Ticket Into Tech shows that IT and cybersecurity are for everyone

Michael Specchierla’s career began as a teacher and librarian more than 20 years ago. As computers and the Internet made their way into schools in the mid-1990s, he quickly saw the potential they could have and, although he didn’t know exactly how everything worked, jumped at the opportunity to figure it out with his students and colleagues.

Specchierla still applies that mindset today as the Director of Career and Technical Education for the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education. In that role, he’s responsible for creating programs that give students the skills they need to meet the demand for IT and cybersecurity jobs in the region.

Along the way, Specchierla has always stressed the importance of innovation and hands-on learning. The desire to learn and motivate others goes much farther than degrees or technical experience when it comes to introducing students to new concepts like IT and cybersecurity.

“We took a classic 1960s library and brought a computer lab into it,” he said. “We learned pretty quickly how to set up routers and servers and get the bandwidth moving. I taught a library assistant how to do basic troubleshooting so they would know when to escalate.”

Specchierla oversees the SLO Partners program, which connects business and education to promote real-world learning through apprenticeships and create pathways from the classroom to IT jobs in less than two years.

Throughout his career, Specchierla has seen that technology changes quickly and it is impossible for teachers to stay on top of everything. Letting go of the notion that teachers need to have the answer to every question is essential for success in IT and cybersecurity, as he’s experienced in his own teaching.

“The subject matter and content will keep on changing, and you need to be willing to learn it alongside people,” he said. “I took comfort in the fact that I didn’t know all of the answers, but I knew more about how to solve problems and figure things out quickly so I could help them find the answers they needed.”

Specchierla’s experience in the K-12 world demonstrated that anyone could enter the technology field, no matter what level of familiarity with technology they had. This philosophy lies at the heart of SLO Partners Ticket Into Tech Program, which provides training and apprenticeships to people from all backgrounds who have the desire to learn.

Ticket Into Tech provides a mix of online and classroom learning, along with a yearlong apprenticeship, to give participants the skills they need to obtain stable, high-paying jobs as software developers, software testing technicians, IT technicians, and other technology-related positions.

“We brought in people who had minimal experience with tech and never thought they could do it,” he said. “Our apprenticeship program allows them to start doing the work and getting the confidence that comes with it. Employes are going to see that they’re a good bet.”

And, thanks to the efforts by Specchierla and his team, employers are already starting to see the benefits that Ticket Into Tech provides. The immersive approach Specchierla piloted in his classrooms and libraries is paying off for businesses throughout the San Luis Obispo region.

“Bootcamp-style training programs are so effective for technology. They essentially throw all the information at you so you can see what sticks and what piques your interest,” said Dan Blike, Lead Software Engineer at IQMS. “A lot of people don’t know what they like about tech until they experience it. It’s also hard to see why the theory and curriculum matters until you start building something, so it provides that much-needed context.”

Specchierla said Ticket Into Tech’s success shows the power that can come when industry and education work together.

“If you use your employer partners correctly, they’ll give you those real-world problems and that’s what you need to bring into the classroom,” he said.

Clever Ducks, an IT consulting firm in San Luis Obispo, has hosted several Ticket Into Tech apprentices, who gained hands-on experience from the company’s more seasoned employees. Co-founder Amy Kardel sees the apprenticeship program as a critical part of building and sustaining a cybersecurity workforce.

“When we think about cybersecurity we think often of only the point of the spear cyber warrior types, but cybersecurity requires a whole army of skilled tech workforce to set things up correctly in the IT environment and maintain them,” Kardel said. “Apprenticeships let us train this essential workforce efficiently and meet the needs of the job market while giving people a great start in a growing career field.”

Moving forward, Specchierla hopes Ticket Into Tech’s success will help break the stereotype that people need to have technical backgrounds to succeed in the technology industry or mentor others looking to do so. This applies to teachers, coaches, and anyone else looking to take on a mentoring role in IT or cybersecurity.

It might seem counterintuitive or even a little scary to think about, but as Specchierla’s career has shown, it definitely pays off in the end.

“Early on in my teaching career, one of my mentor teachers said that the teacher shouldn’t be the hardest person working in the room or the one doing all the work,” Specchierla said. “High schools and community colleges need to create environments that allow the learning to be supported and amplified and allow students to gain confidence in the process.”