Some college students might be intimidated if they were told that immediately after graduating they would begin work for the U.S. Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic in the field of national cybersecurity and cyberdefense.
It sounds like an intense first job.
Nikki Ruf, a May 2020 graduate in computer networking and information technology from University of Wisconsin-Stout, did exactly that.
But she wasn’t intimidated. She was ready.
“It felt like a natural transition. It went very smoothly for me,” said Ruf, who began work last July as an information technology specialist and project manager at the government facility in Charleston, S.C.
More than a half year later, she’s continuing to enjoy the stimulating work. “The most exciting part is just knowing the impact I can have. I’m excited every day to assist the war fighter and get them everything they need to do their job,” Ruf said.
In retrospect, she was preparing for a high-impact first job all along both in class and beyond while at UW-Stout. Along with her IT-focused CNIT degree, Ruf left UW-Stout with other important training and experiences.
The Eagan, Minn., native had two internships, at U.S. Bank and Securian Financial, both in the Twin Cities. “They were key to my development. They paired what I was learning in class to the real world, which gave me a better idea of what I wanted to do in my career.”
Ruf also graduated with two certifications through her major, Certified Network Associate; and Cyber Security and Cyber Defense — Computer Networking Certificate.
On campus, Ruf was president of the campus Sport Clubs Commission, was a member of several student organizations and even started a student group, Women in Information and Technology and Security. The involvement paid dividends in the form of confidence and skill when she began working at NIWC Atlantic.
“Being involved in leadership and learning how to be a leader was a huge influence on me. It’s a great addition to your college experience,” she said.
Along with the internships, certifications and leadership experiences, Ruf credits the hands-on classes in her major. She’s used to doing, not just listening — including competing and placing second and third in a national computer networking tournament in 2019 with other UW-Stout students.
“When Stout says they’re hands-on, they really mean that. Most of my classes were hands-on. Academically, it was better than I could have asked for. I didn’t realize at first how much I would enjoy it,” she said.
Ruf cited a network design course, taught by Professor Holly Yuan, CNIT program director, as her favorite. “Holly separated the class into groups, and we were given a problem statement and had to write a proposal to solve the problem. It really prepared me for the position I’m in now with project management and leadership, public speaking and documentation — I use all of those every day. The class was very realistic to what you could be doing every day in a job.”
Project management role
Ruf received a federal scholarship in 2018 that led to the job at NIWC Atlantic. UW-Stout is recognized by the U.S. Department of Defense as a Center of Academic Excellence for Cyber Defense.
In addition to the scholarship, Ruf had to commit to working a year for the Department of Defense, with an option to remain on staff beyond the commitment.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I had to go for the scholarship. At the time it was out of my comfort zone to be assigned a position postgraduation without knowing much about it, but because I was interested in IT — I’ve been interested in it since middle school — I took the risk and applied,” she said.
Yuan said Ruf was a standout student at UW-Stout and the scholarship boosted Ruf’s career aspirations.
“Nikki is one of the most intelligent and strong students from our CNIT program. The Department of Defense cybersecurity scholarship program is a life-changing opportunity for our students and helped Nikki enter into the cybersecurity profession right after the graduation. I am glad to see she is doing so well and protecting our country’s cyberspace,” Yuan said.
At NIWC Atlantic, Ruf is especially enjoying her project management role — she learned about project management in business courses that were part of the CNIT major — and could see herself gravitating toward that area in her career.
As part of the Information Warfare Research Project team, she manages as many as 10 prototype projects at a time in areas such as cloud computing, cyberwarfare and the internet of things.
“The goal of the team is to advance naval information warfare through rapid prototyping so the war fighters can do their job. We’re trying to push out these prototypes into production. My job is to get them through the process,” Ruf said.
“Some aspects of the job have come pretty easily; some I’ve never touched before, like contracts, funding and other in-depth aspects. I’m learning to adapt and take on the challenges.”