As cybersecurity breaches continue to occur with greater frequency – and become more costly – the demand for talented professionals with the skills to protect critical information is only growing.
The cybersecurity program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis is a recognized training ground to learn, with the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security naming it a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education. Students majoring in computer science or information systems and technology don’t just learn in the classroom. They also have opportunities to receive hands-on experience.
Last month, a team of UMSL cybersecurity students – Annmol Babu, Faith Clarke, Josh Dobyns, Bharath Mukka, and Venkat Pathapati – took advantage of one such opportunity by competing in the Midwest Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition Invitational, and they walked away with a first-place finish.
The annual event held by the National Support Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance features live simulations of security threats that teams of 12 people – 8 players and four alternates – attempt to thwart.
The four-hour competition tested the knowledge and skills of 25 teams as they worked to stave off digital attacks that in a real-life scenario could open a company up to extreme vulnerabilities, including compromised data, leaked personal and proprietary information and financial loss.
UMSL’s team beat out more experienced teams such as Southeast Missouri State University, which has won the Missouri Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition nine times in a row. It did so despite only having five team members.
“During the competition we had no idea that we were coming in first place,” said Clarke, who along with her teammates had been confused by the leaderboard. “We thought the top three spots were taken.”
When UMSL was announced as the winner, Mukka went to the judges for clarification, still not believing they had won.
“We shouted a lot,” said Pathapati, remembering the team’s reaction after the shock and disbelief of winning subsided.
Vijay Anand, an associate professor of information systems and technology at UMSL, helped guide the team through the competition and also helped them celebrate with a pizza party.
Anand established the cybersecurity program at Southeast Missouri State before coming to UMSL. It was rewarding to see his current students have success against an established team he helped develop.
“It actually means that in a short period of time, we were able to assemble a team and train to be competitive, to a point that we were able to beat one of the teams that has won the Missouri CCDC nine times in a row,” Anand said.
But Southeast Missouri State wasn’t the only team to conquer.
“It’s like the whole Midwest region, where you have teams from various states – Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana,” Anand said. “All these teams, they have been doing it for a while. So they have a lot of background knowledge of how to compete. To compete against them and beat them is a big deal.”
But the win didn’t come without hard work and challenges, starting with the initial act of assembling the team.
A few students, including Babu, were immediately interested after Anand announced the competition in class. But it was hard to find others to commit.
“There were only a limited number of in-person classes, so we were not able to meet in person to convince people to join,” Babu said.
They were able to build a team of five students, but arranging practice time was the next hurdle. School and job demands made it hard for the group to meet, particularly in person.
With a Google Doc outlining the schedule and a hybrid of in-person and virtual practices, the team made the situation work and prepped for the competition.
“If somebody could come to the campus then we said, ‘Come to the campus,’ but if not, we would do a Zoom meeting,” Clarke said.
The team did make certain to convene on Fridays for a practice hour, running exercises and practicing anticipated simulations in preparation for the competition.
“There’s a lot of prep that goes into trying to understand how to configure multiple systems and organize the team’s efforts so that we can all be effective on competition day,” Dobyns said.
“What kind of services do we need to protect? How do we need to react and what kind of code injects we have? And what’s the time frame for each and every inject?” Mukka said. “Those are some of the things that we came to know, and we really took care of them.”
When competition day finally arrived, the team was nervous, not knowing what to expect.
“At the event, reacting to a potential compromise is the most challenging because we have to determine if it was a messed up configuration from someone on the team or an actual breach that needs to be addressed and secured,” Dobyns said. “In addition to trying to keep up with the red team, just trying to complete all of the injection memos that sporadically pop up throughout the day is definitely a lot of work.”
But the work and dedication paid off.
The team now is poised to compete in the 2022 Missouri CCDC leading to Midwest Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, which is a qualifier for the CCDC national competition. In addition to bragging rights, the group members have also positioned themselves well professionally.
“The competition definitely put some confidence in them when they go out into the workforce,” Anand said. “It is real world-type experience, actually going against red teamers who are part of the industry. So it is actually a big deal for them.”
Clarke has already accepted a job offer from Mandiant in Alexandria, Virginia, and will begin after graduating with a degree in information systems and a cybersecurity certificate next summer.
Mukka is currently interning as a security researcher at a California-based company, and like the rest of the team, will be seeking opportunities after graduation.
Preparing for and winning the competition provided many benefits and gratification.
“It was a great learning opportunity,” Babu said. “And more than that, being an international student, there was a feeling of inclusiveness. Being part of a team was a great feeling.”