Justin Gray works during the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo by Scott Ball.
UTSA will set up and run the Cybersecurity Manufacturing Innovation Institute under a five-year cooperative agreement. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

When you think of “The Big Dance” you probably think of teams of college students. However, you probably don’t think of them wearing polo shirts while they huddle around a bank of laptops and other blinking hardware, calling out network status reports.

But that’s exactly what’s happening at the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition Championship (NCCDC), which is being billed as “The Big Dance of Data Defense.”

Ten teams from around the country have made it through qualifying and regional competitions to participate in the three-day competition at the Marriott Riverwalk.

UTSA student Chelsea Hicks works during the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo by Scott Ball.
UTSA student Chelsea Hicks works during the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

UTSA will participate in the finals for the first time since 2006. The university’s cybersecurity program has been gaining steam over the last few years, with national recognition and dynamic partnerships stacking up. On April 23, only a day ahead of the NCCDC, Congress formally recognized  the National Cybersecurity Preparedness Consortium, an informal partnership between USTA, Texas A&M University, Norwich University in Vermont, the University of Arkansas, and the University of Memphis.

Justin Gray and Derek Bassham during the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo by Scott Ball.
Justin Gray and Derek Bassham during the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo by Scott Ball.

This recognition will allow the Department of Homeland Security to follow suit, and open the door for the programs to seek additional funding.

At the start of the competition on Friday, the team from UTSA was trying to mentally prepare for what they might see in their scenario room.

“Each of the competitions is very different, so preparing for one doesn’t really help you prepare for the next one,” said UTSA team member Justin Gray.

UTSA senior Mark Peña explained that the data at nationals would be much heavier, and that they would have more computers to handle than they had at regionals. It would also involve the cloud, which is notorious for security liabilities.

Most of the team members were excited and anxious to see the new cyber defense products and software waiting for them in the scenario.

“I’m excited about the experience, and getting to play with the vendor toys,” said UTSA team member Derek Bassham.

These “vendor toys” are arranged by Raytheon Company which leads the market in electronics, mission systems integration and other capabilities in the areas of command, control, communications and intelligence systems, as well as cybersecurity and a broad range of mission support services. The 93-year-old company out of Massachusetts has invested heavily in training in cyber defense.

“60% of the companies we talk to say they need more and more information security professionals,” said Jack Harrington, vice president of command and control systems with Raytheon.

Jack Harrington speaks at the 2015 NCCDC opening remarks. Photo by Scott Ball.
Jack Harrington speaks at the 2015 NCCDC opening remarks. Photo by Scott Ball.

Harrington’s enthusiasm for the program led his company to arrange a meeting with President Obama for last year’s national champions from University of Central Florida. The meeting was more than a photo op. The team spent substantial time advising the President on cybersecurity issues, sharing their perspective as the next generation of our countries defense.

The security of our data, as it is held by both public and private entities is on everyone’s mind, from Congress to the marketplace.

“We’ve injected some of our new Raytheon products this year,” said Harrington, “Products that just went commercial.”

Harrington explained that for years the focus of major vendors like Raytheon was defense for major clients like the federal government, but that with high profile hacks like the Sony breach in 2014, more commercial entities realize that they are at risk, and demand is increasing.

“It’s a benefit that we get to mess with this stuff before we enter the job market,” said Gray.

No doubt the job market is looks ripe for the members of these top performing students in a high demand field. For this weekend, however, they will be focused on the immediate, imaginary present.

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The teams, working in separate conference rooms throughout the hotel would be be acting as a new IT crew for fictional Stark Energy, which had just lost its staff on less-than-friendly-terms. Their goal was to keep energy flowing to the town of Shelbyville (this Simpson’s reference played very well with the audience).

“You’re really being put in a real life scenario,” Harrington said.

The technical scenario explanation went on for an hour before the teams were released. They then entered rooms where laptops and other hardware awaited. They wasted no time organizing and attacking the scenario, preparing for what the competition’s red team would throw at them.

They even maintained vigilant physical security, checking press badges and monitoring photographers. The scenario is not contained entirely on the computer. Just like in life, the teams were on high alert for low tech security threats as well. Which unfortunately for us included spies posing as journalists. 

The competition will continue until Sunday, when the winning team will be awarded the Alamo Cup. While the tournament may not have thousands of screaming fans filling a stadium, there’s no question that what they are doing is considerably more significant.

*Featured/top image: Justin Gray works during the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.