CyberThon prepares Pensacola students for careers in tech

By Mike Ensley, Special to Innovation Coast

Imagine being a new information technology employee on your first day of work and facing a cyberattack on your company.

That’s the challenge that awaited area high school and college students who gathered recently at the National Flight Academy at Naval Air Station Pensacola to test their skills.

CyberThon 2016, held Jan. 22-24, pitted student teams against simulated cyberattacks over the course of the weekend.

“We want this event to be both disruptive and impactful in terms of the students’ thinking,” said Randy Ramos, president of the local Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, which sponsored the event. “CyberThon inspires the students.”

The CyberThon Environment is a self-contained network that allows the students to “identify, protect, detect, respond and recover” from attacks launched by a team of on-site cybersecurity field experts also connected to the same simulation.

It’s a game, but a game with real-world applications.

“Each student team is given tasks and assigns members to each role needed,” said Shane Hammett, a former cyber logistics specialist at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “We want them to understand the division of labor. We want each team member to connect the dots on what it takes to recognize non-normal network behavior – the who and what of who might be the attacking and what they can do to mitigate any damage.”

The teams are not left on their own, however. Each is assigned a mentor to help them with their strategies.

Among those mentors is Craig Spoke, who teaches business technology at George Stone Technical Center in Pensacola.

“There is an amazing level of excitement among these students,” Spoke said.  “When you put these students in a lab where they can put their skills to practical use, you can see that something just clicks – the light bulb just goes off.”

Another mentor is University of West Florida College of Science & Engineering lecturer Anthony Pinto. UWF’s Cybersecurity program began in the fall of 2014, and Pinto says that the need for qualified IT professionals is growing in the Pensacola area.

“Cyber is here. Both in the military and civilian sectors,” Pinto said. “We have an arm of the DHS and the Defense Information Systems Agency in Pensacola. On the commercial side, there are companies like Global Business Solutions Inc., TECHSOFT, Avalex Technologies Corporation and AppRiver.”

One of the goals of CyberThon is to not only get students interested in the IT field, but keep them in our area.

“We need to let them (the students) know that you can get a degree and stay in Pensacola,” Pinto said. “Our program has a 100 percent full job rate upon graduation.”

Mike Hicks agrees. Hicks, the president and CEO of Hixardt Technologies in Pensacola, believes that keeping these developing IT professionals in Pensacola is key.

“We are steering these students into careers in the IT field,” Hixardt said. “In the past, most would complete their degree and move away from our area to a technology hub somewhere else.”

For Ramos, CyberThon’s student takeaways will eventually lead us to be one of those areas.

“In five to 10 years, Pensacola could become one of those places like Charleston, S.C.,” he said. “We’ve already got Navy Federal expanding here. We need to build these students from the ground up, and we’ll attract big industry, as well as all the off-shoot technology companies that come along with that.”

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