How to get ahead in cybersecurity

NCCDC teaches teamwork, hones skills and shows commitment

It takes a lot of practice to get good at cybersecurity – and one of the best ways to get that practice is to prepare for a cyber competition.

That’s what students do in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, where they spend months working alongside experienced professionals applying the theoretical knowledge they learn in the classroom to a real-world setting.

“Professors will talk about intrusion detection, but they don’t plug students into an enterprise setting or test them under applied conditions,” said Paul Krier, Raytheon Technologies, technical director, for Cybersecurity, Intelligence and Assessments and IT fellow. “For that type of learning, students need to participate in events like the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in which they apply fundamentals in a real-world environment, where they can learn how to defend a network against an adversary.”

NCCDC, presented by Raytheon Intelligence & Space, is the nation’s largest cybersecurity event of its kind. The event includes a simulated cyberattack against a fictional business network. At the finals, the country’s top 10 teams – narrowed from a field of 240 colleges and universities – must fend off the attacks and keep the day-to-day operations of the organization going. The 2021 competition will be the 16th in the event’s history. It will be held virtually, with the championships running from April 23 to April 25.

Competitors often find the event improves their job prospects, said Krier, who spent six years as the NCCDC adviser for the Southern Methodist University team in Dallas.

“Students who have competed in NCCDC are highly sought after by both the public and private sector because they’ve got experience that you can’t get from the classroom alone,” he said.

Several Raytheon Technologies employees who have competed in regional NCCDC events said competing has clearly helped them in their careers.

Chance Rose, a cyber engineer in Raytheon Technologies’ Security Operations Center, described how NCCDC helped prepare him to sift through data logs so he could detect, contain and mitigate cyber threats.

“NCCDC puts on a pretty good simulation of a major event happening at a company,” said Rose, who competed as a member of SMU’s 2016 team. “When it happens at NCCDC, it’s all hands on deck, like how we’d react at Raytheon Technologies. During the competition, it’s sort of an extreme version of what happens during a real-world event. Coping with that stress and controlling that rush of adrenaline was good preparation for my work here.”

The competition also teaches how to work within a cyber team – specifically, how to keep communicating while multi-tasking during an attack.

“You learn about working well with a variety of people and different personalities, knowing when to ask other people to help, and jumping in to help other people when they need it,” said Mary Provencher, who competed with University of Massachusetts – Lowell in 2020. “The experience helped me know when to ask for help and draw upon the team’s skillsets.”

Provencher also learned to pick up new skills very quickly during NCCDC. That helped prepare her for summer 2020 internship with the networking and cyber technology group at Raytheon BBN Technologies. She plans to join Raytheon Technologies full-time in June 2021.

“While you’re preparing and competing in NCCDC, you’re learning a lot of new things at a very fast pace,” she said, “which is what you need to do when you start a new job. You need to pick up things quickly, and the experience helped me feel more confident when I started my internship with Raytheon Technologies.”

The intensity of the competition might be the best training of all, said Justin Scott, another SMU alum-turned-Raytheon Technologies employee.

“They like to throw you curveballs at NCCDC, and it’s like two months of work compressed into two days,” Scott said. “You have to research what’s happening to your network on the spot, figuring out how a system or process works. Technology is always changing; the threats and vulnerabilities are always changing and so are the tools. So, I think the most valuable experience for me was being able to research and apply what I learned under pressure, very rapidly.”

Competing in NCCDC also shows employers not just experience, but focus and dedication, Krier said.

“We recruit from events like NCCDC because I can find people who know what they are looking for and excited to be doing that job,” he said. “The field is so fast moving that you need people who have a drive that motivates them to keep learning. These are the people who will hit the ground running and succeed in cyber.”