Cybersecurity roles involve critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and handling fallout that could potentially cripple a business. While students may read about and discuss the foundation of this career in in the classroom, they need real-world experiences. Collegiate cyber competitions play a critical role in today’s modern-day curriculum, allowing students to understand the pressure, consequences, teamwork, and rewards for a career in cyber.

The benefits of competing in a collegiate cyber competition

As team captain for the University of Virginia at the National Collegiate Cybersecurity Defense Competition (NCCDC), I’ve seen firsthand how collegiate competitions help build a foundation for a career in cyber. More than 235 colleges and universities from across the country tested their cybersecurity skills in real-world business scenarios while industry professionals launched attacks against their networks. Participating in NCCDC taught me four lessons I couldn’t have learned exclusively in a standard college curriculum.

4 lessons students learn in cyber competitions

1. Technical skills: In a classroom, professors tell us how a network works, but it’s not until you’re defending a live network in a cyber competition that you can fully understand the technical skills you need to be successful. Hands-on experience is key to successfully learning new skills. The networks we defended during the competition were similar to the infrastructure found in a real-world business—something students don’t get exposed to in the curriculum. It was exciting to see how a business network actually operates and how to best defend it when we were under attack.

2. Teamwork: Collegiate cyber competitions are high-stress environments. We knew that any moment my team’s network could be infiltrated by the Red Team. To succeed, we had to work together as a unified team in real time. If our systems were down and needed to be fixed, the whole team needed to collaborate to solve the problem—an experience cybersecurity workers encounter every day.

3. C-level communication: In cybersecurity, technical terms and acronyms are common for those in the trenches. However, when communicating with business leaders and C-level roles about the security posture of their organization, you need to focus on keeping it high-level, simple, and factual, such as when pointing out the dangers and consequences of unpatched systems. Collegiate cyber competitions give students like me the opportunity to translate technical terms into business conversations, which is critical to affect changes in a company’s cyber defenses.

4. Mentorships and networking: At NCCDC, industry veterans answered questions, provided feedback, and shared advice. Many of the experts I met at the competition have become mentors. At any cyber competition, it’s important to connect with the experts, share contact information, and follow up afterward to further develop these relationships. Down the road, these mentors can provide students like me with valuable advice and assistance as we apply for our first cybersecurity jobs.

How collegiate cyber competitions are inspiring tomorrow’s workforce

Getting the most out of the experience

Participating in a collegiate cyber competition can be overwhelming at first, but totally worth the reward. From my experience, I’ve learned:

Preparation is key: Before the competition, teams should have an action plan in place, but should also understand that part of preparing is knowing that things will go wrong. Being flexible should be part of the preparation. It’s also helpful to reach out your network and ask for advice. For example, when I’m having issues with a specific system, I’ve reached out to an expert in my network for advice on how to configure the system.

Ask for feedback: The best collegiate cyber competitions are those that are learning-based with an open line of communication with experts. I recommend participating in learning-based cyber competitions, like NCCDC, and while there, speak with the Red Teams. Find out what your team did well and what you can improve on in the future. NCCDC is sponsored by major cyber organizations in law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and corporations, such as Raytheon. It’ll help your game plan and preparation for years to come.

Inspire others: Set an example by competing in cyber competitions to build real-world skills and develop insights that you can’t get in the classroom. I began competing as one of the few female participants in NCCDC a few years ago. Last year, I noticed there were five female competitors, and this year, we’ve more than doubled that number. These events can inspire colleagues, students, and the next generation of cyber experts by demonstrating that technical problem-solving and cyber skills are found amongst us all, regardless of gender, experience, or age.

I can say with confidence that students who participate in competitions like NCCDC will receive a well-rounded, hands-on training experience, which can lead to an internship and then a permanent job with highly reputable organizations.

About the Author:

Mariah Kenny is a fourth-year University of Virginia computer science student. She is also the team captain of the University of Virginia in the National Collegiate Cybersecurity Defense Competition, presented by Raytheon. Her team was recognized as the 2018 champions of NCCDC.


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