Georgia Tech Student Balances Graduate School and Military Service in Pursuit of Cybersecurity Goals
“Sorry, I can’t go out tonight…I have homework.” For Michael Hillmer, Spring 2023 Online Master of Science in Computer Science graduate, this felt like a bizarre thing to tell his friends as a working adult in his mid-20s.
“I honestly found it really difficult sometimes to balance my academic goals with work and still find time for selfcare and relaxation,” said Hillmer. “I feel like the work-life balance is a constant struggle, so I had to make sure I set dedicated time aside for leisure, even if it meant having to do homework late at night in a hotel room or at the airport to get ahead.”
Hillmer had his sights set on graduate school since he was in high school, and he wasn’t going to let a few late nights get in the way of his goals.
Due to necessary travel for work, I would sometimes be on the road for months at a time,” said Hillmer. “Between that and deployments overseas, I often found myself working on projects and taking exams in the middle of the night. Despite this, I knew that earning my master’s degree was going to be a huge achievement for me, so I found a way to make it work. Now, I get to make my goal a reality after three years.
Protecting the Nation in the Cyber Domain
After earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame in 2017, Hillmer was commissioned into the United States Air Force as a cyber operations officer.
“I wanted to utilize my leadership and computer engineering skills that I developed in my undergraduate studies in order to serve the country in the military,” said Hillmer. “Both my great uncle, John Hillmer, and grandfather, Ronnie Horoky, served in the Air Force before me, and I am honored to carry on their legacy.”
In January of 2020, Hillmer was stationed overseas in Hawaii. While serving there, he decided to pursue his master’s degree on top of the multitude of hobbies he picked up including scuba diving, surfing, paddle boarding, running, and swimming.
“While living in Hawaii, I would make sure to maximize my time for schoolwork during the week so that I could go surfing or scuba diving every Saturday morning with friends and coworkers,” said Hillmer. “I am so excited to finally be done with three years of hard work and finally have some free time again.”
Hillmer’s other passions include playing the guitar, piano, and ukulele. After a move to Washington D.C. in January of 2023, he started taking dance lessons, particularly in swing and foxtrot. Hillmer continues to find new challenges to overcome.
Always Raising the Bar
“Hard work and perseverance are just so far ingrained in my life now that I just keep setting the bar higher for myself as I overcome obstacles in order to achieve my professional and personal goals,” said Hillmer. “When it comes to my career, hobbies, and academic pursuits, I am constantly my own worst critic. I, like most people, struggle with failure and often get frustrated if something proves to be more challenging than expected. However, these failures are what drive me to constantly better myself.”
It’s this particular mindset of hard work and perseverance that defines success in the computer science field.
“Have you ever spent countless hours on a project, sometimes staying up until three in the morning and it just won’t work?” asked Hillmer. “All of a sudden, you change one line of code, and everything just magically clicks, and sometimes you might not even know immediately why. Most people who have undergone some sort of academic program in the realm of computer science know what I’m talking about."
For Hillmer, it’s exactly that feeling of success that is so gratifying.
"Tackling a particularly difficult problem, putting all of your critical thinking abilities and programming knowledge to the test, and finally getting that working solution as the sun comes up after an all-nighter." said Hillmer. "That feeling of success, there’s nothing like it. I love taking on these kinds of challenges, and I am looking forward to how I can utilize my expertise and problem-solving skills to do so beyond graduation."
Hillmer's one piece of advice to current students is to "challenge yourself."
“I set out in this degree path hoping to earn a 4.0 GPA, just to prove that I could for my own personal achievement," said Hillmer. "However, along the way, I never limited myself to taking the ‘easier' classes. Instead, I challenged myself in courses that were both interesting and demanded a higher time commitment."
Because of his work ethic, Hillmer is still on pace to achieve this goal.
"I have also learned a variety of skills in areas that I had not expected because I challenged myself to take on these more 'advanced' courses that engaged my interests," said Hillmer.
Plans for the Future
Hillmer’s first visit to Georgia Tech will be for commencement.
“I am so thrilled to finally enjoy even a fraction of the experience that on-campus students have,” said Hillmer. “I have spent many hours online collaborating with fellow students to solve complex problems and tackle the many projects I have completed over the past three years. I will certainly miss these experiences, but I look forward to representing Georgia Tech in my future professional endeavors.”
After graduation, Hillmer will continue his service in the United States Air Force as a cyber operations officer. He plans to utilize his trainings, educational studies, and personal drive to continue learning and growing in a cybersecurity capacity in pursuit of defending the nation and creating a safer and more secure world.