|Cyber defense team members compete in the western regional competition last spring.|
When eight computer information systems (CIS) students entered a Cal Poly Pomona-sponsored competition this year, the goal was to win bragging rights as one of the best cyber security universities in the Western United States.
They fulfilled that goal and then some.
Six of the former teammates are now coworkers for Boeing, one of the most prominent defense contractors in the country. In a rare hiring move, Boeing recruited all graduating members of Cal Poly Pomona's cyber defense team to work in its Anaheim office. They began their careers one month after graduation in June.
“You can never have enough good people,” said Per Beith, Boeing's director of Global Network Operations. “With the focus Boeing has on cyber security, it was really an easy decision to hire them.”
Boeing did not have six positions open and wasn't looking to hire people as a team. But each team members' resumes were so strong and their knowledge of cyber security so valuable it just made sense to bring them all aboard, Beith said.
“We never expected something as good as this,” said Jarrad Sims, a cyber defense team member turned Boeing systems engineer. “In school we were friends who studied and worked 40 hours a week together and hung out 40 hours a week. Now we're working at the same company.”
In their new job, the Cal Poly Pomona alumni play an important role in protecting computer networks for Boeing and its clients. Essentially, they examine system weaknesses and figure out ways cyber criminals and terrorists could potentially infiltrate computer networks.
The competition the students prepared for — the Western Regional Cyber Defense Competition — is a yearly event hosted at Cal Poly Pomona and organized by the CIS Department and its Center of Information Assurance. The event welcomes college teams from California, Nevada and Arizona to test their cyber security skills against industry experts whose sole goal is to disrupt, tamper and damage each team's computer networks. The team that survives the three-day competition with the fewest security breaches wins.
In early 2009, Cal Poly Pomona handily won the regional competition that included teams from Sacramento State and Cal State San Bernardino — institutions that have been nationally recognized for their cyber security education. The Cal Poly Pomona team advanced to the national competition in Texas but ultimately lost to Michigan's Baker College.
To prepare for the competition, the Cal Poly Pomona students gave up their Saturdays to hone their knowledge of operating systems and networking. What they didn't learn in the classroom they acquired through mentors and research. Preparation took more than half a year and, over time, the students forged a relationship that focused on motivation, teamwork and solidarity.
The camaraderie they shared on the cyber defense team will surely benefit their new employer, said CIS graduate Jeff Henbest.
“Because of our preexisting team dynamic we are able to be productive employees in hours instead of weeks,” said Henbest who now works as software engineer for Boeing.
CIS Professors Dan Manson and Anna Carlin have been the driving force behind the competition that began two years ago. They organized the event to add a hands-on component to their cyber security instruction, which has been recognized by the federal government as a Center of Academic Excellence.
“We are grateful for Boeing's strong support of our Western Regional CCDC,” said Manson. “Involvement by Boeing and our other industry and government sponsors validates the Cal Poly Pomona learn-by-doing approach to education and provides our partners the opportunity to see the best and brightest college students demonstrate real-world skills in the important area of cyber security.”
Since Cal Poly Pomona has been named a Center of Academic Excellence, CIS gradates have gone on to provide auditing and security work for private companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG. Federal agencies such as the FBI and the NSA have also visited campus to recruit CIS students. However, Boeing's hiring of a CIS student team was a first, and something of a coup.
Boeing, like most companies, is eager to hire cyber security specialists. In fact, the need is so great that federal agencies and nonprofits in the nation's capital have decided to create a U.S. Cyber Challenge. Essentially, they are looking for ways to find and develop that kind of talent that Cal Poly Pomona produces in its CIS Department.
Not only are cyber security careers in high demand, the jobs are essential. The White House, Pentagon, State Department and New York Stock Exchange have all been attacked by hackers and cyber terrorists, according to a report by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. In 2008 alone, there were millions of attempts by hackers to penetrate the federal government's defense digital networks, according to the report.
The vulnerability of computer systems has even concerned President Obama, who called cyber security “one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation.”
CIS student David Hunter and computer science major Sean McAllister are the only remaining members of the 2009 Cal Poly Pomona cyber defense team, but they won't be alone when they prepare for 2010. The graduating members have already agreed to pitch in, McAllister said.
“They will come in on their Saturdays and help us out,” McAllister said. “That pretty much speaks to the kind of people they are.”
And to the kind of learning environment Cal Poly Pomona fosters.