Now in its sixth year the US Cyber Challenge has plans to expand its efforts to help budding cybersecurity professionals receive the tools and support they need to grow in the industry

USCC National Director Karen Evans

Photo Courtesy of Karen Evans

With the growing need for cybersecurity talent, the question of how to narrow the IT security skills gap still remains. Estimates from the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium (ISC)2 show a deficit of over 300,000 trained cybersecurity professionals in the workforce.

Earlier in 2016 President Barack Obama addressed the issue emphasizing the need for cybersecurity talent to keep U.S. businesses and citizens safe. The White House put out a new the new Cybersecurity National Action Plan that is putting a lot of resources toward increasing the cybersecurity workforce and the talent of its workers.

That’s where the US Cyber Challenge comes in to help. With a goal to identify 10,000 skilled cybersecurity workers, the US Cyber Challenge (USCC) program is taking a hard skills-focused approach to help identify and groom future top cybersecurity talent.

Since its formation in 2010 the USCC has implemented online competitions aimed to attract and identify top talent through what are called Cyber Quests. These online exams were created to identify a test taker’s aptitude for solving cybersecurity problems by assessing a wide variety of online security skills. Participants who answer the most questions correctly in the shortest amount of time are then invited to attend one of the USCC’s week-long summer Cyber Camps. For summer 2016 these camps will take place in Illinois, Delaware and Utah.

At these on-site Cyber Camps qualified participants get a chance to develop their security skills while being recognized for their achievements via scholarships, internships and jobs.

In an interview with GovInfoSecurity National Director of the USCC Karen Evans said that these competitions are to identify talent at all levels, not necessarily just the high-end forensic skills, and be able to get those qualified candidates the right resources for a successful cybersecurity career depending on their strengths.

The future of USCC

The next steps for USCC will be to build out the CyberCompEx (CCX) platform that it manages, which according to its website is an online resource to “connect the workforce with employers in the cybersecurity industry.” CCX will continue to assist those who want to make career changes as well as further facilitate connecting the young generation of cybersecurity workers with employers. Evans plans to keep building up CCX and eventually will add a feature for employers to post their jobs and search for prospective job candidates possessing specific cyber skills to fill those roles. The CCX database will also provide employers with individual and team competition results. In order to access these special features, employers will have to pay a CCX membership fee.

“Right now our immediate purpose is to be the one-stop online location for people to learn about active competitions and other cybersecurity news and events,” Evans notes. “We are currently piloting a job-seeker and employer functionality. We hope to roll it out to a broader network of employers in the upcoming months.”

USCC also plans to offer resources for employers to construct their own mini cybersecurity competitions to enhance their current job application and interviewing process says Evans. This will give employers the ability to test and score potential new hires on specific cyber skills, rather than simply rely on resume statements and interview responses.

Instructor teaching at US CyberSecurity Challenge

Photo Courtesy of the US Cyber Challenge

Bridging the skills gap for nextgen workers

The opportunity for cybersecurity enthusiasts to showcase their hard skills to prospective employers at the Cyber Camps is especially important for younger participants who are interested to start a cybersecurity career because sometimes specific roles will require five to 10 years of prior experience. Through the USCC program students are potentially able to bypass years of experience and prove to employers they have a specific skills sets needed to be successful on the job. Another benefit is that the USCC can mentor younger students and direct them to get a degree in computer science or related fields that will put them on a path toward success.

While hard coding and tech skills are used to qualify summer bootcamp participants, “it’s the soft skills which ensure future success in the workplace,” says Evans. “At the camps we’ve always had the last day include an in-person “capture-the-flag” competition where camp participants work in teams. They compete as individuals and learn to work in teams just as you would in the workforce,” says Evans.

How USCC helps employers find top-tier talent

Employers attend these events to scout out potential employees with advanced technical skills, but, as Evans notes, these competitions should not to take place of “traditional methods such as the interview,” rather an alternative way to assess a potential employee’s skills. Employers also attend USCC events to witness how competitors interact with one another on teams during the “capture-the-flag” event and handle time pressure.After all, employers know that people skills are just as important as hard coding skills in the workplace.

Employers in search of cyber talent can find USCC’s competitions listed on their website and on the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education’s website. “Potential employers can search competitions for the skills they are seeking and contact those hosting organizations directly,” Evans said.

Evans points out some of the upsides of being a USCC sponsor.

“At our camps, we have always offered opportunities for camp sponsors to make contact with our camp participants in person at our camps at a job fair we host during the week and we also provide them with resumes for each of our participants.”

Aside from sponsoring USCC boot camps, employers can join the USCC’s CCX community, as noted above. Evans notes that this online community includes many of USCC’s past camp participants as well as cybersecurity enthusiasts who haven’t participated in the program.

USCC Groupwork Silverbull

Photo Courtesy of the USCC

How does the USCC measure its success

USCC’s goal is to continue to get repeatable results from the competitions and be able to show employers the USCC’s competition method works to identify top talent. Evans says she has received positive feedback from employers who have attended the summer camps and consider the competitions a good indicator of an individual’s true skills.

“With the next phase of implementation, it is our expectation to gather more data to support the use of competitions as a complement for education and experience,” Evans notes.

With the build up of the CCX platform, the USCC plans to put together data about what happens to an individual who is recruited into a new role by gathering insight from employers about how successful they are.

One success story comes from the Doug Logan, the CEO of the software security consulting company Cyber Ninjas, who was a 2010 pilot program high scorer who was invited to USCC’s first Cyber Camp.

“Not only did the USCC help kick off my cyber security career, but I know of dozens of similar stories. It is great to be able to give back by sponsoring the US Cyber Challenge and ensure that others get the same opportunity I had,” Logan notes.

Logan is now a sponsor, and teacher, at USCC challenges because Logan says he values that the USCC is “one of a handful of organizations in our country which is directly taking on the cybersecurity workforce problem.”

Other sponsorship benefits Logan notes are being able to network at the camps to bring about business opportunities as well as expand his sub-contracting network.

“Every year the US Cyber Challenge provides us with a list of several hundred top caliber entry-level candidates, without requiring us to go through thousands of resumes. These candidates almost universally have a deep passion for security and learning…passion is critical for staying on top of the continuous learning required in this field.”

Through these events with the support of numerous sponsors does the USCC continue its efforts to bridge the skills gap and expand its resources for employers searching to top-tier talent.

Registration for the April 2016 Cyber Quest closes May 5, 2016. Anyone interested can go to: http://uscc.cyberquests.org/ to register. Quizzes must be submitted by the end of the day on May 6, 2016.