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I got interested in hardware programming by reverse engineering commercial programs. I then got interested in security by working with keyloggers and RATs. If I were applying for a programming position, what should I be saying if they ask "What got you interested in programming?"

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Reverse engineering for the purposes of compatibility is generally permitted. And there's nothing inherently unethical about keyloggers and RATs. That depends more upon how you were "working with" them. Do you mean you developed that kind of software for the fun/challenge of it, or do you mean that you actually deployed them to get access to things that you weren't technically meant to access? The first is entirely fine. The second, very much not (and also completely unrelated to programming, in any case). – aroth May 25 '14 at 6:01
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I used to work at a security consulting outfit. While we were ethical hackers ourselves, we would not even think of hiring a cracker i.e. a hacker who cracks into systems for fun and/or profits. Our job was to probe our clients' systems for vulnerabilities with their knowledge and consent and at times, we broke through as part of our probing. If we hired a cracker and a client complained that someone on our side had broken through and done something improper, we wouldn't have the benefit of the doubt and our business model would have been at risk. And that would be before the client took us to court and the client's lawyers started to work on our backgrounds, No, the fact that we had a former cracker on the staff wouldn't look good for us in court.

If you are applying for security work, don't mention key loggers and RATs, you're making me nervous. As for reverse engineering commercial programs, some of it may be out of bounds as per Federal law. I would say, sanitize your narrative. Employers can find plenty of people who don't make them nervous. In fact, I'd say that if an employer had to choose between a talented individual who makes the employer nervous and a clearly not so talented individual who doesn't make them nervous, they'll pick the individual they don't have to worry about. Nowadays, assembling and disassembling Open Source programs is a totally safe and acceptable way of making your bones.

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@geekrunner "don't mention keyloggers and RATs, that will make me nervous" - It's like you applying for work as a security guard, and you start mentioning your proficiency with burglar tools to me, your interviewer :) It's best not to create WTF moments at interviews :) – Vietnhi Phuvan May 25 '14 at 23:09

If I were applying for a programming position, what should I be saying if they ask “What got you interested in programming?”

Depends on you age & experience when you did what you did. But you have to realize something: How exactly do you think people protect systems from intrusion other than to see how the intrusion tools work? “White hat” hackers are a valuable commodity.

And—like I mention—age plays a factor: Most school courses on programming are not cutting edge even if they are good. It’s a good sign if you interview for a job & show a natural curiosity. Heck, I learned more typing in BASIC programs from magazines like COMPUTE & SoftSide back in the day than I learned in any course.

Past all of that, it’s almost expected that you explored computers via hacking: This field changes so much from day-to-day it makes more sense to explore the world on your own—and reverse engineer cool new tools—than wait for some stodgy book to come out a few years later.

You know that Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak where phone phreakers back in the day, right? Even before Apple started, that didn’t stop them from getting work or have respect shown to them for their skills. I never read one story on Apple where someone looked at Jobs and Wozniak and then said, “Hmmm… They are hackers! Can’t take the risk!”

So yes, if you feel it is appropriate, you should mention your hacking exploit past. But be sure to put it in the context of the past. And why you were doing that at the time.

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+1 I think the age and time are key contexts to the impression made. – pi31415 May 24 '14 at 23:52

I got interested in hardware programming by reverse engineering commercial programs. I then got interested in security by working with keyloggers and RATs. If I were applying for a programming position, what should I be saying if they ask "What got you interested in programming?"

So, the first time you ever programmed, it was reverse engineering? Really? It wasn't looking into how do computers do things and wanting to understand how to control the machine?

Reverse engineering commercial programs would send off some yellow flags to my mind. Understanding how programs worked and wanting to drill down into the lowest level would be a bit more elaborate on some level without mentioning some of the phrases that could cause trouble.

Working with keyloggers and RATs could be seen as exploring what can programs do. While you could try to go down the road of claiming to be an ethical hacker, there would likely be more than a few companies that may not care to consider the explanation.

So you didn't learn a programming language as a starting point? How did you reverse engineer without having any programming knowledge?

I'd call Assembly a programming language and while it may not be learning it thoroughly, you did understand at least some of the code in that language. If you want to not think of Assembly as a programming language, that's your choice but I suspect a lot of developers would call it that.

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Well, arguably reverse engineering is the best way to learn how programs work because you get to see how the computer processes instructions. Yes, I used to pirate things all the time. Now I buy them. – geft May 24 '14 at 23:23

There are ways you can present this information in a favourable way. It's one thing to say you reverse engineered programs because you wanted to crack them and it's another if you say you started doing it because you wanted to understand how they ticked.

Likewise, with security you can mention that you read about key loggers and wanted to see how they worked because you wanted to see if you can protect against them, or you could say that you got into it to spy on your friends. Which one is better to hear?

As a personal anecdote, a friend of mine got a programming gig years ago now and when asked what got him into programming he said "well, I wanted to get more resources in game x so I found out about hex editors and playing with the memory and it worked! after that I figured out how to write a tool to help my other friends do it to". So yeah, be careful how you present it. Hacking a game, probably ok. Pirating software, not so much.

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Why is hacking a game considered okay? Nowadays they have DLCs and by hacking the game you gain full access to these extra features without spending a dime. I'm not sure how CheatEngine and GameGuardian aren't treated the same as piracy, especially since they circumvent the need to pay for some features. – geft May 24 '14 at 23:27
Sorry, I got your username confused with JB King. Ignore my comment. He was the one that made the yellow flags comment. – pi31415 May 24 '14 at 23:49

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