BYU cybersecurity program offers students real-world experience

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BYU’s cybersecurity team, from left and in the color matching jackets, CJ Cornel, Blake Moss, Tanner Perdue (graduated), Kyle Fletcher (graduated), and Amin Haq stand at the finals of the National Cyber Analyst Challenge. Competitors analyze the forensic aftereffects of a network breach. (Temple University)

Locked in a room without internet, BYU cybersecurity students race to prepare a presentation about their discoveries and the financial implications from a recent network breach.

On April 13, BYU cybersecurity students competed in the final round of the National Cyber Analyst Challenge, a prestigious competition where simply making it to the finals entails a $10,000 check. They placed in the top 10 in the nation.

BYU has achieved success at several national cybersecurity competitions over the last three years, according to Justin Giboney, one of the professor mentors to these teams. These competitions give the students valuable experiences and skills they now want to share with others.

BYU took second and third at the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

“No one knew about our research lab, but now they do because our teams have done well in competitions,” said CJ Cornel, an IT master’s degree student with an emphasis in cybersecurity. “We are now much better connected locally.”

Several companies attend these events and have booths. The competitions gather a lot of attention from prospective employers. For example, at the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, teams need to submit a résumé and at the Cyber Analyst Challenge, the event has time built into the schedule for networking activities.

Competitions are a great connection point for applicants and their potential employers since many employers are familiar with the nature of the competitive environment.

“They know that if you can do well there, you can do well at the job,” said Valen Hill, a cybersecurity undergraduate student. “It helps to show your passion for what you are doing.”

Hill says you have to have that passion in order to push through the stressful experience of a competition. The competitions are opportunities for students to gain experience employers look for.

“A lot of jobs are looking for people with a certain amount of experience which, as a student, you can’t get easily,” said Andrew Thomas, a master student in the IT program.  “Having that competition experience and that crash course looks good to employers.”

The students have seen their experience in competitions reflect the work that they actually have done on their various internships, at least to a degree, according to Hill.

“They are pretty spot on, but it is definitely dramatized for the sake of the competition,” Hill said. “Hopefully, you’re not going to be hit every 30 minutes by a cyber attack at your job.”

Hill said the competitions meet the practical aspects of IT jobs and prepare people for everyday tasks. However, the team members also said classes provide a theoretical approach to cybersecurity to prepare them for development.

“The competition is like an accelerated crash course in the material, and then we encounter it in a class and go into a lot more depth,” Thomas said.

Only about 10 percent of the students in the IT program have the opportunity to participate in the various competitions according to Giboney. ITSec, BYU’s cybersecurity club, is planning on hosting their own version of the Cyber Defense Competition.

“We want to be able to share that experience and that learning opportunity with them,” Hill said.

Over the course of the semester, the club will build the challenge and then break into teams to compete. Alumni will volunteer to attack the networks during the club’s competition. While on a smaller scale, the ITSec hopes to give every student the chance to experience a competition environment.

In addition, they all help with BYU’s Girl Cyber Security Camp, where girls ages 14–18 learn how to code. The camp culminates in a home-made spaceship simulator where camp attendees pilot a ship while fending off an enemy hacker using skills acquired at camp.

Hill said they hope to make the experience available for more people than just the camp, hoping one day that freshmen will be able to hone their skills in the simulator as well.

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