Allen Walker is grateful for the way Old Dominion University supported him when he pursued bachelor's and master's degrees.
"When I explained to my professors, 'Hey, I don't understand this,' even with online classes I was taking in grad school, they would literally break it down step by step for me," Walker, 33, said. "They didn't have to do that. They could have said 'It's online, figure it out.' But ODU just said, 'Hey, how can we assist, how can we help, how can we do this for you?'"
He's paying that back in a big way.
Walker, who earned a BA criminal justice in 2011 and an MS cybersecurity in 2019, works for Boeing as a security design engineer and is a subject matter expert in encryption support, carbon black operations and secondary to endpoint security for the entire Boeing enterprise worldwide. He's also formed a company, CySecSol, LLC, with a mission to diversify the cybersecurity field, prepare aspiring professionals for cybersecurity careers and to help them go on to college - particularly ODU's School of Cybersecurity.
Walker, who was recently honored as a Modern-Day Technology Leader at the 2022 Black Engineer of the Year Award (BEYA) STEM Conference, has recommended more than a dozen students to ODU's School of Cybersecurity.
"I have not had a single dropout; I have not had a single failure," Walker said. "Everyone has either graduated or is still in the program."
Hongyi "Michael" Wu, director of ODU's School of Cybersecurity, said Walker richly deserves the BEYA award. He noted that Walker was part of ODU's first class to graduate with an MS in cybersecurity.
"Since then, he has closely connected with ODU and spoken highly about the University," Wu said. "He has recommended over 15 students to join our BS and MS in cybersecurity programs. Almost all of them are minority students. It is an example of how word of mouth is the best marketing to grow our cybersecurity program."
Walker formed CySeSol, LLC, in 2019, shortly after he was hired by Boeing. His motivation?
"I noticed at ODU that I didn't see a lot of guys that looked like me," he said. "Then when I went to Boeing, I definitely didn't see a lot of guys that looked like me. So, I just want to change the rhetoric a little bit."
Participation has grown quickly. Two people started internships at CySeSol in 2019; now there are approximately 100.
Interns enter a one-year training program. There are three paths they can pursue - getting the certifications to go right into the field, getting the educational background they'll need to enroll at ODU or pursuing both certifications and the college educational components. Lectures are held on Mondays via Zoom and in person bimonthly at varying locations. People can enter the program at any time of the year, and there is no limit on the number of interns.
"I do not want to be the reason someone is hindered in pursuing this career field," Walker explained. "So if they can only join in March or May or July, then who am I to tell them to wait?"
Interns pay $150 to enter program. Why that amount?
"Before I got to the position I'm in now, I used to think $150 was a lot of money," Walker said.
But when interns, who also pay $50 quarterly dues, leave the program, they're reimbursed that $150 plus the cost of every certification they attain, which in some cases can amount to several thousand dollars.
"I'm not in this to make money," said Walker, whose eight-person volunteer executive team includes ODU alums Xavier Palmer, Lamar Pierce and Reginald Ralph in addition to Ariel Ramos, who will enter ODU's cyber graduate program in the fall. "We want to see them succeed by any means necessary. It is OK we do not have funding. We are impacting the lives of folks who would have not otherwise gotten this opportunity. That is the real win that we are seeking."
Walker, who lives in Franklin, is also offering the program in the Franklin City Public Schools and Southampton County Public Schools systems.
Walker's path to cybersecurity was not a straight line.
His father served in the Navy and the family lived around the world before moving to Virginia when Walker was 17. After graduating from Azalea Garden Christian School in Norfolk, he enrolled at ODU in 2006. He said he "failed out" of ODU in 2008, served the Army for nine years and eventually earned his bachelor's degree in 2016.
He wanted to be a state trooper. When he wasn't hired, he enrolled in ODU's graduate school seeking a humanities degree. After realizing that wasn't for him, he switched to cybersecurity.
"I had no background in it except for what I did in the Army, which was Army intelligence," he said.
He feels his journey could serve as a guidepost for others.
"We cater to everyone," he said. "Even folks who do not fit the mold. My main focus is getting people who would not otherwise have been given the opportunity to enter into cybersecurity. The people who never thought this was something they could do. I tell everyone, I came into cybersecurity in 2018 right when I started at ODU. If I can do it knowing nothing, then anyone can do it."