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Training warriors for the cyber battlefield

​Image: U.S. Department of Homeland Security

​A statewide competition in New Jersey led by Brookdale Community College (BCC) is underway, and participants aren’t competing for fame or glory or a trophy. They’re competing for a spot in a new cybersecurity training program.

More than 600 people registered for the Governor’s CyberChallenge, a competition that tests participants on networking, system administration, operating systems and their ability to be “cyber warriors.”  After the competition ends on March 23, only the top few participants will get access to an intensive cybersecurity curriculum with hands-on labs and be placed in prestigious residencies.

Competition participants are high school seniors and college students, veterans and active duty military, and job seekers with a “hacker mentality and curiosity that hasn’t been tapped yet,” said Michael Qaissaunee, a professor at BCC and one of the program’s originators.

Preparing for a new battlefield

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has called the shortage of well-trained cybersecurity workers her greatest problem. Shortages of 20,000 to 40,000 workers are expected over the next few years.

“We need more people with these skills or the country has a national security problem,” said Ed Skoudis, a faculty fellow at the SANS Institute, an organization focused on information security research and training.

Community colleges are known for getting people trained quickly with practical skills, something that prompted the SANS Institute to contact BCC for a cybersecurity training partnership, Skoudis said.

The four-phase program uses existing BCC curricula focused on technology aspects, such as networking and systems administration, and combines it with the SANS Institute’s security curriculum.

The partnership quickly gained support from Gov. Chris Christie’s office and the state’s secretary of higher education.

“They see this as a statewide priority,” Qaissaunee said.

Getting their attention

The governor’s office handled much of the outreach to attract participants. The college was expecting to have about 250 people register for the CyberChallenge. That goal was exceeded by more than 100 percent.

Qaissaunee attributes that partly to curiosity. Media attention on the Stuxnet virus, which in 2010 affected about 100,000 computers worldwide and disabled part of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, has “opened up people’s eyes” to the fact that “all our systems are vulnerable,” he said.

People also have realized that there are jobs in this field—challenging, well-paying jobs, according to Qaissaunee.

Besides government jobs, New Jersey is home to many pharmaceutical, financial and oil-refining companies, among others, looking for skilled cybersecurity professionals. Jobs are plentiful in nearby New York, as well.

Funneling talent

Qaissaunee describes the four phases of the initiative as a “funnel.” In the first phase, the competition participants take three online quizzes about operating systems, networking and systems administration. Participants are ranked on their scores.

The funnel gets narrower in the second phase, NetWars, a daylong competition at BCC for the top 90 to 100 scorers. NetWars is the system used by the U.S. military, government agencies and many private companies to evaluate and train people.

“These are real challenges that cyber warriors face every day,” Skoudis said.

The top 10 to 30 people will move on to phase three—security courses augmented with hands-on lab work. Because participants will be located throughout the state, courses will be online.

In the final phase, four to eight participants will be placed in residencies to get workplace experience. 

A doorway to the future

Those that don’t make it to the fourth phase won’t be completely out of luck.

“All the way down the funnel, we’ve tried to ensure that there will be opportunities for participants to enhance their training and career aspects,” Qaissaunee said.

The competition is just an “on-ramp,” he said. Participants gain exposure to the field and gain useful skills. They will be encouraged to connect with their local community colleges to take foundational courses so they can return for next year’s CyberChallenge.

By that time, the initiative may have spread to other states, which is one of the goals, Skoudis said. The SANS Institute is already working with the governor of Virginia to create a program there.