By Mariel Klosterman

Into the Cybersecurity Wormhole

I found my way into cybersecurity through what seemed like a chance encounter. As a high school student with an uncertain future and no idea of what to do upon graduation, my breakthrough came from a GenCyber camp for girls hosted by Dakota State University. My dad had a firm belief that I should look into the technology field, because it would always be relevant, and there was a distinct lack of females. I, however, was more skeptical.

My older brothers had competed in programming and cyber defense competitions, and while I found it cool, it had never seemed to be for me. I had also worked as a virtual assistant, creating websites, maintaining them, editing photos and videos, and other tasks. While I was good at it, it didn’t maintain my interest, and I soon left the position.

One of my brothers who was attending Dakota State University mentioned that we could apply for an information technology (GenCyber) camp that the university was hosting. I applied for and was accepted for the camp. The core classes were interesting, but what fascinated me and sparked my passion for cybersecurity were two electives—one where I learned about exif data and one where I learned about man-in-the-middle attacks.

A Double Take

Sometimes you find that a person in your life who has been there all along becomes more important than you ever thought or expected. Cynthia is one such person in my own life. I first saw her speak at a GenCyber camp. It was after she had spoken at the Rocket Girls CyberSpace Camp that my sister attended. It is rare for my sister to mention specific sessions, but she mentioned Cynthia and included a line that she had dropped: “Being an investigator is like being a stalker, but you get paid.” (I can’t remember the specific quote.)

My sister had met Cynthia and spoken with her, and when she heard that Cynthia would be speaking at the GenCyber camp, she encouraged me to attend her session. I did and was amazed and intrigued by the work Cynthia did and her ability to make the presentation so engaging. Still, I didn’t think that being an investigator was the line of work for me.

It wasn’t until I started my undergraduate studies that I started a research project on sock puppet accounts. I became interested in online investigations and soon after attended one of Cynthia’s webinars called “Search Engine Skills for Workplace Investigators.” After the webinar, I connected with Cynthia on LinkedIn and sent her a message mentioning that I had great takeaways from the webinar and that I would be presenting my research project to my local InfraGard chapter. Cynthia told me to keep practicing and to keep her posted.

A few months later, Dr. Arica Kulm, whom I knew from my studies at Dakota State University (DSU), and with whom I had shared my research project, emailed me and Cynthia to introduce us. She mentioned that DSU was working with Cynthia on a workforce development program and that Cynthia was interested in my work on sock puppets. This was the beginning of many interactions and correspondence with Cynthia and her team that would impact my life deeply.

Go For Something You Like and Find Your Niche

When I reached out to Cynthia through email for her advice and perspective on pursuing a master’s studies, she responded with clarity and detail about the benefits of pursuing a master’s degree and offered a view that I hadn’t considered. We all know the age-old advice about pursuing your passion, but Cynthia’s take was a grounded one: Go for something you like and utilize it. She had a degree in library science and built a very successful company using what she had gained from it.

Keep Lists and Be Worried When They Dwindle

I’m always looking for another way or a better way to be more organized, and when I asked Cynthia how she stayed organized, she told me to keep lists and look at them all the time. “Time management is everything.”

These are three key points that I took away:

  • Focus on items that have deadlines
  • What has the most value for my time
  • Determine my values (family, career, etc.) and build calendars around those things.

But the biggest piece of wisdom that blew me away was: “Be worried when your lists are low.” It sounds counterintuitive, but it makes a ton of sense. I used to see long lists as a bad thing and believed that my goal was to have nothing left. But what Cynthia said made a lot of sense. It’s about balance, and if your list of things to do is low, the balance is off.

A Great Connector

A good mentor has insightful advice, perspective, and suggestions for you. A great mentor takes it a step further and connects you with opportunities and people who can benefit you. One of Cynthia’s biggest strengths as a leader and a mentor is her ability to forge connections and opportunities for people. Cynthia connected me with Kirby Plessas, Cynthia Navarro, Matt Spaier, and many other experts in the fields of investigations and intelligence who have provided insight and guidance for my career.

The Platinum Rule

From my interactions with Cynthia, she has abided by one of the greatest rules of being a mentor: Treating your mentee as they wish to be treated. All too often, mentors give you advice without knowing what you’re looking for or what you want. Some mentors give you advice for where they think you should go. In this aspect, Cynthia stands above many other mentors.

Cynthia listens first, asks questions, and then provides opportunities. She doesn’t expect them to be taken, but rather to be considered. As one of Cynthia’s mentees, I have always felt listened to, understood, and appreciated. I like detail in answers when I ask questions, and Cynthia provides that. She is straight to the point and tells it like it is—and that’s exactly what I want. A great communicator is fluid and adapts her style to match the person she’s speaking with, and Cynthia does that.

And last, but absolutely paramount, is Cynthia’s encouragement and inspirational ways. I have times of doubt and anxiety where I think I don’t measure up, and Cynthia has reminded me that I have all it takes. A great mentor can give you advice and they can connect you with the best people and opportunities, but if they don’t uplift and inspire, they have missed one of the most important aspects of being a mentor. Cynthia is one of the mentors who doesn’t miss a beat.

Being the Mentor in Someone Else’s Story

When you are young, whether in age or journey, the challenges you face make you feel like the main character of a story that will go nowhere and will never be a bestseller. But when you find the Mentor—the wise guide who gives you knowledge, opportunities, and confidence—you will see your journey in a different light and finally discover your power to slay the monster.

I have always wondered and will likely continue to wonder if there is someone out there who looks up to me and could use my help. Cynthia has blessed me with advice, opportunities, and introductions far more than I could ever ask for or expect. She has shown me what it can look like when you become the Mentor in someone else’s story. Right now, I have my own journey and challenges to face. But I work hard because someday I too, will be the Mentor in someone else’s story—and I cannot wait to pass on what Cynthia has bestowed to me.

About Mariel Klosterman

Mariel Klosterman, a senior at Dakota State University, is currently majoring in Network and Security Administration. With areas of interest are defensive security and open-source intelligence (OSINT), Ms. Klosterman has conducted significant research relating to sock puppet accounts, which are an integral part of OSINT and digital investigations. She has received recognition and an award for her research from the OSMOSIS Institute. Ms. Klosterman is an accomplished speaker, presenting at professional groups and conferences including InfraGard South Dakota, NEbraskaCERT, OSMOSISCon, Day of Shecurity, and Rainbow Secure Cyber Symposium. She has appeared on podcasts such as PI Perspectives and Great Women in Fraud. Ms. Klosterman is passionate about security and enjoys sharing her knowledge and skills. She is a member of South Dakota’s InfraGard and Women in Cyber Security (WiCyS) chapters.