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Scott Margolis is executive director of national advisory cybersecurity, data protection and data privacy at Ernst & Young LLP. Photo by Michael Paras

Power in persistence

It took Scott Margolis 21 years to graduate from college. Today, he’s a cybersecurity leader at a Big Four accounting firm.

September 30, 2018

By Lynne Winter

When Scott Margolis graduated from Fairview High in Boulder, he did what was expected and headed to college. He had no way of knowing it was the beginning of a journey that would take 21 years.

“I started out at a large university and hated it,” says Margolis, executive director of national advisory cybersecurity, data protection and data privacy at Ernst & Young LLP. “I was disheartened after just one semester sitting in lecture halls, watching a professor through a telescope. It never felt right.”

Margolis transferred into the Aviation Program at Metropolitan State University of Denver the following fall with a planned major in “professional pilot.” While taking a few classes each semester, he worked a full-time job at Stapleton Airport. After conversations with colleagues, he switched degrees to aviation management.

A required course unexpectedly paved the way for Margolis’ educational epiphany and future career.

“Taking Introduction to Systems Analysis and Design – taught by Dr. Gwynne Larsen – changed my life,” he says. “She was amazing, and the class resonated with me; I found myself.”

Margolis changed his major again – to computer management systems – as his career in the airline industry uprooted him in 1984, putting a pause on his time at MSU Denver. He continued to take classes locally where he could as he moved to Atlanta, Chicago and New York City. Upon returning to Denver in 1993, he picked up where he had left off.

When Margolis took a position with Compuware, which required moving to Dallas in 1999, he found a creative – if exhausting – way to reach his goal. During his last two semesters, he flew back to Denver every week to attend class.

In spring 2001, Margolis saw his two-decade commitment to education realized when he graduated with a B.S. in computer management systems.

“My mom and dad inspired me to keep going, and my wife kept things together at home with the kids while I finished” he says. “My mother was so proud of me that she went to the graduation ceremony to get the program, even though I didn’t walk.”

Earning his degree has taken Margolis’ career in unanticipated directions. While he was working for Bank of America in 2007, cybersecurity and financial crimes were emerging as threats. He quickly got up to speed on the roles of risk, compliance and cybersecurity in the financial sector. He and his team would ultimately build the infrastructure and processes necessary to be compliant with global privacy and security standards in less than two years.

Margolis went on to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers and, most recently, Ernst & Young. He credits his education with opening doors.

“Earning a diploma from MSU Denver, plus being persistent as hell, got me where I am in my career,” he says. “Experience is great, but Big Four firms require a degree.”

Margolis views MSU Denver’s new B.S. in cybersecurity as an opportunity for the University and its students, as well as for businesses, to benefit from having a skilled workforce.

“When I started my degree, the worst thing someone could do was mess up your stack of punch cards,” he says. “Today, it is more sophisticated – from identity theft to fraud. We need smart people who can stop threats.”

As he sees it, the University is stepping in to provide students with the practical ability to solve real-life problems. “The cybersecurity program the school is building supports students in understanding not just the technology but the environment, business, legal and compliance requirements,” he says. “Graduates of the program are going to be well-positioned to protect and defend the technology environments of their employers.”

Margolis credits much of his own success to his experience at MSU Denver.

“To this day, I fall back on what I learned in that first computer class and the many classes thereafter,” he says. “Without those, I would not be able to build processes that clients use to protect and defend their technology infrastructure every day.”