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As I had mentioned previously, this year, I’m going back to school. Not to take classes, but to teach a course at my alma mater, Fanshawe College. I did this about a decade ago and thought it was interesting, so I was excited to give it another go. Additionally, after a friend mentioned that their kid wanted to learn Python, I developed an Intro to Python course aimed at high school students whom I’m teaching weekly. I thought that this would be good fodder for the State of Security. So, whenever I have something interesting to discuss, expect to find it here.

The end is nigh. On December 7th, I teach my last Python class, and on December 17th, we have our last Fanshawe class. Grades are due on December 23rd, and then I, once again, cease to be a professor. It’s not quite time to wax poetic, although I’m sure I’ll do just that in the final post of the series. Instead, I wanted to talk a bit about symbiotic relationships. I know, it’s a weird topic, but I promise I have a point.


There are three types of symbiotic relationships I will consider – mutualistic, commensalistic, and parasitic.

There are many that would say that a teacher-student relationship is mutualistic or mutually beneficial. The student gains knowledge while the teacher is paid. Although, when you look at the level of pay associated with teaching, and there are a multitude of articles detailing how underpaid teachers are, you have to wonder if it is indeed mutualistic.

At that point, it may be commensalistic. The student benefits, while it is more-or-less a neutral experience for the teacher. Then again, you could look at those same articles that discuss how underpaid teachers are and look at the stress they experience and the long hours they work. When you look at this, you start to venture away from thinking about commensalistic and realize that you’re left with one type of relationship… parasitic.

Obviously, parasitic relationships are not good. One side benefits to the detriment of the other side. Would it be wrong to call students parasites? I suspect that some people would say it is the perfect definition. In fact, based on Facebook posts, I know that there are several parents who suffered through home and virtual schooling that would say this is true. I haven’t done a poll of teachers, but, again based on Facebook posts from friends that are teachers, I would say they would disagree with this statement. I know that my personal experience is that teaching was definitely not a parasitic relationship. Then again, maybe my students would say that it was a parasitic relationship and that I was the parasite. I hope not, but it was a thought that went through my head when I updated my LinkedIn experience to include this round of teaching and multiple people commented on how lucky the students were.

So, what are we left with? I feel like we’ve come full circle, which means that it must be a mutualistic relationship. When I discussed the knowledge for pay relationship, that would be a service-resource mutualistic relationship. I think, however, that teaching is ultimately a service-service relationship. While the students get knowledge, the teacher gets the joy of sharing that knowledge and they grow as a person. I really enjoyed teaching this time around because I feel like I got as much out of the experience as my students did. I got a lot of insight that I wouldn’t otherwise have.

Expanding That Thought

We’ve all seen the Facebook memes about “dropping toxic friends.” There’s at least one person you know that constantly shares them. What they are really talking about is a parasitic symbiotic relationship. Thinking about this, I realized that every relationship we have can be summed up by one of these three types of symbiosis. Your significant other, your friends, your colleagues, your employees, and your employer… all of these relationships fit into one of these three buckets, but have you ever sat down to think about where you’d place each relationship? Would the other person place it in the same bucket? 

As a manager, where do you place your relationship with each of your employees? As an employee, where do you place your relationship with your manager? I can honestly say that before I started teaching, I never even considered using these terms to classify my relationships. Now, I find myself looking at which ones are mutualistic and how I can get relationships that aren’t mutualistic to a place of mutualism.

If you undertake this thought exercise, keep in mind that not all relationships are required. In terms of symbiosis, we call this obligate (required) versus facultative (optional). I would recommend focusing on those obligate relationships first. While I’m sure I’m taking a leap with these terms, my advice to students and new entrants to the world of cybersecurity would be to ensure that your career, an obligate relationship for most, is steeped in mutualism.

Final Thoughts

Symbiosis is all around us, even if we typically think of it as being part of scientific studies and the natural world. Consider your relationships. Are there places where you are parasitic with co-workers, with friends, or with family? Are there people who are parasitic in their relationship with you? As I mentioned in my last post, there are enough stressors right now to keep everyone overly stressed. Perhaps introducing more mutualistic symbiosis into your relationships will reduce your stress or at least help to identify previously unknown stressors.

For students and those seeking a new career, consider what would make a symbiotic relationship parasitic, commensalistic, or mutualistic for you. It may prompt you to change how you look for a job or the questions you ask in an interview.

I think my favorite part of looking at relationships in this light is that it is very easy to flow chart and diagram and, as I’ve mentioned before, I love my pen and paper. When you start to write out the flow in a relationship, it becomes very easy to label the type of symbiosis involved, and from, there the possibilities are endless.

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Asking Questions – Lessons From Teaching Cybersecurity: Week 3

Problem Solving – Lessons From Teaching Cybersecurity: Week 4

Obfuscation – Lessons from Teaching Cybersecurity: Week 5

Picking the Right Tool – Lessons from Teaching Cybersecurity: Week 6

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Stress and Pressure – Lessons From Teaching Cybersecurity: Week 9