In 2014, the Georgia Tech student played what he considered a prank by hacking into the calendar system of University of Georgia (UGA) before the rivalry football game and adding an entry that Georgia Tech would win the game.
“I wasn’t doing it to be malicious,” said Ryan, whose passion lies in computer engineering and cybersecurity.
But before he knew it, the incident took off on sports blogs and news websites across the country. Eventually, Ryan was approached by a detective from the UGA police department. The 21-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. “It was pretty scary.”
Ryan’s charges ended up being 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.
Following, Ryan found a legal way to flex his cybersecurity muscles and help protect companies’ digital footprints. The Bug Bounty Program rewards computer programmers for finding and reporting security flaws in their websites.
United Airlines participates in the program, rewarding submissions with frequent flier miles. The more potentially damaging a flaw, the more miles are awarded. Ryan jumped right in.
At the time, Ryan’s girlfriend had a job in Arizona, so he just wanted to rack up enough miles to visit her. As he got to work, though, Ryan began uncovering security flaws that resulted in millions of miles in rewards. He became the most successful participant in the United Airlines Bug Bounty program, earning 15 million miles total. Ryan has since donated more than half of his total miles to charity: to Georgia Tech student organizations that do charity work, to Eckerd Connects in Tampa, and now to Make-A-Wish.
Today, Ryan finds himself in his dream job as security engineer at Amazon in Seattle, where his girlfriend also works now.
One day, she emailed him a flier. Passionate Amazon employees were participating in 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 started reading about how Make-A-Wish uses airline miles, and realized these miles are core to the Make-A-Wish mission,” Ryan said. “I felt compelled to use the miles I had to help other people. This was a way to give back to kids who don't have the health that I have.
“Plus, I was able to take a really negative part of my life and make a positive difference for a local child.”
Ryan’s donation of 2.5 million miles – the largest in Make-A-Wish history – also saved the Alaska and Washington chapter thousands of dollars in airfare expenses.
“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,” Ryan said. “These are miles that … are changing lives. 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 was recently invited to tour the Alaska and Washington chapter’s office, and he was captivated by the Make-A-Wish mission of granting life-changing wishes to children with critical illnesses. “You walk down the halls and you see pictures of kids all around the world,” Ryan said. “The trip they go on with their families, that’s the highlight of their year, their life. It was really powerful.”
Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington contributed to this story.
Donate Your Airline Miles or Points Today
Nationally, Make-A-Wish would need more than 2.8 billion airline miles or points, or 50,000 round-trip tickets, to cover every travel wish each year.
Every airline mile or point donated helps wish kids and their families travel to destinations around the world. Once donated, your miles and points never expire and are used to support wishes across the country. This is just one simple way you can help grant a life-changing wish experience. It’s easy to do, too.
“With a few clicks, I was able to donate [my miles],” says Ryan Pickren, who recently donated 2.5 million airline miles to Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington. “I'm so happy that I did. Within a couple days, I could actually see stories about how my miles were being used.”
Donate your airline miles or points to our Wishes in Flight® program TODAY!
August is Travel Month, and you can help us celebrate #TripsThatTransform by checking out our lnstagram to see all of the amazing places these partners help our wish families explore! And remember to stay tuned to Wish Nation for wish trip stories of Land, Air and Sea. Read more about Make-A-Wish Travel Month here.