of working for the government. When I got involved and did the internship at NIST, most definitely. I really enjoyed working at NIST, and there was a lot of opportunity there. For me, it wasn’t about making big bucks; it was about having security and enjoying the work and the people around you. I had worked in a high-stress situation at the market research firm, where you’ve got to sometimes work 80-hour weeks, and that’s tough.
You were first introduced to NIST during your internship?
I was, during the summer of 2002.
Did you have a choice in that?
We all had choices of where we went. I wasn’t too selective. It could have been [the National Security Agency] or NASA, or it could have been NIST. My adviser got me in touch with Tim Grance [then a computer security specialist at NIST], and I decided to go.
What convinced you to remain there?
This is a great place to work. The people are very friendly, extremely knowledgeable, and the projects you are given are challenging and the opportunities are, quite honestly, never-ending.
Do you get to pick what you do, or is it a matter of getting assigned to something?
To a certain degree, you get to choose the area you are doing research in. Then it’s broken up by the group you’re involved in. I’m in the Computer Forensic Tool Testing program, and that’s what I do. I’m testing tools and their ability to acquire data from digital devices.
What I’ve been doing is testing tools that have the ability to acquire data from mobile devices, like cellular phones. There are a lot of tools out there that have the ability to acquire data from these devices. The steering committee decides which tools will be tested, and over the past two years, I’ve tested about 20. I populate each of these devices with a predefined dataset, so I know exactly what’s on the phone, and then we test the tool based on its functionalities and capabilities and generate a report. This allows tool-makers the opportunity to improve their tools, and it allows the forensics community to have an understanding of the capabilities and limitations of tools.
What do you find satisfying about this?
It’s playing with technology and getting to watch technology evolve. It’s very cool. There are not a lot of people who get to play with all these different software tools and have at their disposal all of these new digital devices. Right now, I’m playing with the Android phones, and it’s a lot of fun.
What is the level of maturity for these types of tools?
The tools have definitely improved over the last five years. I started testing tools that had the ability to acquire data from personal digital assistants, like Palm devices or Windows Mobile devices, in 2003. Then in 2004, the next big thing was cell phone forensics, and I started testing those tools. In the beginning, performing an acquisition on a cell phone was very tedious and troublesome, and the tools were temperamental. The tools have really improved, but the vendors have a big challenge in providing support for so many phones. Every time a new family of devices comes out, they have to update their software. It’s never-ending, and I will continue to test tools because as new versions are put out, they have to be tested.
Do you intend to remain on this career path?
Most definitely. I have no desire to go anywhere else. I get e-mails from people all the time asking [if I] have any advice on how I might get involved in a program, and I tell them about my experience. It’s been a very rewarding experience and a lot of fun, and the opportunities are great.