When Your Side Gig Turns Into a New Career: Cybersecurity Student Follows Passion for Computers, Helping Others

Tiffany Stronghart September 26, 2023
stethoscope lying on a laptop keyboard

For some, taking on a freelance gig is simply a means of earning extra income. For others, like Lucas Pralle, pursuing a side gig can actually lead you down a completely different career path and give you the ability to work with something you were passionate about all along.

Lucas, who is completing his master’s degree in cybersecurity from the University of Wisconsin, currently works as a PC Maintenance Technician at Marshfield Clinic Health System. How he got here is a bit of a diversion from his original path – he is a veteran, and as a teacher—even teaching English in China. 

Lucas spent much of his childhood tinkering with computers, and even ran the computer department at Staples in the early 2000s. While computers were always fascinating to him, his interest in cybersecurity sparked because of his teaching career – specifically, while instructing a basic digital literacy course to adult learners in Rhode Island.

Many of Lucas’ students did not have quality computers – in fact, some had picked up machines from secondhand stores like Goodwill. Their computers sustained many malware attacks and were targets of social engineering scams.

“I was trying to educate them the best I could to protect them, but also, their computers would get super screwed up. And they would not have the money to take it to a computer shop. I would have these students that were very motivated, and then they’d just kind of have the wind taken out of their sails, and they’d be in tears. So even though it wasn’t my job, and I kind of had to keep it on the lowdown a little bit, I would fix their computers for them so they could participate in my class,” Lucas says.

While working on the side to help his students with their computers, he realized that while he’d always thought about data breaches on a larger scale, the average person may not actually know how to ward off attacks.

“A lot of this stuff I just kind of took for granted because I was somebody that was very interested in tech. So, I wasn’t necessarily being affected in the same way. I had a lot better digital hygiene. [My students] weren’t aware of that at all.”

He began taking introductory cybersecurity courses at a local university so that he could better service his students’ computers, and ended up completing a security certification. Then, he and his partner decided to move back to central Wisconsin, where he grew up.

“I thought, OK, well, this is a good point for me to try to pivot in my career, because I had been working in adult ed for several years at that point. I could clearly see the crossover between my adult education background and cybersecurity.”

Lucas enrolled in the University of Wisconsin cybersecurity program and is actively applying what he’s learning on the job.

“I’ve been able to apply some of the skills that I’ve learned, which has been really rewarding to be able to do that, to review different logs and things like that, to help troubleshoot, and just speak much more confidently about some of these mechanisms and stuff that I’ve learned a lot about it already,” he says.

While Lucas already has a master’s degree, he does not have a degree in computer science like many of his fellow students.

“I was very intimidated when I first started the program. A lot of my peers have worked in the industry for several years. And honestly, it’s been fine, and I’ve excelled. If you know how to apply yourself properly in an educational environment, you can do that. So yeah, there’s been some challenges. But also, when I needed to ask questions of my professors, I could do that.”

Prior to joining Marshfield Clinic, Lucas had only done IT work as a freelancer. “Going through the program and doing well in the program has really boosted my confidence in this job. And doing well in this job has boosted my confidence in the program. So there’s been a really nice reciprocal relationship between the two of them that has been very valuable for me.” 

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For those interested in cybersecurity but aren’t sure if they are a good fit, Lucas advises prospective students to get involved with computers – whether it’s working in IT or trying to get an IT job. If that isn’t possible, start volunteering, or join a social group that’s working with computers. Learn the foundations, and everything else will come, he says. 

“You can learn anything. You can do anything. Just apply yourself, and it will come because people are very supportive in the program. The professors are very supportive. Your classmates are very supportive.”

While Lucas is technically on his third career, he sees potential for even more change on the job front in his future.

“There’s all this new information. I’m always learning stuff. There’s a lot of movement and a lot of progression. And that’s exciting to me. I didn’t necessarily feel that in my last job.”

Lucas has also learned how to apply what he’s learned and how to fit it into his life – beyond the nuts and bolts of just earning a credential. 

“It’s not just learning about the numbers, it’s about how it fits into my life and in cybersecurity and the world we live in. I think it’s pretty cool. It’s more valuable to me as I’m on this journey.” 

Concerns around healthcare-related cyber attacks continue to grow, reinforcing the need for professionals like Lucas. In the last couple of weeks alone, several healthcare organizations have been hit by security breaches, he said. The Department of Health and Human Services has also reported that more than 28 million healthcare records were breached in 2022, a significant increase from 21 million in 2019.

“When these attacks happen, because of the digital nature of this stuff, entire operations can grind to a halt, which can be deadly in a healthcare environment. And the thing about healthcare that makes it very unique is that these organizations are very complex business operations. You’ve got your laptop, where you’re looking at your email, or you’re looking at the medical records. And you also have an EKG machine hooked up to the network that needs to work or an MRI machine or a helicopter. Or a dispatch for an ambulance. They are very complex organizations. I do like being in health care because I always want to make sure that, in my life, I want to feel like I’m making a difference.”

“When I’m walking around, when I’m seeing patients, when I’m helping out providers and different staff and things like that, there’s never a day where I go home and I wonder if I did something that mattered, because it’s clear. And that’s exactly where I want to be.”

Healthcare records are especially attractive to threat actors because of the personal information integrated within them.

“The thing about health care is that it’s such an enticing target for a threat actor because not only can I get your Social Security number, but I can also get your financial information from a healthcare breach. So there’s just a treasure trove of things that can be taken,” Lucas says.

Working in cybersecurity is also about “being present in the moment.” Professionals need to work through layers – which is commonly referred to in the field as “defense in depth.” 

“What that means is you don’t just have one solution that is supposed to protect you. Let’s say we’re talking about defending your house. You don’t just have one door, right? You have a security camera. You have the door. You have a phone where you can call 911. Defense in depth is kind of the same thing when you’re talking about a program like this. It’s all about the little domains. Apply yourself to the small pieces, and then those small pieces combine into the bigger picture. If you can focus on those small pieces and master those, it will come together into the bigger picture. And you will have that broader understanding. “

Upon completing his degree, Lucas hopes to land a more security-focused role within information technology. He also wants to find a way to help ‘the little guy.’

“One thing that is important to me is to somehow help out those individuals that don’t get one-on-one support. Mom and pop on the street still have to navigate their lives. And if they’re terrified to log into their bank, there isn’t a lot of direction out there. I feel like it just gets more and more confusing. I want to use these skills and this confidence to somehow help those people out.”

For Lucas, using his adult education background translating information about security breaches for the average computer user is key.

“What can we do here to make sure that your stuff is safe? How can we make sure that you and your family are going to be OK? Fear is a major motivator. That’s what scammers are trying to do. I definitely feel for the little guy.”

Ready to learn more? Check out the program’s curriculum or connect with a helpful enrollment adviser at 608-800-6762 or

UW Cybersecurity is a collaboration of UW System campuses. Pralle is getting his degree through UW-Stevens Point. 

Programs: Cybersecurity