The lights were dim in Jason Alvarado’s Thursday afternoon “Ethical Hacking and System Defense” class at Richland College in Texas.
The voice of a then-21-year-old Matthew Broderick filled the room, dangerously close to cracking, as a computer asked him, “Do you want to play a game?”
Alvarado was starting a lecture with a scene from “WarGames.” The 1983 Silicon Valley cult movie classic takes viewers on a journey with a precocious high schooler who accidentally hacks into an American military installation, almost unleashing global nuclear Armageddon.
But Alvarado’s students – who are among the first to graduate from Richland’s revamped cyber security program this May – weren’t focused on Broderick. Their eyes were trained on his character’s computer, which was running a “war dialing” program.
War dialing was an early hacking technique that used modems to dial every telephone line in a geographic area, looking for other computer system connections. It was a precursor to current hacking techniques that take advantage of our modern computer networking infrastructure, like WiFi access points and smart home devices.
Alvarado’s students were going to practice those new techniques in a class exercise, but not because they had any nefarious intentions – far from it. Instead, they simply want to be hired by companies that need to build, maintain and defend secure computer systems. Alvarado tells them it’s a growing focus across a variety of industries; sometimes, the best way to understand your own weaknesses is to get inside the mind of your adversaries.
Hands-on experience teaches skills
“You can teach the theory, but you really have to develop skills with hands-on labs and thinking in that mindset,” said Phillip Wylie, an adjunct cyber security instructor at Richland, the only college in the Dallas County Community College District’s system where students can earn a cyber security degree.
The program started in 2007. Back then, students could only study digital forensics, which focuses on investigating hacking incidents after they’ve already occurred. When information technology jobs began shifting toward a more defense-first mindset, Richland expanded its offerings to include classes on ethical hacking.
“I think my class really opens students’ eyes up to other opportunities,” Wylie said. “Not everyone knows the possibilities with cyber security. Some people might not realize they can get paid to hack into systems as part of a career.”
Wylie is what’s known as a “pentester,” or penetration tester. Pentesters are professional, ethical hackers. They use specialized software to probe a client’s network, looking for vulnerabilities to exploit and then report back any vulnerabilities they find. But their work can take them away from the computer, too, according to Alvarado.
“This is where it gets kind of fun. They ask, ‘Can I break in physically to a company? What if, as part of my penetration test, I just try to follow an employee through a door?’” Alvarado said. “Or what if I kind of social engineer them? Maybe I’m carrying a big, heavy box full of laptops and I’m like, ‘Oh man, can you get the door?’ Can I convince somebody to give up a password? So it’s a really interesting, versatile job.”
Learning about pentesting sets Richland’s students up for employment security.
“These things are required by law, and that’s why there’s so much job potential,” Alvarado said. “If you want to get cyber insurance, you have to go through a penetration test. If you’re a publicly traded company, you have Sarbanes Oxley Act regulations and you have to go through certain certifications for that.”
Richland’s degree program offers five areas of specialization. In addition to cyber defense and digital forensics, students also can study information assurance, network security administration and system security administration. Information assurance deals with managing technology policies and controls. Network and system security administration focus on building networks and servers that are secure by design.
Cyber security classes at Richland also are vendor neutral, which means students learn about more than just specific software packages.
Cyber security degree means jobs
“You can go to IT training classes all over Dallas, and usually you pay $5,000 to $10,000 for training in a specific product,” Alvarado said. “This is where college education meets vocational education. We teach students all of the underlying skills below those products. They’ll know how to do the job, so it doesn’t matter what software they use.”
About 200 students currently are enrolled in Richland’s program, and according to Alvarado, that number has grown by about 30 percent each of the last three years.
Nathan Howard is one of those students. He’s a husband, father and former test engineer for Texas Instruments. He’s earned bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics from Southern Methodist University, and he’ll soon add an associate degree in cyber security to that list. After graduation, he’ll be looking for jobs where he can analyze the security vulnerabilities of smart home devices.
“With my engineering background, I can understand not just the security part of the device, but also the physical design of the device,” Howard said. “So I have an ability to go far deeper because I can do all of the standard things that a penetration tester would do. Then I can look at the design, and say, ‘What other things could be there that someone who isn’t trained in that area could find?’”
Like Howard, Bobby Riggs is another student who graduates this month with his associate degree in cyber security. He’s a U.S. Army veteran who spent time at Fort Hood and did three deployments in the Middle East – two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He hopes his experience as a quartermaster will help him find a job as a network administrator.
“I ordered all of the parts and everything that our guys needed to build their networks,” Riggs said. “I spent the money to make sure they got what they needed, so it was just kind of a natural transition for me. ‘OK, let me learn the technical side of these things.’”
A student studying cyber security at Richland has many opportunities to break into the job market. Richland is one of only 15 schools in the country that the U.S. Department of Defense Cyber Crime Center has designated a Center of Digital Forensics Academic Excellence. This designation means that students can learn the same digital forensics skills at Richland as they would through specialized government training.
Students also can network at meet-up groups and conferences. Last year, Richland hosted Dallas-Forth Worth’s Security B-Sides conference, which brings together hundreds of IT security professionals for presentations, panels and workshops.
If a student finds an open position as a system or network administrator – even if it’s not an ultimate career goal – Alvarado tells them to take it.
“The job market is amazing here,” Alvarado said. “It’s what we call a negative employment rate, which means that there are more jobs in the metroplex than qualified candidates. If you’ve got skills and you’re a good fit, you can get hired.”