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Growing into the Synack Red Team

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Mohammad Jassim is a 17-year-old member of the Synack Red Team. 

In 2017, I was that rare seventh grader who had Ubuntu installed on their laptop. Typing “sudo apt-get install software-center” every chance I got boosted my ego – I was practically Mr. Robot! At this rate, I thought nothing could stop me from taking over the world. Well, until I broke my Chromebook’s screen and got caught bypassing enterprise enrollment.

Figure 1 – Being a “hacker” can get you in trouble.

Call it an early lesson in ethical hacking. But over the next few years, my love for technology grew. I’d had my fair share of living outside my comfort zone as a 13-year-old learning English as my second language. But when it came to technology, I felt at home, like the smartest person in the room. Freshman year came, and I still was acting too smart for my own good. Little did I know, I was about to be surrounded by people who were way smarter than me.

CyberPatriot is an Air Force, blue team-based competition that is strictly focused on teaching defensive cybersecurity. BINGO! A place for me to put in everything I had learned so far, except for the first time in my computer science journey, I was wrong. Turns out, I knew nothing! Saying “I know” every time someone tried to teach me something was the reason I missed out on countless learning opportunities.

CyberPatriot made me  more receptive to learning from others. After getting into an argument with someone on Discord about how Windows uses NTLM hashes (and finding out I was completely wrong), I realized I needed to open my eyes. Becoming a better listener and a more open-minded person helped me become more knowledgeable! So much so that the following year my team and I were able to make it to nationals and place fifth in the “All Service” category!

Figure 2 – National Finalists 😀

After a humbling but successful CyberPatriot season, I realized that cybersecurity was the field for me. I liked blue teaming, but I felt limited. So, I learned how to play on the red team. After all, offense is the best defense. In August 2021, my friend Julian got me on HackTheBox and held my hand through the beginner tracks. Immediately, I was hooked! When I was on a break from my fast food job, I rushed to my laptop to spin up a PwnBox and start hacking from my browser. After four months of non-stop boxes and a ProLab I decided it was time to get my Offensive Security Certified Professional certificate (OSCP).

Figure 3 – 20% completed in four months!

But I had new problems arise. 

  1. I was only 16 years old. How was I going to pass the rigorous exam? According to the hacking subreddit, it’s a warzone!
  2. My family isn’t exactly the most financially stable. How was I going to afford a $999 course?
  3. Did I mention the subreddits say the test is a warzone?

Although those concerns were valid, I thought of some advice my uncle once gave me in his booming voice: “IF THERE’S A WILL THERE’S A WAY, MOHAMMAD!” So I worked away at a tech department job until I was able to afford the exam. In December 2021, I officially bought my OSCP.

The next few months were stressful; I was balancing early college classes and OSCP at the same time. I eventually came around to booking my exam in February. By the end of the exam I not only was able to pass it, I was also the first 16-year-old to ace the new version of the OSCP! 

Knowing me, however, things always tend to go wrong. My 100+ page report was accidentally deleted, uh oh. I hastily rewrote one in two hours and submitted it MINUTES before the deadline. After school on Monday, I was expecting the email to arrive, as my friends and I finally packed up to leave. I heard the notification from my phone and there it was, the OSCP passing email.

Figure 4 – Aced OSCP!

Little did I know my life was about to change. After moving to an early college program, my old school informed me that I could no longer compete with their CyberPatriot team. This caused me to panic a little bit as I still wanted to compete for my last two years. In a desperate attempt, I found a team down in Austin. After officially becoming a part of the team, I was introduced to infosec pro Josh Sokol. After I aced my OCSP, Josh was incredibly proud and helped me network. Turns out, Josh knows Ryan Rutan, director of community for the Synack Red Team (SRT), and Ryan wanted me to do the assessment for SRT. This blew my mind: Me?!??! Synack>!>!>!>! hello!??!?!?! After a few assessments and an interview, I was officially a Synack Red Team member.

Figure 5 – Dreams do come true!

Fast forward to today, I am an active member of the Synack Red Team. I have a lot I would still like to achieve and definitely need to find a way to contribute and better the platform. This opportunity has helped me to work remotely at 17 while making enough to live comfortably. I would like to end off by saying: I am not a perfect person, nor am I a perfect student, friend, coworker, son or even hacker, however, that’s never stopped me from trying my best. My main purpose is to inspire people to join this amazing field and to be able to find a way to shine—no matter your age. There were so many moments when I could’ve called it quits because I didn’t fit today’s standards, but I didn’t let that stop me. I truly don’t think I’m smarter than anyone, however, I do know for a fact that I love this field. What next you may ask? Well, I still need to finish school, get my OSCE3 at 17 and potentially bug bounty my way into MIT ?

P.S. Extremely special thank yous!

I have to start off with my parents because I wouldn’t be half the pentester I am today without their love and support. Thank you, big bro Julian, for literally everything, if I were to name everything it would be longer than this blog post. Thank you, Eric, for believing in me and never letting me complain about my circumstances. Thank you, Parker, for securing me a spot on the CyberPatriot team. Thank you, Mr. Sokol for believing in me and getting me in touch with the right person. Thank you, Ryan, for taking a chance with me and setting up a mentor system. Speaking of mentors: Thank you Neil, Malcolm, Nicolas, William and Timah – without y’all, my SRT journey would’ve been rough.