Annual contest grooms next generation of cybersecurity professionals

Foundation aims to close skills gap at schools and expand work force talent pool

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George Beatty did not discover his inner tech geek until he was in his mid 20s. And he took a circuitous path to what now looks to be the start of a long and rewarding career as a cybersecurity professional.

penn-state-photo-captionThe 29-year old Penn State senior was on a team that won the high-profile Deloitte Foundation Cyber Threat Competition last November, an event backed by consulting giant Deloitte & Touche aimed at addressing the skyrocketing demand for information security professionals.

With global spending on cybersecurity systems and services fast approaching $1 trillion annually, research firm Frost & Sullivan estimates that the shortfall in the global information security work force will reach 1.5 million in five years.

Related: Cisco funds $10 million cybersecurity scholarship program

Deloitte’s cyber contest, now in its third year, helps the firm “engage with students in key universities where we recruit,” says Anthony Russo, principal with Deloitte Advisory’s cyber risk services practice, which designed the program. “This is a nice way for us to get our students to learn about cyber-risk practices.”

Event enourages networking

It’s also a way for Deloitte to subtly advocate for further development of cybersecurity programs at universities.

For job-seeking students, the event enables networking opportunities, although winners aren’t necessarily guaranteed a job with Deloitte. And they get to present their findings in front of judges, a key business skill. “It’s one thing to have technical acumen, but you also have to be able to articulate it in business terms,” Russo says.

Just a few years back, Beatty could not have imagined himself surfacing as a key member of the winning team in a cybersecurity contest. A native of the Chicago area, he first enrolled at Penn State in the most typical fashion of many freshmen—an undeclared major. His grades suffered, and he eventually left school after a couple of years.

He stuck around in State College, Pennsylvania, tending to his stable, but unchallenging job as a restaurant manager. After one week of working 100 hours, Beatty, called his father for a soul-searching chat. His father urged him to return to school and offered to help defray the cost. “He really wanted to see me go back to school,” he says. “It’d be his dream to see me (graduate). I’d not be here without him.”

Less than a month after the conversation—and five years after he dropped out—he was back in school in fall 2014, determined to tackle a new major. Beatty opted to study information systems design and development, with a second major in security analysis, topics he knew little about, but selected, nonetheless, on the basis of potential job opportunities

The fact that he was a bit older than his peers was “intimidating,” he says. That he knew “virtually nothing” about the majors added to the pressure. “But I came back to school and found out what I’m passionate about.”

Advanced skills not required

In reminiscing about the crossroads, he unearthed a lesson that can be passed on—prior knowledge and prodigious aptitude in computing aren’t prerequisites to success in information technology.

Beatty’s computing skills were admittedly limited to “maybe fixing Windows or running virus scanners for my parents,” he says. “I couldn’t even type properly when I came back to school.”

Deloitte’s competition this year was Beatty’s second go-around. His team advanced to the final round last year, but failed to win. But the familiarity with the format helped.

Teams from 15 universities—each team composed of four students—competed last November. The four highest scores from the first round advanced to the final round.

The first round challenges teams to answer 30 questions, five of which are technical challenges. For instance, participants may be asked questions about digital steganography, in which an encrypted password must be unlocked in an image file.

Simulated crisis

The second round pits teams in an all-out cyber war game. The participants were tasked to devise optimal responses for a company in a cybersecurity crisis.

In seizing the top spot, Beatty and his teammates—Kevin Houk, Michael Lubas and Michael Morelli—each received $2,000 in scholarship money. Teams from the University of Southern California and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute placed second and third, respectively.

“Last year, we thought we did really well,” Beatty says. Falling short “kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. But we did a lot of prep this year.”

Beatty’s association with Deloitte will continue. He will go to work for the firm’s cyber risk practice in New York when he graduates in May.

“I had a lot stacked against me,” Beatty says. “For anyone who may be intimidated to get into an IT-related field, they’re not alone.”

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