Competitions jumpstart cyber careers

NCCDC students learn to defend networks during a trial by fire

One way to get that hands-on training is through the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition – a series of tournament-style events with an exhilarating final round where teams defend a business network against an elaborate simulated cyberattack. Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business, is a sponsor of the event – the largest of its kind in the United States.

“There is learning, and then there’s applied learning. NCCDC is the latter,” said Jon Check, executive director, Cyber Protection Solutions, for Raytheon Intelligence & Space. “The college teams are fending off real-world attacks against experts – the red team. You just don’t get that in the classroom. Good grades, being a good test taker and certifications don’t always translate to being good at cybersecurity.”

Competitors often find the event improves their job prospects, Check said.

“It’s the ultimate interview,” Check said. “You see the person do the job in real time and using skills and tactics that they’ll need to succeed at work.”

Customized mechanical keyboard

A customized keyboard is just one of the physical tools used by the Blue Team to help them defend their networks from the Red Team.

That rings true for Todd Scroggins and several of his colleagues at Raytheon Technologies, who say competing has helped them in their careers.

Scroggins, a cyber researcher with RI&S’ Cyber Offense and Defense Experts, or CODEX, in Huntsville, Alabama, described how NCCDC helped him work with machine-learning algorithms “to build some really cool stuff” that makes it easier to research vulnerabilities and reverse-engineer malware.

“The thing about the NCCDC competition is there are a ton of different skills used, which is the same thing needed in vulnerability research or actual developments, or anything of that nature,” said Scroggins, who competed in 2018 and 2019 at the University of South Alabama, and then coached the team in 2020, when he was a senior. “It’s real hands-on experience using tools that you’ve learned about, then actually seen deployed in real life.”

Logan Barnes, a Raytheon Intelligence & Space software engineer working on networking projects in Salt Lake City, found that NCCDC prepared him to work well under pressure and communicate better with his teammates.

“You get fire-hosed at NCCDC events – ‘Hey, this is what we need, this is what we’re going to do, this is your role,’” said Barnes, who competed in his senior year at Utah Valley University. “To be a blue-teamer, a defender, you have to be very dynamic and very flexible. You must react to real-time threats. You have red-teamers trying to compromise your systems.”

Squaring off against the deliberately stressful and chaotic simulations at the competition has made the day-to-day work of cybersecurity easier, he said.

“While we don’t have real-time attacks, we do have real-time software needs. A customer might say, ‘We need this feature implemented as soon as possible, or something’s broken. We need to get it fixed,’” he said. “So, while it’s not quite as hectic, it’s a very dynamic and fast-paced environment.”

The mentality that is instilled is what you’re doing isn’t easy, and you’ve got to really want to do it. That’s invaluable.

Christopher Fischer, University of Central Florida 2022 NCCDC co-captain

Communication and teamwork are critical to winning at NCCDC and doing well at work, said Christopher Fischer, an intern at RI&S’ CODEX campus in Melbourne, Florida, and a co-captain of the powerhouse University of Central Florida team.

“The idea that even during a competition, where everything’s on ‘fire,’ you’ve got to be able to put down your toys and talk to a teammate about what to do, what not to do, how to approach a problem a different way,” said Fischer, who has accepted a full-time job with RI&S. “But those skills, the soft skills, the culture skills, and kind of the ethics of it still are very, very relatable to what Raytheon Intelligence & Space does.”

After winning NCCDC, Fischer said that he received several job offers but knew he wanted to work for Raytheon Technologies.

“I didn’t want to work in a place where I’m just chewing up bite-size issues and shopping around for corporate, off-the-shelf solutions to problems that everyone else is solving,” he said.

The story was similar for Micah Oltmann, a cyber engineer at the RI&S campus in Aurora, Colorado, who competed on the Florida Institute of Technology team.

Cyber Engineer Micah Oltmann works from her home office near Denver

Cyber Engineer Micah Oltmann works from her home office near Denver, where she is developing logging systems that will identify possible intruders and malware on space systems that Raytheon Intelligence & Space builds. While a senior at the Florida Institute of Technology, she competed in the NCCDC qualification rounds, and she said the experience has helped her on the job to think like an attacker.

“We’d have recruiters from these big Silicon Valley companies say to us, ‘Come work here...we have kegs of beer in the office and whatnot, but they’re not doing anything as cool as Raytheon [Technologies] – that’s protecting our nation, working with government and actually doing something, not just getting clicks,” she said.

Oltmann helped established the institute’s hacking club called FITSEC during her junior year and then had a chance to compete in NCCDC as a senior.

“The manager who hired me did mention that I did well in school, but then said, ‘Tell me about this hacking club you started,’ and, it wasn’t my grades that got me hired, although that didn’t hurt, it was the hacking club,” she said.

Oltmann said that participating in NCCDC opened her eyes to the various roles available in cybersecurity.

“Initially, I was very interested in red-teaming, and at FIT, we competed in a lot of red team events. We’d be given some sort of problem and we’d have to reverse-engineer it, but it was constantly breaking into systems,” she said.

Now, she is developing logging systems to identify possible intruders and malware on space systems that Raytheon Intelligence & Space builds.

“A lot of what I did at NCCDC translated when I began working at Raytheon Intelligence & Space,” Oltmann said. “I’m still asking myself, ‘How can I secure this system, and what services do I need to cut off?’ And so, I had done some security before, but the competition has directly correlated to my job now with challenging me to think, ‘How would an intruder get in, and how can I batten down those hatches?’”

Competing in NCCDC also shows employers not just job candidates’ skill sets and experience, but their focus and dedication too, Check said.

“The teams that are in the nationals didn’t get there by accident,” he said. “They know the different attacks that they’re going to face and how to mitigate those attacks. They’re inquisitive and continuous learners, and they want that next challenge. And they’re problem solvers, and more importantly, they’re problem solvers who don’t get frustrated. They’re already thinking about ‘What can I do better next time?’”