Meet a nationally competitive Fort Wayne cybersecurity team creating a pipeline for tech talent

As technology has rapidly advanced the past two decades, tech culture has developed new and exciting ways to engage emerging talent in the industry and to help students apply skills from the classroom.

One method is through competitive cybersecurity teams, which compete like athletes in various games designed to test their skills at hacking and/or preventing cybersecurity attacks and solving IT-related quagmires.

In 2004, the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC) was established to organize competitions for techies, which may lead to internships, job opportunities, the chance to travel, and scholarship money. Now, one collegiate team in Fort Wayne is making a name for themselves at these national competitions and laying the foundation for a powerful tech talent pipeline in the Northeast Indiana region.

Cybersecurity competitions are designed to create scenarios that emulate extreme examples of what students will see in the tech industry.

Matt Hansen is Coach of the Indiana Tech Cyber Warriors. Since 2006, they have grown into an elite collegiate cyber competition team, claiming 14 state CCDC championships and ranking in the top 10 teams nationwide three times: in 2007, 2011, and 2018. In March, they claimed their 7th consecutive state championship and advanced to the Midwest Regionals in April, where they earned a 2nd place finish.

But beyond trophies and bragging rights, Hansen’s hope is that the Cyber Warrior’s success will feed into the region’s broader need for tech talent, sending graduating students to local companies and developing a tech hub here. As he recruits students and connects with more local companies seeking tech talent, he’s creating a three-stage talent pipeline from high school to college to full-time employment.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Hansen to learn more about the Cyber Warriors and his hopes for the future of Fort Wayne’s tech scene.

Since 2006, the Indiana Tech Cyber Warriors have grown into an elite collegiate cyber competition team.


IFW: Give us a little background on yourself and the Cyber Warriors. How did you get started, and what makes the Cyber Warriors unique?

MH: The Cyber Warriors at Indiana Tech started out as a club in 2007. That was the first year we competed in what is our flagship competition, which is the CCDC. The team was started by a now-retired Indiana Tech professor, Julie Mansfield. I started with the team in 2010 as a student and have been with it ever since.

I was on the team for all of my years as an undergrad, and I was team captain in my last year. I then came back to the university as an adjunct professor when I was doing my graduate work and took over as sort of a Co-Lead. In 2015, I took over as the full-time coach. We have since moved to an actual team status rather than a club status.

That means, we differentiate from a number of other schools, because some of these competitions are entered into by clubs or a student organization. We have an actual team—similar to what you would see with an athletic team.

Since 2006, the Indiana Tech Cyber Warriors have grown into an elite collegiate cyber competition team.

IFW: How do students join the team?

MH: There's a tryout process, as of last year. We now recruit from high school, as well, so there's scouting and recruiting that goes on. In meeting with students, I typically look for somebody who has a baseline understanding of a particular technology, and that can range from many different things, but so long as the technology falls within the realm of cybersecurity. The second thing—and I think the most important component—I look for in a future Cyber Warrior is their drive and ambition towards learning those technologies.

My understanding of their abilities, in that way, is facilitated through the week-long tryouts. Students will have six different categories of tasks that can be completed, and it's designed so that no one will be able to finish all of them intentionally. They have to choose where they want to spend their time. I want the student who is willing to put in the time because the learning curve for this technology is so steep that I need someone who is able to facilitate their own self-study and who has that intrinsic drive towards learning the technology.

It doesn't actually happen like it does in the movies where you just type, “hack the bad guy,” and everything scrolls on the screen. It's a lot less sexy than that, and I can tell you, it’s a lot more challenging, so I need students to be able to facilitate their own self-study.

The Cyber Warriors compete in about a dozen different competitions throughout the year.

IFW: How often do the Cyber Warriors practice?

MH: We operate year-round and practice two to three times a week in addition to self-study outside of practice, which comes out to be about 15 hours a week on average. If you take the average across the year, it's just shy of 10 hours a week because you'll get higher towards certain competitions and lower during the summer, obviously.

If students go through the early trial process and make it onto the Cyber Warriors team, there are scholarships available from the university of up to $10,000 per year for four years.

IFW: For tech students, what are the benefits of being a Cyber Warrior?

MH: The students who invest time into the team and into themselves within the context of the team, have a significant advantage on the majority of other students that just go through the coursework in their classes.

Not to say that the coursework doesn't prepare you, but many of the competitions in which the Cyber Warriors compete are designed to be extreme scenarios. These exaggerations in an environment designed to emulate what they will see in industry, are likely significantly more challenging from the perspective of both technical complexity and time frame compression.

Cybersecurity competitions are designed to create scenarios that emulate extreme examples of what students will see in tech industry.

Before entering the workforce, Cyber Warriors already have these skills and abilities to withstand what is likely going to be the most complicated thing that they'll do in their career for the rest of their lives.

Given the unfortunate nature of the cybersecurity world, some of these students may experience something similar in industry, but likely not to the extent that is designed in competition. This makes them ideal candidates for job roles, knowing that they will almost certainly have experience in more complex cybersecurity scenarios in a competition environment than they will ever see in a real environment.

So, I think that's the most valuable component. Other than that, we have amazing alumni and employer connections within the team. I've got freshmen sometimes who are on the team for six weeks, and then they get placed into an internship because these companies come to me directly and ask for Cyber Warriors because they know the level of students that are on the team.

As Fort Wayne gets bigger, the companies get bigger, and they need more and more tech folks. 

IFW: What are the competitions like?

MH: We don't have a similar structure to most athletic teams in that it's not the same game that you play repetitively against just a bracket of different schools.
There is a team of eight students where you are assuming that they comprise an IT department, and they're being brought in to replace an entire IT department that was all fired, and they were all disgruntled employees. There are significant security flaws and vulnerabilities in all the systems so that they can get back in and be malicious. Things are barely working and sort of hanging by a thread, and it's their job to go in and fix it all as fast as possible.

We have competitions that are offensive-focused in the forensics realm, and there are offenses focused on pentesting (penetration testing), which is an industry term, meaning testing vulnerabilities and the ability to gain access to systems that you shouldn't be able to.

Cyber Warrior need drive and ambition to learn complicated technologies.

Then there is the defensive side where we have to sort of build and defend, and there is the defensive side, in which we sort of forensically figure out what's going on, remediate those vulnerabilities, and defend against attackers. There are a lot of different competitions and styles.

We compete in about a dozen different competitions throughout the year. Our first competition will start the second week of August this year, and our last one for this coming school year (2022-2023) will end in the middle of July, so we only get about a four-week break. Competitions run in different formats. Some of them are only a day; some are five months, and it varies depending on who's running them and who's hosting them.

Matt Hansen, left, coaches the Indiana Tech Cyber Warriors.

IFW: What’s it like to run a tech hacking team in Fort Wayne in comparison to larger cities that might have a more tech-friendly culture?

MH: It's challenging. We have some amazing students in Fort Wayne who do really, really well in this program, but they would never have made it where they are without the program being there to show them that they can.

Fort Wayne doesn’t have the tech influence like a lot of the bigger metros do, so it’s not something that they would have as good an ability to be able to try out. It often takes coercion on my part to get them to try out and go through it, and it turns out, students really enjoy it. It opens their eyes to a whole new career that isn’t as prevalent in the Fort Wayne area.

I've started doing a lot of high school recruiting and talking to different groups in addition to curating a number of employment partners in Fort Wayne. I’m always looking to grow that network, so we can keep some of that talent in Fort Wayne.
I’ve got four or five employment partners in Fort Wayne right now who we funnel students into and try to keep them here. It’s a goal of mine to create this three-stage talent pipeline, which I haven’t gotten a student all the way through yet, but it would start with recruiting them in high school, then working through Indiana Tech and their college experience and finally placing them through a partnership into employment via internship then full-time employment.

As of last year, we now have scholarships for the Cyber Warriors, similar to an athletic scholarship. If students go through that early trial process and make it onto the team, there are scholarships available from the university of up to $10,000 per year for four years.

The Cyber Warriors practice two to three times a week in addition to self-study outside of practice.

IFW: How do you think Fort Wayne, as a whole, can make adjustments to attract and retain more tech talent here?

MH: One of the biggest pieces of feedback that I get from students is they just want to get out of Fort Wayne because they've lived here forever, or there is nothing to do here, or something like that. With the employable skills that you have coming out of the Cyber Warriors, you pretty much get to choose where you want to go.

A lot of times, I think with the downtown improvement projects over the past five to six years, Fort Wayne is getting so much better. It's really grown a lot, and I think as we continue to do that, we will retain that younger crowd of talented people. We've already started to expand our tech focus, also. As the city gets bigger, the companies get bigger, and they need more and more tech folks. 

Global companies, like Shindigz, that are headquartered in downtown Fort Wayne often seek to hire local tech talent.

But as far as tech in Fort Wayne, it is growing. And that's just because Fort Wayne is growing. You know, I didn't have employment partners four years ago because we really didn't have a whole lot of opportunity for that. We're getting a much better place, and I think it's on par with the growth of the city.

We're keeping more students here. I actually kept all of my graduates from last year in Fort Wayne, which was shocking. I did not expect that, so that's good. It's the first time that's ever happened.

The Cyber Warriors hold tryouts and recruit from high schools.

IFW: What do you think are the benefits of running a team like Cyber Warriors in Fort Wayne?

MH: In this sort of forum, there's not a way for students here, and really in a lot of places, to get this level of experience. In Fort Wayne, we don't have the big tech companies that are doing the outreaches, and the different events, and the weekend things, so being able to do this in Fort Wayne I think is a pretty unique opportunity. We don’t have much else like this here. For those students who really want to build those skills, this is a great way to do that.

Learn more

For students or businesses interested in learning more about the Cyber Warriors at Indiana Tech, visit their website at techcyberwarriors.org or contact Matt Hansen via email at [email protected].

Students can participate in cybersecurity competitions on an individual or team basis.
 

Read more articles by Desaray Bradley.

Desaray is expecting to graduate from Purdue University Fort Wayne in the spring of 2021 with a bachelor's degree in Communication: Media and Culture and a minor in Public Relations. She enjoys traveling, photography, and short story writing in her free time.