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June 7, 2022 22 mins

Spencer Lanning lost his job during COVID, and is one of many people who were forced to face their demons in the isolation of the pandemic. Coming out the other side, he now protects Vermonters from hackers in his job as a cyber security analyst. 

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Speaker 1 (00:07):
Welcome to On the Job. This season, we're focusing on
how people and businesses are getting back to work. Let's
call it a great transformation, a change in the way
workers are thinking. Employers need people to work more than ever,
putting laborers in a sort of position of power. We'll
be hearing from people navigating this new normal for themselves
as they find their life's work. COVID forced a lot

(00:32):
of people to face their demons in a way they
might not have expected. The loss of work took away
daily purpose for many and left a lot of us
trying to fill that void with whatever we could well. Today,
we talked to Spencer, who lost his job when COVID
hit and found new work in cybersecurity, a rapidly growing
field that's desperately needed as hackers get better and better

(00:52):
at what they do, and it's a job that gave
him the opportunity to help others as he dealt with
addiction struggles that many people faced in the isolation of
the pandemic. After many remote interviews to make this season,
I had the fortune of meeting up with a friend
of mine in person for this episode. My name is
Spencer Landing. I am an information security analyst for the

(01:16):
State of Vermont. Spencer's fifty two years old, got a
clean shaven head, glasses, a mustache, address shirt, and the
background in chemistry. This is that kind of why you've
got to Walter White look going on. Yes, I I
do math on the side, That's what this is really
about you. I'm trying to sell it on the on

(01:37):
the on the state level, we'll never know for sure.
Security analyst is a pretty good front well in that job.
Working for the state, Spencer's primary job is risk assessment,
So we have to look at everything that we do
because we do use personal like infallible information such as
people SoC security number, their names or addresses, all of

(01:59):
that kind of stuff. If you do your job poorly,
what happens. Well, If if I do my job poorly,
then we have the possibility of having a security leak
that can harm potentially tens of thousands of people. So
he spends every day working to improve that security so

(02:19):
Vermonters don't have to worry about their information being stolen.
And he says that at his core, that's all I
t workers and cybersecurity people want to do. They want
to help and they want to make your life easier,
better and safer, or to protect you from yourself, because
there's an awful lot you don't think about when you

(02:40):
do things, and uh, it's my job to think about
all the things you possibly could do that could make
your life really bad, really bad, really bad, because when
a hacker has your information, they can sell it and
that can really mess with your life. You can get

(03:01):
your identity stolen, you can have your credit cards maxed out.
You've heard all the stories. Well, Spencer, make sure that
the people who work for the state are being safe
online and not opening sketchy emails because if they got compromised,
hackers could have a backdoor to the state databases. There
are safeguards in there in between, but um, it is uh,

(03:22):
you know, it's how this sort of thing happens. That is,
nine of the attacks happen through email, and all it
is is just you click a link and poof there.
It is Vermont of small state, so they might not
see as much action as other states as far as
fending off hackers goes. However, the threat is constant and

(03:43):
a breach has pretty dire consequences. So the only real
things that people would probably glean from it is the
ability for them to them to actually go through the
state government to infect federal government. By law, state governments
are required by the I r S and other federal
agencies to have a certain level of security, a number

(04:05):
they have to hit to pass regulation. As he's in
risk management, Spencer and his team use software that assigns
risk numbers to everything, like the software, employees are using,
the equipment, they're using, lots of other factors. So we
add all of those things up and give the agency
basically a number that says, this is what your risk is. Now.

(04:25):
The I r S wants this number. So how are
we going to get from this very large number to
this very small number? How are we going to mitigate
this risk? Do you always want to do something like
this not security? I'd always I've always been a nerd
from the ton nozzle small and fell in love with

(04:48):
computers and and science. Those are the two Those are
the two things math, science and computers. Those were my
those were my strengths. Spencer grew up in West Texas,
real small town near Lubbock. It was very rural. There
wasn't a lot to do, so Spencer got lost in
other worlds as early as five when he got his
first library card, which the library didn't normally do that,

(05:09):
but I would go and check out five books and
then read them all in a day or two at most,
and then go back note five books. When he was
in sixth grade, his school brought a couple of the
first Apple two computers into their library, and the librarian
to old Spencer to check them out. So I went
in there and played with them, and I was like,
this is actually really cool, and then started checking out

(05:30):
books and starting to learn how to program, and you know,
I can do this, and I can do this, and
I can do this, and so it was just a
natural love for things like you went out of your
way as a kid to learn how to do all that,
like original rudimentary coding for the old computers. Yes I did.
I spent my lunch periods in the library on those computers.

(05:53):
I must You must have stood out, Yeah, like a
sore nerd thumb. Spencer was definitely different. He didn't fit
into the normal crowd the way some other kids might.
So the books, the coding, they were a refuge. Yeah,
it was. It was. It was definitely escape. You know,
didn't have a happy childhood. Perhaps we'll say that anyway. UM.

(06:16):
And so that wasn't It was sort of an escape, UM.
And it was something that I could control, you know,
you can control everything that the computer does. And uh,
I liked that. That was that was you know, it
was one of those moments of I can own that

(06:43):
he loved coding, loved it, loved it so much that
by the time he was about to go to college,
he knew that he couldn't go into computer programming because
I can remember in high school when I was programming,
I would lose days totally just trying to find the
two or three bugs that were in there that I
missed a semical in here, and I missed you know,
spacing here, and I would I would just dive into

(07:06):
the code and just I would lose absolute track of time.
Coding was a refuge for him, but it was also
an obsession, why is this not working? Why is it's
not working? Wise it's not working, and trying to find
that one little, one little mistake somewhere that that was
causing the whole thing to not work. And you're the
kind of person you had to know, had to know, Yeah,

(07:28):
I couldn't just let it go. It was a mistake.
He decided instead of going down that road, he'd get
a degree in chemistry, one of his other passions. He
did that, got an internship at Dow Chemical while in college,
but he didn't love it. He left school for a bit,
not thinking it was right for him, but then he
got pulled right back in by his love for computers.

(07:50):
Eventually wound up with a technical writing degree, actually with
a modern computer science you know, it made me a
happy person. He got a job at a nonprofit within
the university as a computer analyst. Then he jumped from
there to New York City to work at the World
Federalist Movement, another nonprofit. He was coming up with I
T plans, helping them acquire their software, helped them with development,

(08:12):
anything computer related. I became basically a system admin for them.
So you were the I T guy that like, if
there was anything wrong in the company in the building there,
like call Spencer, yes, because there was only me I was.
I was the I T. That was a eighteen year job.

(08:41):
During that time, Spencer and his wife, Ava had a daughter.
Ava got offered a job in Vermont, which they loved
every time they drove through it. So they decided to
move there, and Spencer kept his job at the nonprofit.
I was like, I can still do my job no
matter where, as long as I have an Internet connection.
Um and so I did. I did. I did that
for quite some time, right up until Spencer was doing

(09:03):
this remote work. But then, of course, in March COVID happened.
The non property worked for was pretty much held up
by big grants which went away pretty quick, and the
staff started dropping off one by one. I was able
to hang on for a little while, and then, um
and May, the majority of the funding went away, and
so it dwindled down and dwindled down and dwindled down,

(09:24):
and finally I t became not a necessary component, but
something that they just couldn't afford. Like many people in
early Spencer was very suddenly out of his stable job,
and also, like a lot of people around that time,
was facing isolation that would become a reckoning for him,

(09:47):
and so it wasn't in the best mental state, and
things kind of went downhill for me. Um, after I
lost my job. We'll be right back with Spencer's story
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(10:54):
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dot com or on the Express Jobs app. Back to Spencer,
he just got put out of work and like a
lot of people, he's having a hard time with the
isolation and began to have a bit of alcohol problem

(11:18):
and things kind of went downhill from me. Spencer admits
that he was a habitual drinker before COVID, but a
few years into the pandemic. Now I feel like looking back,
when the world really closed down, people had to face
their habits in close quarters, and there was a real
fork in the road where some people got shaken up

(11:39):
and they're like, you know, I'm gonna start doing yo good,
I'm gonna get my dream job, and like basically using
the isolation to I don't know, clean themselves up or whatever.
And then there was the other direction where the isolation
was just a place where you can go and self destruct.
It definitely I did not go into the happy let's

(12:02):
go do yoga and let's clean our lives up. Let's yeah,
I know, the isolation really tore at me and gave
me an opportunity to drink more. That was the thing
that that really kind of seem in it. It became
such such a daily obsession, such a daily obsession. Spencer

(12:33):
doesn't blame COVID for his drinking, but says it definitely
didn't help. He says he always knew their word demons
that he hadn't faced yet. But I was able to
shove that down onto a floorboard, way way down, deep
into the dark crevices of my mind and did that
for a really long time and was I guess successful

(12:53):
at it um But it eventually eventually catches up because
eventually you do feel up the entire basement and it
starts overflowing. A lot of the things that he was
shoving under the floorboards were from his rough childhood. He
had a lot of trauma that he hadn't dealt with,

(13:14):
so in this new isolation where a lot of it
was coming back up, he drank more to bury it.
And that overflowing basement isn't really a metaphor for Spencer.
The deciding factor for me was when my wife took
me down into the basement and showed me all of
the empties into it whole. Wow, it was. It was

(13:37):
one of those clarity moments, and I had tried to
stop and couldn't, and so I had to go get
help um and I found a group who helped me
out of like minded people who who gave me the
strength and the ability to dig myself out of the
hole that I was in and give me hope for

(14:00):
the future. Spencer is far from a loan between the
isolation and losing the purpose that comes with waking up
every day for a job. Addiction rates and substance abuse
drastically rose all over the world. I can attest to
this because I was one of those people. I had
always had demons too that I smothered with alcohol. But

(14:20):
COVID gave me a place to self destruct in a
way that I never really had. Took me to the
lowest moments of my life. And I know this is
weird to say, but I'm grateful it did because I
got desperate enough to get better. Just like Spencer. That
was a that was a good moment in my life
in a bad moment of my life. It's kind of

(14:41):
a it's sort of a bittersweet moment, but I'm so
glad that it happened because I mean, it's such a
much better place than I have ever been in before
in my life. Same buddy, So he decided to make
some changes. First, he had to get out of this isolation.

(15:01):
He needed something to do every day, so for a job.
I actually became the head brewer for a local brewery
while I was trying to get sober. Uh, he admits,
not the most beneficial place to be at the moment,
but it was a job. It got him working. He

(15:22):
left that after a few months when an I T
job nearby came up, and then there was another one.
There was a job that came up and it was
like asking for a information security analyst, and I was like,
I don't know anything about it, but I'll apply for it.
But there this was the job with the State that
he has. Now he's never done cybersecurity before, but he
still had that attitude from when he was young, where

(15:43):
if he didn't know something, he was a dog after
a bone and he had to figure it out. And
that helps in the security industry, um, because you do
need to find those bugs you need you need to
find those holes you need to find and what we
need to patch and what we need to do. And
after tier interviews, I got the job and here I am,

(16:04):
you know, nine months later back to present day. He
loves his job. He works every day to make sure
of Vermonter's personal information is safe and if he's doing
his job well, people probably never hear about it. No,
And I t you typically don't hear when things work,

(16:26):
do you hear when they don't work? So and that's
just that's just a nature of the beast. But he
says he still gets a ton of satisfaction out of it.
It can be thankless and might be work that most
people don't realize exists until it goes away. Spencer is
also a volunteer firefighter on the side now and same
deal unless your house is on fire and you're not

(16:48):
gonna necessarily think a firefighter, but when your house is
on fire, that's the first person that you're gonna turn to.
For better or worse. As technology becomes vastly more integrated
with our personal lives day by day, that means they're
just going to be more bad actors out there looking
to take our information and sell it. There's always going

(17:11):
to be somebody who's looking to make a buck off
somebody else and the easiest way possible, and not everybody
realizes that it's up to me and other people just
say you've got to think about this or make sure
you're doing this so you don't expose yourself and any
information that you might have. Spencer says that even a
decade ago, anti virus software and hiring a cybersecurity person

(17:34):
for your business was a good idea something you probably
should do. But now with how online all of our
lives are, it's not even a question. These are things
that you have to think about and and you have
to think about where's my information if I if I
put my credit card number in on a website. Is
that safe? If somebody asked me for my Social Security number?

(17:55):
Is that safe to give them? Is my health information safe?
So you know, security and and and people's personal information
has become the forefront of what computer science now has
to battle. And with that being the case, there are
tons and tons of jobs and cybersecurity right now everywhere

(18:15):
for big companies or corporations, startups, or if your main
drive is just helping people, there's tons of work with
nonprofits and state organizations. Whereat the pay admittedly might be less,
job can be more than that. A quality of life
is important, and working for this state of Vermont is
it's about quality of life and has nothing to do

(18:35):
with the job. Just has to do with making you
a better human, being a better person. A job is
not necessarily about the paycheck. Part of what drew me
to working for nonprofits is that that satisfaction of knowing
that when I went to sleep at night, I knew
I had done something for something more than myself. It's

(19:02):
kind of funny that, you know, when you first start
up coding and diving into literature and computers and stuff.
Kind of the point of that was that it was isolation,
and now you do it, but you do it for
a lot of people. It is something that I do
think about and it helps me come to terms with

(19:23):
that I'm giving back somewhere and giving back as an
important part for my sobriety. It's also an important part
is a human being. If we all gave back more,
things would go a lot smoother. Do you feel now
like you're recoding yourself? Yeah, I guess you could say that. Yeah,
you know, I'm fixing some of those bugs that were there. Yeah,

(19:47):
I'm definitely fixing some of those bugs. And you know things,
things are running a lot smoother than they ever have
been before. COVID brought a lot of people to their knees,
myself included, and put people out of work. It's put
people in really tough living situations. It's put people in

(20:08):
a room with everything that they are. It's made some
of us come to terms with who we are in
a much shorter time frame than we might have liked.
But as we come out of this storm with new values,
new morals, new ways of living, and new habits, we've
had the fortune of having had the time to think
about how we can help ourselves, and it turns out

(20:29):
as a lot of people go back to work, they've
realized that the best way to do that is by
helping other people, even if they only call you when
something's wrong. What are the next bugs you gotta fix
for yourself? Oh, there's always something to fix. But yeah,

(20:50):
learning to be more patient, learning to be more kind,
and you know, to know that there is hope. There
is hope always, there's always hope, and there's always a
chance out there makes life worth living. It's not always
it's not always a bullet chair, he's but it doesn't

(21:10):
have to always be the pits. Yeah, you saw what
I did there. We're ending on that for on the job.
I'm Otis Gray. Thanks for listening. If you or someone

(21:33):
you know is struggling with addiction, help is out there.
You can go to find treatment dot gov or call
their national hotline one eight hundred six six to help
for more information. That's one six six to seven. We'll
put this info in the description of the show.
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