Joseph Dillon, a computer information science senior, has competed in national cyber security competitions for seven years – four in high school and three at Cal Poly Pomona. Even with his experience and preparation for each competition, there would be new elements added and challenges introduced each year that no teams could overcome.
“That’s the great thing about the competitions – you come out knowing that you have a lot more to learn,” Dillon said. “That really pushes us to learn more and try harder for next year so we can get a bit more of those problems solved and we can push further.”
Dillon was part of a team of six Cal Poly Pomona cyber security students that placed third in the Collegiate Penetration Testing Competition International Finals in November in Rochester, New York. Cal Poly Pomona ranked in the top three — behind Stanford University and the Rochester Institute of Technology — out of 10 universities across the nation.
Undergraduate and graduate students worked as penetration testers for a fictitious financial services and cryptocurrency company, DinoBank. Teams were placed in a work environment and performed tasks that included assisting agitated bank employees with IT issues and hacking an ATM and the company’s computer systems to find vulnerabilities. The teams compiled a comprehensive report on the company’s network weaknesses, its impact on the business and how to prevent malicious hackers from gaining access, and then presented their findings to DinoBank executives.
Dillon credits Cal Poly Pomona’s cyber clubs and experiential education for providing him with additional opportunities outside of the classrooms and helping him to gain skills and knowledge applicable in a work environment.
“Having that hands-on experience really gave us the ability to learn more outside of our classes,” Dillon said. “With our clubs, we’re doing something objective-based that helps us know how the computer environments are set up and knowing what kind of weaknesses machines typically have. That is invaluable, and having that prior knowledge and general experience really gives you a lot of skills.”
Through networking with his peers and alumni, Dillon landed two summer internships — one with Warner Bros. Studios in their security operations center and another at Tesla as a security engineer. He saw the importance of cyber security in an expansive, corporate computer and network environment and how it applies to different departments. Dillon will continue working at Tesla after he graduates in Spring 2020.
“I feel prepared because I know how the business world works and I have experience in different areas,” Dillon said. “The most important thing I have is the ability to learn as I go, and I pick up on things quickly – that’s really essential for cyber security.”
Dillon is excited by the innovations cyber can bring in the world, and the ability to experiment with projects to learn and create something new. He first discovered his passion for the field when he saw his friends take control over a security camera and wanted to see if he could do it too. Dillon followed his curiosity and bought a security camera, disassembled it to find out how it worked, broke open the password and gained access.
“I really love to understand how things work,” Dillon said. “The ability to have an idea, chase that idea and implement it, and see what works and what doesn’t work – having that ability to experiment, be creative and try different ideas, I find that really attractive.”