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Computer Programmer turns hacking into miles for wish kids

Ryan Pickren

“ I felt compelled to use the miles I had to help other people. When I was in court, I realized how lucky I am. ”

- Ryan, donor

What if you could turn one of your worst days into one of the best days for a child facing a critical illness and their family?

That’s exactly what airline mile donor Ryan Pickren did.

In 2014, the Georgia Tech student made headlines when he was arrested on hacking charges. He got into the calendar system of University of Georgia (UGA) before the rivalry football game and added an entry that Georgia Tech would win the game.

“I wasn’t doing it to be malicious—I just found a weakness and had some fun,” said Ryan, who made the change from his family’s home computer one night on a whim.

Before he knew it, the story took off with sports blogs and news websites across the country. Finally, Ryan was approached by a detective from the UGA police department. The 22-year-old faced the potential of 15 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

“I was in shock,” Ryan said. For weeks, he faced uncertainty as a trial loomed. Instead of making plans for life after graduation, this aspiring computer programmer instead faced the possibility of jail time and a criminal record.

Fortunately, Ryan’s charges were dropped after completion of a pretrial diversion program that included community service. His arrest and indictment have been expunged, and the record has been sealed.

But the experience didn’t dampen his passion for cybersecurity.

Ryan found a legal way to flex his cybersecurity muscles and help companies. These so-called Bug Bounty Programs reward computer programmers for finding and reporting security flaws in their websites.

One program, for United Airlines, rewards submissions with frequent flier miles. The more potentially damaging a flaw, the more miles are awarded.

Ryan jumped right in. At the time, his girlfriend had a job in Arizona. Ryan just wanted to rack up enough miles for a plane ticket to go visit her.

Before he knew it, Ryan had uncovered security flaws resulting in millions of miles in rewards.

Fast forward four years. Ryan’s computer prowess has landed him a dream job at Amazon, where his girlfriend also works.Ryan Pickren

One day, she emailed him a flier. The company was hosting a mileage drive for Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington, encouraging employees to donate their unused frequent flier miles. The miles would be used to send local children with critical illnesses on their wish trips.

“I felt compelled to use the miles I had to help other people,” Ryan said. “When I was in court, I realized how lucky I am. My story could have had a very different outcome.”

Donated airline miles go a long way toward offsetting the cash cost of wishes. Ryan’s donation of 1.4 million miles—the largest in Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington’s history—saved the local chapter thousands of dollars in airfare expenses.

“I realized that Make-A-Wish has the infrastructure set up to immediately use my miles, and I know they went directly to sending kids on their wishes,” said Ryan. “I was able to take a really negative part of my life and make a positive difference for a local child.”

You, too, can make a big difference in the life of a local wish child at no cost to you.

About 80 percent of wishes granted by Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington annually involve travel. It would take about 80 million miles this year alone to send wish kids and their families on their wishes without us having to pay for airline tickets.

When you donate airline miles to Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington, they never expire. And they go directly to wish-granting.

“Knowing that I played a part in giving a child what may be the happiest moment of their life, that could be the best thing that happens to them, is huge,” Ryan said.

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