By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
For two weeks, students at T.C. Williams High School broke new ground as one of 38 school districts in Virginia to take part in a virtual camp to learn more about cybersecurity.
After hearing guest speakers, learning about career and college readiness and working on subjects like coding and cryptography, the camp came to a close last Friday with a showcase of the robots the students have been building and programming so they can move and flash lights among other actions.
The previous day, the camp hosted its final guest speakers, as Phyllis Schneck and John Robinson of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security discussed careers in cybersecurity and the opportunities available in the federal government.
Schneck is deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity and communications for the National Protection and Programs Directorate in the department and its chief cybersecurity official. Robinson is a senior advisor for cyber security and communications and also Schneck’s chief of staff.
Schneck said cybersecurity threats come from all over the world, and present numerous problems that must be solved by homeland security officials.
“The adversaries, as we call them, don’t have any lawyers; they don’t have any laws,” she said. “They make a lot of money at what they do, and sometimes they’re funded by lots of governments.”
But with threats increasing in number and becoming ever more sophisticated, the pair said there are plenty of opportunities to help the country bolster its cybersecurity. Schneck said that is all the more important as newly constructed buildings contain so many electronics that can be susceptible to hacking, even systems as innocuous as air conditioning and elevators.
And the growth in importance of cybersecurity is something that has crossed borders and partisan lines. Schneck spoke of meeting with Russia’s Federal Security Service and forging cooperation even between what have been two powers historically hostile to each other.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) formed the bipartisan Senate Cybersecurity Caucus with U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) last month to allow senators to discuss cyber threats.
“It turns out, no matter what country you live in, technology is a universal language,” Schneck said. “Techies will talk to techies. Techies will help techies.”
Schneck talked repeatedly about the need for the government to engage with those in the private sector, not only to share ideas but also to allow for people to move from one to the other and not be hung up in an overly long and complicated hiring process. Having had experience in the private sector with security software company McAfee and other firms, Schneck said she had complementary experiences in both worlds.
“These days, we want people to think about doing some time in government, and some time at a company,” she said. “They are totally different things and your skill sets will come together. … You come into government, and you see things you never thought existed, you see things you never thought you’d learn about before, you see things that happen to each and every one of us I never thought possible.”
As for getting into a job with the federal government, Robinson said it is imperative for young people to keep their noses clean, especially on social media. He spoke of being quizzed on his personal Twitter account at an interview, and how actions in your youth can have far-reaching consequences.
In terms of skills necessary for work in government cybersecurity, Schneck said it was important for her to have people in leadership positions with technical knowledge, to help bridge the gap between technicians and their supervisors. She said that learning to brief superiors is a key skill, especially boiling down what can be very specialized knowledge into something that others can understand.
“One of the tricks to being successful as well as enjoying it in this field is understanding it inside out, build your technology skills, know your field … but know how to communicate it to someone who’s maybe 8 years old,” she said.
Robinson and Schneck agreed there is plenty of need for young people to become involved in the cybersecurity field, especially given how far technology has come already and how far it still has to go.
“Part of the fun of cybersecurity is that whatever we do, there’s a role for you in this field,” Schneck said.
“You are some of the top minds of the future, because here is more need for people just like you than there are to go around and fill the needs,” Robinson said. “You have a huge advantage.”
Chris Speich, a world history teacher at T.C. who is involved in the school’s science, technology, engineering and math academy, said the fact that the students were willing to give up part of their summers for the cyber camp bodes well.
“[The camps are] part of Gov. [Terry] McAuliffe’s initiative to get kids interested in cybersecurity, and Gov. McAuliffe’s really interested in trying to make Virginia the center of cybersecurity, so this is the state’s initiative to get these kids exposed to it early enough before college,” Speich said.
“[This] is on their summer, they could be doing something else, but they’re here with us from 7 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. getting immersed into that whole cybersecurity world.”