Northeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition: Preparing the Next Generation of Cyber Professionals

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Although predictions indicate cybersecurity is going to be the fastest growing homeland security market, as positions in the cybersecurity field open up employers will find there is a major shortage of professionals with the skills necessary to fill the positions.

To meet the demand for skilled cybersecurity professionals, Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies will host the Northeast Collegiate CyberDefense Competition (NECCDC) on March 20-22. With industry leaders acting as malicious hackers, teams of students from ten qualifying schools in the region will test their abilities in a high-pressure, real-time, real-world scenario, competing to thwart attackers and protect assets.

Winners will move on to a national competition in San Antonio in April. Sponsors of the competition include the Department of Homeland Security, Raytheon, EMC Corporation, Goldman Sachs, Palantir, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard and BAE Systems.

Bahram Attaie, a faculty member at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies and Director of the NECCDC, believes the competition is helping to address the cybersecurity professional shortage by giving students an opportunity to apply their skills in a real-world scenario.

“The number one purpose of this competition is to create the next generation of cybersecurity professionals,” Attaie said. “This is an area that strategically we need to be very strong in.”

Brian Garber, a graduate student at Syracuse University and team captain of Syracuse University’s NECCDC team, said the competition is a perfect opportunity to recruit students with the skillset needed to meet the growing demand for cyber professionals.

“This competition is a prime opportunity to not only learn about cybersecurity, but to apply the skills you have been learning,” Garber said. “It’s one thing to take a class on information security and learn about confidentiality, integrity, and availability—all important things— but to get to apply those skills against attacks that are actually being launched against your network is much more rewarding and valuable.”

Attaie explained that the premise of the competition is that an IT team has been fired for failing to secure the systems appropriately. The new team has to come in and quickly and efficiently clean up the mess inherited from the old team. In addition, when an attack is launched against the system, the teams need to be able to detect when the system has been compromised and then mitigate the attack.

The winner of the regional then goes to the national competition hosted in San Antonio. Attaie noted last year’s winner of the national competition later met with Vice President Joe Biden at the White House, which Attaie believes attests to the value of the competition in shaping the next generation of cyber warriors.

“What really makes this competition so fulfilling from the participants’ point of view is that it’s not just about bits and bytes,” Attaie said. “It’s really real-world training. The learning the students go through during the course of the competition is equivalent to them taking six information security classes.”

Over the past several years, Garber said he has noticed his peers become increasingly aware of the cybersecurity field and many are excited to get involved. With the news constantly inundated with stories of damaging, high-profile cyber attacks, Garber felt compelled to delve into a field that would teach him how to secure information and networks.

Attaie agreed, saying, “You can’t get up in the morning and not have something related to cyber in the news. Thanks to movies and media attention, cyber is becoming “cool.” It’s considered a cool thing to be acybersecurity expert.”

Homeland Security Today previously reported that a study conducted by Raytheon last year found that the millennial generation may hold the key to closing the cybersecurity talent gap. However, despite the fact that more students are generally interested in pursuing related careers, they often lack the needed skills and encouragement that our educators should be providing to grow the talent pipeline.

In an effort to provide more direction and training to students interested in pursuing a cyber career, Syracuse University has participated in the NECCDC over the past several years and is hosting the competition this year. In addition, Syracuse University offers students an information security club, which attracts a lot of interest. Approximately 30 students participate in the weekly club meetings.

Syracuse University also operates the Center for Convergence and Emerging Network Technologies (CCENT), a lab initiative where students can get experiential learning to gain the kind of skills that turn them from students into professionals. Through CCENT, Attaie was introduced to the competition and, shortly thereafter, began forming teams to participate in the competition.

Attaie always tells his students, “The one area you can guarantee for longevity is cybersecurity. It’s not going away and it’s only going to become more relevant.”

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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