Summary

There is no easy way to learn DFIR. You can stop reading from here if you want.

Longer version

Ok. Since you are still reading, you probably are the type that will drive through, over, around, or under walls to get to where you want to go. Good for you!

The perception that “everyone else” has easy access to training, education, and resources while “you” do not is just a perception. It is easy to fall into the trap that makes this seem like reality when in fact, it is far from it.

Social media reinforces that we should only show the good and the best and the positive of ourselves, in that, few people talk about their personal struggles and only showcase the best parts of their lives. The DFIR marketing experience is no difference. Vendors tout their wares, colleges push their programs, and those in attendance of these programs mostly preach how great the training, education, and networking are in these venues. For the rest of the DFIR Internet, it seems like “everyone else” gets to go while “we” do not have the same opportunities.

The fact is, perception is not reality, and that virtually everyone in this field of DF/IR/Infosec struggles to learn using every spare minute, any affordable resource, and every free resource available. In totality of the field, a very minute number of people can spend years in training and education while at the same time being able to work and have a life outside of work. It’s just not a realistic scenario for the vast majority.

The struggles

Do not believe that no one struggles in life except for you. Do not fall for any mental traps that you are the only person having the most difficult time in getting into the DF/IR/Infosec field. Avoid anyone and everyone who tell you that it is not your fault that you do not get what you want, but the fault of others that prevent you from learning or being hired because of what you are.  The “what” of you being everything that has nothing to do with “who” you are. The what are things like age, gender, race, height, weight, or any other physical description that have nothing to do with who you are.  It is the “who”, not the “what” that makes things happen. Anyone giving you excuses or perpetuating excuses like these is keeping you down, so ignore them.

Side Note: Every client of mine cares nothing for “what” I am, only that I can solve their problems.

Stop looking at those who have “made it” with a false belief that they had it easy. That they had everything handed to them. That they must be smarter and can learn things easier. I can promise that every single person who you think has “made it”, struggled for years and still struggle in trying to keep up with the field. They struggle to balance life and work. They struggle with medical concerns (like you), home budgets (like you), family duties (like you), and even suffering in traffic (like you too!).

No one lives inside a DFIR bubble that protects from any of life’s tragedies, miseries, and mishaps. I can also promise that many of those whom you may think had it easy, probably had a much more difficult time of getting to where they are than you could ever dream, maybe even harder than where you are now.

Tip: Everyone struggles. No one is born with a silver spoon in this field, because you have to put the labor to learn it. There is no other way.

The resources

With the Internet today, you can practically learn any field that you have interest, with virtually no money out of pocket other than an Internet-connected computer. DF/IR/Infosec is no different. On www.dfir.training alone, there are terabytes of forensic test images, thousands of software applications (more than half are free), hundreds of white papers and templates, and more resources than you could use in a career. Other related sites provide similar resources, even places where you can post any question, and have it answered by experienced practitioners in mere minutes of your post.

The training available today is more than I ever could have predicted when I first dipped my toes into this work. The courses available in the beginning pale in comparison to today. Where just more than a decade ago, the courses were basic “computer forensics” that covered a mere fraction of what we know today, courses now teach a deep dive into artifacts and systems in that you can select specifically to what you need.

Time and money

The issue of having enough time and money to learn is not new to DFIR, nor is it unique to DFIR. If you want to be an attorney at a top tier school, be prepared for the cost. If you want to be a physician, accept that there is a financial cost that is most likely more money than you have in the bank. And any field takes time. Anyone who expects this journey into DF/IR/Infosec to be 100% free or 100% paid by someone else, or that it can be learned in a few weekends (while watching Netflix on TV) will be greatly disappointed.

The reaction to high costs of education is not complaining about the difficulty or perceived unfairness, but rather figuring out your way to get what you want. Everyone has a different method to get to their destination. Everyone has different obstacles. But everyone has opportunities if you make sacrifices to take advantage of them.

Shortcuts

Let me digress a little. I am a firm believer in cheating. I define “cheating” as being innovative, creative, and imaginative. I do not use “cheating” as breaking rules, laws, agreements, or selling out a part of your reputation to get what you want.

Technology makes it easy to break laws and rules. Cracked (pirated) software/books are one of the most common things that I see among students, with the excuses that since they can’t afford the software or books, they download them from torrent sites.

Do not do this.

Or if you do, keep in mind that you will have crossed the bridge of the land of doing good to the land of doing bad. I won’t get into the moral aspects of digital property rights but will say that you cannot beat the law with excuses of “it is not stealing when you only downloading a copy”. Try and tell that to a judge if you are questioned about being a software pirate and let’s see how far the argument goes. Your client or boss will certainly not be happy…

Best field ever

As far as support, DF/IR/Infosec folks are the best. We like to learn, teach, and share. Yes, there are always a few bad apples in any group, but overall, the folks here are great. Avoid the bad apples. Don’t even communicate with them.

The reason I believe the people in DF/IR/Infosec are great is because the work we do is for the public good. The work is about justice, fairness, and truth. Usually, only good people gravitate to the good work like this. It’s in our nature.

In the words of Troy Larson, "Be good."  I cannot think of any better words that are more important than Troy's.

Shameless plug

Here are some things you can take advantage of from www.dfir.training.

And more. But you get the point. If you have the time, you have the resources.

 

The shortcut way

Granted, if you have unlimited financial resources and plenty of time, the options are “easier” in that you can sit in classes while being told the answers to DFIR problems using the most expensive software applications available today. This is the exception, not the rule for the DFIR world. In my opinion, the most expensive courses are best for when you can soak in every minute of the course because you already have a good foundation. Otherwise, your time and money will not be best spent if you don’t learn what you could have learned by being patient first. You will end up re-learning later what you should have learned in that course, which is a double waste of time and money.

How I do it

Your mileage will vary, but I plan on spending hours learning the bare basics of something that I don’t know.  I can spend an entire weekend and not accomplish anything because it was hours of trying, failing, falling into rabbit holes, wrong conclusions, wrong software, errors, oversights, Internet research, and restarting virtual machine snapshots again and again to try it all again and again. Sometimes I get it right quickly but most times I spend a lot of time to get it wrong a lot of the time.

I expect that some people learn faster than me and others learn slower. But that doesn’t really make a difference, nor do I judge myself against someone else. We are different.

A big point to make

I get asked questions often about topics that I have no idea because I haven’t done everything in DF/IR/Infosec. I know some things well just as I don’t know some things at all. Do not expect to learn everything because there is no such thing as knowing everything. By the same token, do not expect others to know everything either, regardless of who they are. Anyone who claims to know everything knows nothing about knowing everything. Also, don’t look at someone sideways when they don’t know the answer to your question when you think they should know it all.

One of the many things that I learned in Marine Corps boot camp was answering questions that I didn’t know the answer to. To jog the memory of the Marines reading this, we learned through positive reinforcement that to not know an answer to a question does not mean you cannot find the answer.

I don’t know” is totally different from “I don’t know the answer right now, but I can figure out it and get back to you.”

At the CTIN conference a few weeks ago, I spoke to someone who has been doing this work for a long time.  His story, in brief, was that he spent an amazing amount of time to figure out how to pull data out of a database that he had not dealt with before. Nor could he find anyone who dealt with the same thing either. But he did it.  It took a lot of time and a lot of labor, but he did it. From what he described, this is not something you can find in a class or a book. You have to figure it out yourself. And he did as he always does, because he knows that it takes time and effort to learn and figure things out yourself.

By the way, his work made a difference in the case, because he found a way to pull out the data in a readable format, and it was a lot of data.

I wrote a little about the theme of figuring it out yourself here: Just show me the answer

One more big point

Another reference to the CTIN conference was a presentation by Mark Spencer of Arsenal Consulting. Mark spoke about a case where he found the most relevant forensically important data in a case that 14 other experts missed. Actually, it was 14 other companies that missed what he found, which most likely means that it was more than 14 individuals that looked at the same data and everyone missed it. The case involved the wrongful incarceration of more than 700 people, including journalists.

Mark could have been the 15th company that missed the evidence, but he really dove into it, in the minute details of file analysis that I had never thought of before hearing his talk. You can believe that I look at the aspects of his work much differently in my work today.

In case you missed the point, it is that no matter who you are, you can do a great job when others do not. You do not need to work for a Fortune 50 company doing infosec to have part of a global case that affects hundreds of people, or even millions of people. You just have to put forth the effort to learn.

Walking miles in two feet of snow to get to school

I have talked about how difficult it was years ago to get into the field because the resources were scarce. No college programs at all. None. Not a single one. The books were few and extremely generic. Conferences didn’t exist either. Vendor courses were very expensive and plainly generic. Software choices were so bad that we used hex editors.

I do not say this to mean it is easier today than it was yesterday, but that there is always some struggle or obstacle to get where you want to go. The struggles and obstacles change over time, but nonetheless, they will always exist. Where I had no college choice years back, now there are many choices, but it comes with a financial and time cost.

Want to be famous? How about wanting to do good?

Here is the neat thing about this field: find something to research that hasn’t been done before. Dive into it. Break it apart. Smash it into bits. Test your theories. Come to conclusions. Publish it. It is not unreasonable, nor impossible to discover something really cool in this field.  Most fields work this way; DFIR is not different. You do not need a PhD to do this job. You do not need a certification to be competent. If you can do the job, that is all clients and victims want. 

Bonus points

You read to this point? That shows to me that you won’t take a shortcut, that you will do it right, that you will make it, and that you will be able to solve problems. Some of you will be solving problems that will affect hundreds or hundreds of millions of people. That right there is cool.