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The race is on to train a new generation of cybersecurity professionals. Illustration by Jonathan Carlson

Cyber superheroes prepare for battle

With cybercrime soaring, the race is on to train a new generation of digital defenders.

January 5, 2022

By Daniel J Vaccaro

The bad guys – cybercriminals, in this case – appear to be winning.

Ransomware attacks have risen 62% worldwide since 2019 and by nearly 160% in North America, according to a 2021 SonicWall Cyber Threat Report. Among those was last year’s attack on Colonial Pipeline, which crippled energy infrastructure that delivers about 45% of fuel for the East Coast.

As for the good guys: There simply aren’t enough of them.

Almost a half-million cybersecurity jobs remain unfilled, according to CyberSeek, a project sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Even the Department of Homeland Security is racing to fill more than 2,000 cybersecurity jobs. As multimillion-dollar ransomware attacks proliferate, where can governments and organizations turn to find the next generation of cyberprofessionals?

If Richard Mac Namee has his way, the answer will be Metropolitan State University of Denver.

“My colleagues and I are designing education that prepares professionals to hit the ground running,” said Mac Namee, director of the University’s Cybersecurity Center. “What we recognized as we built out our program is that while a four-year degree gives students a good general cybersecurity education, we needed more experiential learning opportunities.”

That real-world practice now includes the Atos Security Operations Center, which launched on campus in August. International cybersecurity provider Atos is employing paid student interns in the SOC, where they work alongside Atos professionals and learn how to monitor client networks in real time. This type of hands-on training is especially important in a field that often expects employees to enter the workforce with experience, said Klaus Streicher, an MSU Denver Cybersecurity graduate, senior cyber range instructor and manager of the Atos SOC Intern Program.

“Students will have a clear pathway to break into the industry,” he said. “Working within these real environments will give our graduates a strong advantage with employers.” 

Cybersecurity students Aaron Hondrick, Edgar Rodriguez, Michael Barnes and Ricardo Ibarra work in the Atos Security Operations Center at MSU Denver on Oct. 15, 2021. Photo by Amanda Schwengel
Cybersecurity students Aaron Hondrick, Edgar Rodriguez, Michael Barnes and Ricardo Ibarra work in the Atos Security Operations Center at MSU Denver on Oct. 15, 2021. Photo by Amanda Schwengel

Certified for success

Mac Namee expects the intern program to expand over time, with the long-term goal of developing a formal certificate that interns receive at the end of their experience. Certifications are highly valued in the cybersecurity industry.

To that end, the Cybersecurity Program also worked with the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) to offer multiple professional certifications to its 250 undergraduate and graduate students last fall. 

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“The combination of these initiatives will allow students to graduate with a great degree, professional certifications validated by a respected source, work experience in the SOC and hands-on skills testing in the cyber range,” Mac Namee said. “They will be well-prepared.”

The initiatives fall under the newly named Cybersecurity Multi-Use Training Environment or C-MUTE, a fully immersive educational experience that prepares graduates to be top job candidates. To take the Cybersecurity Program to even greater heights, Mac Namee and Streicher hope it can become a National Security Agency Center for Academic Excellence. Mac Namee said the multistep application process is not easy, but the validation from a national organization would be a big boon for students, helping with professional relationships and opening opportunities for funding.

The Atos Security Operations Center launched at MSU Denver in August 2021. Photo by Amanda Schwengel
The Atos Security Operations Center launched at MSU Denver in August 2021. Photo by Amanda Schwengel

Diversifying the workforce

The University is also partnering with the NSA to help diversify the cybersecurity professional pipeline. MSU Denver is one of 11 colleges and universities nationwide taking part in the agency’s Cybersecurity Education Diversity Initiative, which increases access to cybersecurity education at Minority-Serving Institutions. Such schools include Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic-Serving Institutions such as MSU Denver.

The NSA developed the CEDI program to attract a more diverse cybersecurity workforce, including students from a variety of disciplines, said Criminal Justice Professor Jeff London, Ph.D. He is the principal investigator of MSU Denver’s NSA CEDI Subaward and is spearheading the partnership.

As part of the CEDI, MSU Denver received a $149,573 grant that will facilitate partnerships among Mountain West Cybersecurity Consortium, Trinidad State Junior College, the Outcalt Foundation and the Colorado Department of Higher Education. Students in the program benefit from mentorship and internships.

Through CEDI partnerships, more-established Minority-Serving Institutions will also provide hands-on support for less-established MSIs via training and technical assistance.

“Diversifying the field of industry experts is what MSU Denver is all about,” London said. “We are excited that additional cybersecurity professors and students from Colorado will be better-equipped to usher in the next generation of cybersecurity experts and industry professionals.”

Cybersecurity student Maranda Graybeal is also working to increase diversity in the field — for women. Last fall, she co-founded the MSU Denver chapter of Women in Cybersecurity.

“I was a little nervous to get my degree in this field as a woman,” said Graybeal, who graduated in December. “But the program opened so many doors for me. I want to share that story with other women who are considering this career.”

Graybeal said her student internship with DevilDog Cybersecurity particularly put her mind at ease. The consulting firm’s team made her feel welcome from Day One and even offered her a part-time role as a consultant and technical writer after her internship. Today, she supports companies with Department of Defense compliance and policy documentation.

Graybeal is also motivated by a larger goal, one shared by almost every member of MSU Denver’s Cybersecurity Program.

“I want to be one of the good guys,” she said. “I want to help defend our country and our data. If we don’t get more people involved, the cybercrimes are only going to get worse.”

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