Students place in National Cyber League competition

Daniel Favor, Dave Chen and Brad Taylor attempt to decrypt password hashes for a challenge problem in the National Cyber League competition Nov. 17.

After placing ninth and 21st in a national cybersecurity competition, the success of two groups of students is paving the way for Northwest’s cybersecurity program.

In mid-November, a group of students comprised of Cole Houston, Dave Chen, Daniel Favor, Brad Taylor and Andrew Proctor placed ninth out of 54 teams in the gold division and 10th overall out of 368 teams in the National Cyber League competition.

The second group of Jesse Reed, Jack Hill, Zane Salam, Michael Baumli, Vitaliy Tsytsyk placed 21st out of 189 teams in the bronze division and 130th overall.

The virtual group competition was a marathon-like experience according to computer science Professor Scott Bell, who teaches many cybersecurity-related courses.

“They started Friday at noon, and they were in and out of there pretty consistently until 8 p.m. on Sunday,” Bell said. “It basically wiped out an entire weekend.”

For students like junior Houston, taking part in cybersecurity competitions is a valuable experience allowing students to work on a variety of complex problems in real-world scenarios.

After participating in the competition for the first time last spring, Houston said the groups were confident but prepared for the next opportunity.

“It exposed me to a lot of new and difficult things I hadn’t done before,” Houston said. “I’m really happy with the placement we got.”

Houston envisioned working for the FBI initially but altered his plans after taking a course in computer science - a very similar field to cybersecurity.

“It’s a field that you need to be very passionate about to stay in, because everything is moving so fast,” Houston said. “If you want to be in this field, you constantly have to do research.”

Hoping to one day open his own cybersecurity business, Houston has recently been specializing in reverse engineering and binary hacking, which entails designing exploits capable of manipulating software in certain technology.

Houston said the latest cybersecurity competition was the culmination of a nearly two-month-long, three-part competition consisting of a pre-season, regular season and group project postseason.

“It turned out really well,” Houston said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better team on that because we complemented each other’s strengths.”

With the complexity and time-consuming nature of cybersecurity, the group project for the postseason competition allowed more work to be completed.

“That’s really what they were focused on because individually they’re scattered all over the place,” Bell said. “It’s hard to find a lot of time in a student’s life to think about a problem for three hours.”

After working at Northwest from 2007 to 2010, Bell returned in 2014, aware of the emerging field of cybersecurity.

“Writing security code is critical, and it’s not being talked about a lot,” Bell said. “You see every day a company gets hacked and loses millions or billions of dollars, so they have to hire people to take care of this.”

Bell added there are thousands of cybersecurity-related jobs that organizations and companies are needing to fill.

Like many of the state’s collegiate cybersecurity programs, which are still in their infancy, places like Northwest are catching up.

What started off as a network security class for graduate students in 2014 eventually branched out into other security-related courses and the cybersecurity club.

“They’ve done an incredible job. They worked really hard. They were awarded the best student organization at the University,” Bell said. “But they’re self-motivated, those guys have put a lot of effort into building the cyber defense club and meeting every week, having a plan.”

Bell said many of the students were learning things that extended well beyond class material, commending them for their level of self-motivation.

Houston said he took eight online cybersecurity courses over the last summer alone in addition to extra cyber defense club meetings.

“It’s a field where you can’t learn everything in a class; it’s such a broad field,” Houston said. “To have that cyber defense club is super helpful.”

When asked how it’s been to see so many students do well despite having a relatively young program, Bell said it’s been a pleasant balancing act as a professor.

“You think ‘How far do I push them?’” Bell said. “It’s like the snowballing effect at this point; it’s just a matter of giving them tips and keeping them moving forward.”

With campus interest in cybersecurity only a few years old and the first major less than a few months, the level of development in such a short time is a sign that the program is heading in a positive direction.

Houston said with new competitions and the cybersecurity major, there has been a boost in interest among many computer science students.

“I think it validates what we’ve done so far with the program,” Bell said. “People that are making that competition are showing to incoming students ‘these are the skills I need’ and they’re being prepared well for that.”

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