Mateusz Topor likes reading manuals. Wanting to spend one’s free time reading the technical specifications of a new gadget might be a rarity among even the most tech-minded of IT professionals, and is undoubtedly even rarer among people who, like Topor, are still in college. But Topor reads them cover-to-cover, be it the manual for his slick gaming desktop or for his smartphone. It’s clear he loves learning as much as he can about technology, and that enthusiasm led him to earn three CompTIA certifications (CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+) and to get employed at one of the biggest tech companies in the entire world while still attending school. Topor is currently in his last few semesters at Governors State University, and since last summer has also worked as an IT support technician at Amazon.
Topor’s earliest experiences were a world away from the tech area in which he now works and studies. He was born in rural Poland and lived there with his family on a farm until the age of seven. He remembers television being the most technologically sophisticated element of rural life, and if there were home computers around in the region at the time, he does not remember seeing one. His family’s move from Eastern Europe to the Chicago area offered plenty of challenges for the young Topor, but within a year after his arrival in 2000, he was having experiences familiar to any gamer in the U.S. during the era. He played Counter-Strike on the new family computer, getting immersed in the multiplayer game over a dial-up Internet connection and getting knocked offline every time a family member picked up the phone.
But it was only years later, when he arrived at Moraine Valley Community College and began taking courses in IT, that he got turned on to the possibility of computing beyond gaming – of discovering how computers function and putting that knowledge to use professionally.
“I really wanted to know how that technology worked,” Topor said. “I really liked playing around with it. I love to think about that stuff.”
Topor earned his associate’s degree and, thanks to the school’s certification-promoting efforts, he was also able to get his A+, Network+ and Security+ certifications in quick succession. Topor’s IT professors personally promoted certification, and the curriculum pushed students, implementing certification training in the classroom in numerous ways. The school even opened its own private PearsonVUE testing center while Topor was attending.
Topor moved on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in information technology at Governors State University and also began looking for jobs. IT professionals of all ages and skill levels could perhaps learn something from Topor’s focused, tech-savvy method of job searching. He made extensive use of LinkedIn, where he prominently displayed his IT certifications. Actively going after attractive leads as well as pursuing offers from recruiters impressed with his achievements, he was making a big effort to break in to IT. There was, however, one setback.
“I had a lot of people contact me, especially on LinkedIn once they saw how active I was,” Topor said. “But a lot of them were hesitant because of the fact that I’m still in school full-time. They didn’t want to hire me until I was done with my degree. I got a lot of, ‘Contact us when you’re done with your bachelor’s.’”
But then Topor heard that Amazon was building a new facility in Joliet, Illinois. He saw they had job postings up and decided to apply.
“On the actual job ad page it said, ‘Qualifications: A+ and Network+,’ so they were actually looking for those two qualifications,” Topor said. “[Having those certifications] gave me the confidence to actually apply – [to] take that leap.”
Topor’s certifications made him someone Amazon wanted to talk to. One virtual interview and one in-person interview later, he was hired. He helped build out the facility’s IT infrastructure and now troubleshoots devices and maintains IT equipment, a role that he finds much more fulfilling than other work he has done while in school.
“It’s much better than working as a package handler at UPS,” Topor said. “I help out people when there are issues and actually get to solve problems and not just unload trucks like I used to.”
Even having just started in the IT workforce, Topor is already ahead of the game in pursuing his long-term career goal – to work in cybersecurity. In 2015, he attended the U.S. Cyber Challenge Cyber Camp; a week-long intensive cybersecurity educational experience featuring everything from an ethics panel featuring working security experts, FBI agents and CEOs, to a crash course in critical IT security tools. The week culminated in a game of virtual capture the flag, which involved finding security exploits in virtual machines. His team took first place, winning a $1,000 scholarship and a trip to an upcoming cybersecurity conference in Washington, D.C.
As Topor continues down the path to cybersecurity, learning as much as he can in school, at work and in his free time, he is already on his way to getting more CompTIA certifications.
“I will be getting my Linux+ real soon,” Topor said. “I also might be getting my Cloud+ for school.”
Matthew Stern is a freelance writer based in Chicago who covers information technology, retail and various other topics and industries.