IT pros may be experts at protecting their systems from attack. But working late, short on sleep, preoccupied with a tricky project, they may not be ready to protect themselves. Deb Shinder calls on her law enforcement background to provide techs with some self-defense basics.

You know the stereotype: Computer “geeks” tend to be highly intelligent but introverted and (there’s no other way to say it) a little wimpy. We all know that isn’t necessarily true — but it is true that many in the IT field don’t have a lot of training in self defense. We focus on protecting our networks, rather than our physical selves. And we sometimes get so focused on our work that we lose track of what’s going on around us.

The nature of the job also means that you may frequently find yourself working late, after everyone else has gone home, to get that server patched or get e-mail working again before the office opens in the morning. You may end up walking across a dark parking lot at 2:00 a.m., sleep-deprived and dead tired and not paying attention. That can make you a prime target for criminals looking for victims.

In 2006 (the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Bureau of Justice), approximately 25 million crimes of violence and theft occurred. That’s 24.6 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older. And don’t think you’re immune if you’re male. Even though muggers may prefer to target women become they’re assumed to be less physically prepared to fight back, overall, more men than women are victims of violent crime. It can happen to you.

As a former police officer and police academy defensive tactics instructor prior to going into the tech biz, I’m often amazed (and concerned) by the lack of awareness of danger that many of my IT colleagues exhibit. In this article, I offer a few tips to help you decrease your chances of becoming a victim — without becoming paranoid or putting in the time to earn a martial arts black belt.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Pay attention!

The first and most important step in defending yourself against potential muggers and other criminals is to develop the proper mental state of awareness. That means constantly assessing your surroundings, especially when you’re in an environment where risk is high (e.g., working or walking alone late at night).

The late Colonel Jeff Cooper, well-known in law enforcement circles as an expert on marksmanship, safety, and the defensive mindset, developed a color code system to describe the states of awareness in which we operate. These range from Condition White (oblivion) to Condition Black (actively involved in a fight for your life). Many people spend most of their time in Condition White, which means that if danger presents itself, they often don’t recognize it in time to avoid it. The key is to learn to live, as a matter of daily life, in Condition Yellow — which means you’re still relaxed, but you’re aware of everything that’s going on around you. You can read more about Cooper’s Color Codes at

After a while, awareness becomes second nature. You automatically check the back seat before getting into the car, scope out the path to the front door for places a criminal could be hiding, notice whether another car is following you, and so forth. This heightened awareness can be the key to surviving not only a criminal attack, but also accidents, natural disasters, and other dangerous situations.

#2: Have a plan

Once you’ve learned to be aware of your surroundings and recognize early that something is wrong, you need a plan for what you’ll do if you’re attacked or otherwise placed in danger. When I was teaching self-defense classes, I called this “if/then thinking.” It involves evaluating where the danger is most likely to come from and deciding beforehand how you’ll react if a particular threat becomes reality.

Just as on an airplane, you should acquaint yourself with where the exit rows are located and how the oxygen masks work, when you’re working late alone at night you should familiarize yourself with the building, possible hiding places and escape routes, which doors are locked and which aren’t, how to lock yourself into a safe room (without windows or other easy entrances), and so forth. When you must cross a dark parking lot or navigate through a deserted parking garage, know what you’ll do if someone pops out of a parked van or from behind a column and tries to grab you.

Having a plan also means planning ahead. Park your car in a lighted area, if possible, when you’re likely to be returning to it after dark. Have your keys out and ready before you even leave the building, so you don’t have to fumble for them on your way to or at the vehicle.

Your plan in a given situation will depend on your own training, skills, philosophy, and the resources you have available at the time. But the point is that if you have a plan, you’ll be able to react more quickly rather than wasting precious time standing there like a deer in headlights and giving your attacker even more of an advantage.

#3: Stay physically fit

Attackers usually prefer victims over whom they have a physical advantage. Some disadvantages you may not be able to do anything about: If you’re disabled, elderly, very small, etc., it will be easier for a criminal to overpower you. Even in those situations, though, staying as physically fit as you can under the circumstances will help narrow the gap and help you survive a physical confrontation, if it comes to that, with less injury.

In addition, when you’re fit and aware, you tend to project an aura of self-confidence that will make predators — who, like their animal counterparts, prey on the weak — avoid you.

Getting plenty of exercise and eating right will not only make you look and feel better; it will also keep you safer from criminals.

#4: Stay mentally fit

To maintain the high level of awareness that is the foundation of self-protection, it’s important to stay mentally fit as well as physically fit. Mental fitness derives in part from general physical fitness, but it’s also negatively affected by short-term actions, such as sleep deprivation, drinking alcohol, or the use/abuse of recreational or prescription drugs.

It’s not always possible to avoid everything that affects mental fitness. After all, there’s nothing you can do after the fact about having stayed up all night, and you may need to take medications that affect your mental status for health reasons. But one thing you can do is recognize those circumstances that make you less mentally fit and take steps to ameliorate the effects — for instance, not working late on those nights or at least having someone else stay late with you.

#5: Take common sense precautions

Remember the old adage: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Lock your office or server room door when you’re working late alone. Don’t let anyone in whom you don’t know (social engineering can be used by attackers to gain physical entry just as it’s used by hackers to gain network access). If there’s a security guard, get to know him/her. Don’t be afraid to ask for an escort to your car when you leave the building.

If someone follows your car, don’t go home. Drive to a police station or a place where there are plenty of people. If someone bumps your car with his vehicle, or if a “plain clothes” police officer in an unmarked car attempts to make a “traffic stop” using a portable red light or grill lights, don’t stop in a deserted area. Instead, lead the other person to a well-lit, crowded location where you can ascertain whether the person is really just another motorist or a real cop, or whether it’s someone who plans to do you harm (in which case he’ll probably drive away when he sees that there are other people around).

Also use common sense to avoid making yourself an attractive target. Don’t wear conspicuous expensive jewelry or flash money, don’t hitchhike or accept rides from strangers, and so forth.

#6: Be prepared to make noise — lots of it

In addition to any other defensive measures, be sure that you have the capability of making a loud noise to draw attention to your plight. There’s a good reason that a loud siren is built into most security alarm systems: The noise alerts others in the vicinity that something is wrong and brings them to your aid, and it scares off the bad guys. The last thing they want is to draw attention to themselves.

Whether you carry a police whistle on a chain around your neck, a 120 decibel “personal alarm” device clipped to your belt, or you just learn to scream really loudly (don’t just assume you can — practice it until you can let out a piercing scream at the top of your lungs), have some way to “get loud.”

#7: Know when to fight back (and when not to)

There is no one-size-fits-all procedure for dealing with a criminal attack. Some attackers just want your money or possessions and will leave you alone when they get what they want. Others are full of anger and will hurt you whether or not you comply. Some may be so hyped up on drugs or alcohol that they don’t even know what they’re doing and aren’t capable of responding to reason.

This is where your skill at reading people and your gut instincts come in handy. You can often tell whether your assailant is a scared kid out to steal your wallet or a sociopath set on raping you — or worse. That assessment helps you determine whether the best course is to comply, attempt to escape, or fight back.

#8: Know your weapons

The decision to carry a weapon is a personal choice, and whether you even have that choice is dependent on the laws in your jurisdiction (see the next section). If it’s legal and you plan to carry a firearm, take a course in gun safety and marksmanship, whether or not it’s required by your state. Know how to store and carry your gun safely (for instance, never put a gun in the bottom of a purse — always carry it in a holster and know how to draw it quickly). Know how to shoot it accurately and practice weapon retention techniques to ensure that an attacker can’t easily take it away from you and use it against you.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking “weapon” means only “gun.” There are many other options, including chemical weapons (mace or pepper spray), clubs, and edged weapons.

If you find yourself in a fight for your life and you’re not armed, remember that almost anything can be a weapon. That includes ashtrays, ballpoint pens, various office implements, keys, a shoe, etc. You have a better chance of using these makeshift weapons effectively if you plan and practice with them beforehand.

#9: Know the law and company policy

Before deciding to carry a weapon, it’s important to know the laws in your state. Many U.S. states have “shall issue” concealed carry laws, which means if you meet the requirements (age, no criminal history, no history of mental impairments, and in some cases minimum training), the state must issue you a permit or license to carry a concealed handgun. Other states are “may issue” states, and permits are almost impossible for ordinary people to get. A few states ban concealed carry of firearms altogether. In some states, you can carry a long gun (rifle or shotgun) and/or a handgun without a permit so long as you carry it openly. Don’t assume that because you know the law in one state, it’s the same in another.

Realize that carrying other types of weapons, such as certain types of knives, chemical weapons like mace or pepper spray, or even a baseball bat intended to be used for self defense, can be illegal depending on your state’s laws.

In addition to knowing the laws governing carrying of weapons, you need to check out your state’s laws regarding use of force. In some states, you can legally use deadly force to defend your property. In others, your life (or that of someone else) must be in danger before deadly force is justified. Laws can vary widely, and some may seem arbitrary. For instance, under Texas law, use of deadly force is permitted to protect against “theft in the night time” — but if you use deadly force to prevent someone from taking your property during the daytime, you may find yourself indicted for unlawful use of deadly force.

Likewise, some states impose a duty to retreat on victims, while others don’t. Some states’ “Castle doctrine” laws give you much more leeway to use force when someone breaks into your home than when they accost you in your office. Educate yourself thoroughly on the legalities of defending yourself — and that includes not just the statutes themselves but also how your local district attorneys, judges, and juries tend to interpret them.

Another consideration: Even in jurisdictions where you can legally carry a weapon and even when you have a permit, companies and individuals usually have the right to prohibit it on their premises. Know your company’s policies as well as any laws limiting those policies (for example, some states do not allow companies to prohibit you from bringing your weapon to work and leaving it locked up in your vehicle).

#10: Take a class

Self-defense classes can serve two purposes. First, they provide you with knowledge — such as what the most vulnerable areas on the body are so you know what to target with your improvised weapon, how to use an attacker’s own momentum to throw him to the ground when he comes at you, or your state’s weapons and use of force laws. But perhaps even more important, they build confidence. When you’ve not just read or heard about these techniques but actually practiced them repeatedly, you don’t have to stop and think before putting them into action. This self-confidence is also something an attacker can often sense, which will prevent him from targeting you as a victim in the first place.

Many types of classes are available. Some are one-day seminars designed to give you an overview of basic self-defense concepts. Others, such as firearms proficiency classes, require periodic repetition to keep your skills sharp. Some are ongoing, intense training regimens that are lifestyles in themselves, such as the many martial arts disciplines.

You don’t have to be physically strong to benefit from defensive skills training. In fact, the less inherent strength you have, the more you need to learn to use what you do have to your advantage. Some of the martial arts focus on kicking and punching, but others (such as Aikido), concentrate on balance and redirection and techniques that work well for those with less physical strength.

In most parts of the country, self-defense classes are available through community colleges and dojos (martial arts training facilities) and sponsored by police departments and private organizations. Some of these are targeted at a specific market: women, the elderly, or the disabled.

Knowledge is power, and self defense is based on knowledge. But effective self defense also relies on physical skills that must be developed through practice. If you plan to rely on moves or techniques, take the time to burn those moves into muscle memory through repetitive practice.