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Future cyber warriors put through paces at Moraine

Representatives with United Airlines talk students as part Midwest Regional Cybersecurity CompetitiFriday Moraine Valley Community College Palos Hills.  |

Representatives with United Airlines talk to students as part of the Midwest Regional Cybersecurity Competition on Friday at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. | Mike Nolan~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 1, 2014 6:59AM



Because Southern Illinois University in Carbondale has a bit of a reputation as a party school, it’s a badge of honor for Tom Imboden that his students were representing the state in the Midwest Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

They were among 10 Midwest colleges vying for an opportunity to go to next month’s national competition, and it’s likely that most, if not all, of the students competing ultimately will work in one of the fastest-growing segments of information technology.

Held at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, the competition simulated real-world experiences, with student teams defending a mock business infrastructure against attacks from professional hackers.

Called in the business “professional network penetration testers,” the hackers work for firms such as Dell SecureWorks, that are leaders in the field of building a better mousetrap when it comes to deflecting the advances of hackers whose intents are malicious.

Imboden, who teaches information systems technologies at SIU, said his eight-student team, the Security Dawgs, had vanquished teams from schools such as DePaul and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to get to the Midwest competition. It was the second year in a row that a team from SIU had bested other state schools to represent Illinois at the regional level, Imboden said.

Students studied three or four nights a week, for two or three hours at a time, prepping themselves to anticipate what the hackers might throw at them, which is “anything they can to break and disrupt you,” he said.

The competition was to continue Saturday, and the national championship will be held next month in Texas.

The Midwest event was held at the National Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance housed at Moraine. Funded through a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation, the center has developed cyber security-related curricula for other colleges around the country, and the center has hosted other similar cyber security competitions.

Sponsors of the event also used it as a recruiting tool, with companies such as Kellogg’s and United Airlines sitting down with students. Government sponsors with a keen interest in cyber security included the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command and the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

Describing United to students as “a technology company with wings,” John Van Hoogstraten, the company’s chief information security officer, said the Moraine competition was a departure from United’s traditional efforts to fill IT security openings.

Posting jobs at the usual online employment sites wasn’t generating the responses United hoped for, and “we are trying to be more proactive about how we reach out” to potential IT security employees, he said.

He said that IT security “is in general an extremely hot area, probably the hottest area in IT.”

Apart from keeping secure the networks that keep planes in the air, United is one of the world’s top 10 credit card processors, and keeping that data safe is a demanding job, Van Hoogstraten said.

Still, it’s “becoming harder and harder to attract top talent,” in part because “the number of qualified applicants is growing slower than demand,” he said.

Demand is so great that some students who are freshmen are attending school and working full time in the field they’re studying. Imboden said that three of his students have lined up summer internships with aircraft company Boeing, paying $23 per hour plus relocation costs.



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