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Meet Derek Howard, CKA, CKAD, CKS, CISSP

April 10, 2024Announcements

Building An IT Career That Pushes to the Edge

Derek didn’t start out with a plan to launch an IT career, he actually wanted to join the Marines. However, he quickly learned he needed to complete high school and earn some college credits to join the military. An interest in computers led him to study computer science, graduating with his associate’s degree in Computer Science in 2004.

Shortly after graduation, he joined the U.S. Army and became a Network Management Technician. During his first 12 years with the Army, Derek worked in numerous positions with a wide range of communications platforms. He also earned his bachelor’s in Information Technology. In 2016, he became a U.S. Army Ranger with the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, the Army’s premier, direct-action, raid force.

As a Senior Network Engineer with the Rangers, he led a team of 12 Ranger communicators that managed 10 always-mission-ready tactical communication systems. He also planned and executed numerous communication exercises that increased mission readiness. All of his experience set him up for success as he transitioned into his current role with the U.S. Department of Defense Joint Communications Unit.

As a Senior Technical Advisor with the JCU, Derek advises on all communication decisions and managed infrastructure for a global network. He also works with commercial industry to create solutions using emerging technologies for the U.S. Department of Defense. During the first few years at the JCU, Derek earned his master’s in Information Technology with a Concentration in Software Application Development.

“Because I am passionate about learning and applying new technologies and best practices to enhance performance and security of network and systems infrastructure, the JCU is an incredible organization to be a part of,” said Derek. “My work allows me to try new things and do things that not everyone in the DoD gets to do, like running our own Kubernetes clusters and writing code.”

The Kubernetes Certifications Journey

At the JCU, Derek leads two teams, an automation team and an edge compute team. When he first stepped into the role he felt like he didn’t have a solid grasp of what the edge compute team was doing, especially with Kubernetes.

“I wanted to be able to talk to them in their terms and better understand what they were doing,” said Derek. “So I started working on earning my CKA (Certified Kubernetes Administrator) and then just moved on to my CKAD ( Certified Kubernetes Application Developer) and CKS ( Certified Kubernetes Security Specialist). I really had fun studying for my CKA. It was a true challenge, testing my understanding of content and the Kubernetes environment.” In addition to learning on the job, Derek took review courses and read books to prepare for his CKA and CKAD.

While earning his CKA was hard, because at the time he had little hands-on Kubernetes experience, he says the CKS was the hardest. To help prepare for the CKS he completed the Linux Foundation’s Kubernetes Security Essentials (LFS260) course. “The exam covers a lot of content, much of it not Kubernetes specific, but more third party applications that support it,” said Derek.

“I’m not a huge fan of multiple choice, memorization type certification exams. I’m more of a fan of testing in a lab environment where you have to know the technology and tools to pass. That’s why I think the CKA, CKAD and CKS are important credentials. You can’t pass them without actually knowing the technology. It also shows you have a commitment to your work and a desire to learn, that’s why we look for people with these certifications to be part of our team. There’s also a camaraderie element to it, you’re part of the club.”

Derek’s advice for IT professionals thinking about earning any of the Kubernetes certifications is to know where to look information up in the documentation for Kubernetes. He also noted that while the exam time seems long, once you get started it goes by very quickly.

Derek described much of what he does as incredibly difficult because he’s always dealing with air gapped environments that are handling top secret information. A key challenge of the work is that applications can’t reach out to the Internet for updates and patches. On the other hand, much of it is just “normal stuff.” Keeping the network environment secure using infrastructure as code, generating network configurations using GitLab, Ansible and other open source tools. The team’s struggles with patching and security updates is what pushed them toward the Kubernetes environment as an easier approach to maintenance.

Another challenge is finding people with the necessary skill sets. “It’s not the stuff that’s taught to DoD communicators or the schools they go to,” said Derek. To address the skill gap, the team built their own six month course that teaches the fundamentals of Ansible, Python, Agile project management and Kubernetes. “We feel pretty confident that anyone completing the program can go out and earn their CKA,” said Derek.

What’s Next

Derek will be retiring from the U.S. Army in the coming year. As he has begun to have initial conversations with potential employers, he has found that having his CKA, CKAD, and CKS serves as verifiable evidence of his technical expertise and skills. For his next career move he’s very interested in working with an open source focused organization, specifically work being done in the area of network automation. “If you’re working with the open source community, it says you’re passionate about your work, it’s more than just a job,” said Derek.

For anyone thinking of a career in IT, Derek offers this advice, “You need to recognize it’s incredibly competitive. Getting certified is an important step to show a company that you have the commitment and willingness to learn and provide value. But it’s just the first step, you need to continue to learn and work to improve yourself every day. Especially in this world, it changes so quickly.”

Derek Howard, CKA, CKAD, CKS, CISSP
Senior Technical Advisor, Joint Communications Unit,
U.S. Department of Defense

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