How cyber competitions are launching the next generation of our workforce

Image Credit: Shutterstock
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Despite being well-documented and well-researched, the projected cybersecurity skills gap remains a major challenge for the tech industry. Fifty three percent of IT professionals report that their organization is facing a skills shortage, according to a recent study from ESG.

With this in mind, tech executives, academics and government leaders need to do more than create programs to educate current workers on cyber topics. We must also offer work experiences and competitions to attract and engage our future cyber workers. I have been involved in cybersecurity for over 20 years and know that real-world breach simulations are where cyber defense skills are really put to the test.

This happens every year at the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, an event during which I have served as a professional Red Team volunteer for the past two years. Presented by Raytheon, more than 230 colleges and universities compete each year to test their cybersecurity prowess, culminating in single-round eliminations at regional contests nationwide, with 10 finalists advancing to the national round. 

It’s an extremely exciting process for the students, and I’ve learned every year from my experience as a member of the Red Team that we need more of these types of events. Here’s why: 

Real-world experience cannot be matched in the classroom

Simply put, learning is not the same as doing. In a competition environment, teams are forced to think on their feet and identify solutions under pressure. This type of problem-solving and quick collaboration is learned through hands-on experience. Within the competition, students must operate and manage a network infrastructure similar to those run by commercial businesses.  Scoring is based on their ability to minimize system infiltration, keep critical services in operation and prevent sensitive data leaks.

By competing against a Red Team, composed of security experts from major tech companies and government organizations, students face off against skilled attackers and the stark reality of racing against the clock.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Working with the C-suite

Perhaps one of the most fascinating parts of the event doesn’t directly involve the attacks and defense at all. In order to move forward to the national competition and to eventually be crowned champion, these students must take on a task that many technical cyber experts struggle with: briefing a mock C-suite executive on the incident and proposed response. These mock interviews challenge the students to speak in layman’s terms while still conveying the appropriate level of urgency. 

An essential skill for all cyber experts, being able to articulate how the attack happened, and what is being done to resolve the issue, is a conversation that not only needs to happen with C-suite executives, but with corporate boards as well. Given the escalating number of attacks on major corporations in the past couple of years, boards of directors are also now getting more involved in cybersecurity measures. And this is a needed change, as a recent Raytheon study found that 68 percent of respondents say their boards are not being briefed on what their organizations are doing to prevent or mitigate the consequences of a cyberattack. Empowering students with this skill before they embark upon their careers ensures that they will have specific, real-world experience that many seasoned security experts lack today. 

Ready for hire

Today’s workforce – regardless of industry – needs to have a cyber-first mindset. Competitions like NCCDC give students an advanced skill set that makes them top candidates for hire at the world’s biggest tech companies and the public sector. It’s not just about limiting downtime, keeping firewalls up or creating tickets – it’s a combination of all those things with the added challenge of time constraints. Working against experienced cyber professionals, these students are gaining experience that goes beyond classroom training and sets them apart from other candidates. In fact, many NCCDC competitors have been hired by companies involved with the competition after watching them demonstrate their skills in practical, real-world circumstances.

As someone who works in the cybersecurity industry today, I see both the sophistication of attacks and the attack surface increasing. This requires not only more cybersecurity workers, but those who can hit the ground running, bringing an advanced skill set on Day 1. Competitions like NCCDC help develop skilled, technical and creative students that can easily translate their experience into value for any organization fortunate enough to hire them.

Julian Zottl, Senior Cyber Architect at Raytheon