UTSA students and organizers participate in the National Colliegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo courtesy of UTSA.
UTSA students and organizers participate in the National Colliegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo courtesy of UTSA.

In its quest for Tier One status, the University of Texas at San Antonio has established a cybersecurity program so robust it’s caught Washington’s eye. In the interest of forming new partnerships with the federal government, President Ricardo Romo recently led a team of UTSA faculty members and representatives from Rackspace to the nation’s capitol to brief business and political leaders on the program, ranked top in the nation by Hewlett-Packard’s survey conducted by the Ponemon Institute.

“We got a very good response,” said Dr. C. Mauli Agrawal, vice president of research at UTSA.

UTSA’s reputation preceded the delegation’s arrival. The work of Dr. Ravi Sandhu, director of UTSA’s Institute for Cybersecurity, was already familiar to the feds. In his seven years at UTSA, Sandhu has been responsible for pioneering research in the ever unfolding frontiers of cybersecurity.

Agrawal said the programs’ strength is its forward-reaching aim to stay ahead of the technology.

“We are anticipating the needs of cybersecurity,” Agrawal said.

Star faculty members like Sandhu certainly drive that ability, but it is also made possible through close partnerships with a hometown tech company. The partnership provides a living laboratory for the university, and gives Rackspace access to cutting edge security breakthroughs, particularly in the area of cloud security.

UTSA students and organizers participate in the National Colliegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo courtesy of UTSA.
UTSA students and organizers participate in the National Colliegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo courtesy of UTSA.

In cloud computing, every time data is transferred on and off the cloud, a potential security breach is created. As a practice field for its security technology, UTSA has the largest open cloud platform of any university in the country. It can simultaneously use it for cybersecurity and cloud technology development, making it not only large, but increasingly sophisticated and secure.

The university’s approach to cybersecurity is career-oriented. Rather than an isolated program of technique and theory, creating specialists, cybersecurity is woven into three fields of relevant study: information systems, business and electrical engineering. Companies who hire UTSA graduates from these disciplines know they will be well-versed not only in their chosen major, but in the cybersecurity issues relevant to the field.

The program is also proactive in its evangelism of cybersecurity.

The Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security (CIAS), led by Dr. Greg White, works to take sees best practices in cybersecurity out of the ivory tower and into the hands of the people who need it most. CIAS works with government entities and other organizations to assess their security protocols and equipment and make recommendations to improve it. Center personnel assign maturity levels to the entities based on the security of their infrastructure.

To keep staff’s skills sharp, and to showcase security prowess, CIAS has competed in 16 different programs designed to test cybersecurity technology and practice, and members currently direct the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. But why stop there? Why not tap into the streams of tech-savvy running through an even younger population?

UTSA students and organizers participate in the National Colliegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo courtesy of UTSA.
UTSA students and organizers participate in the National Colliegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo courtesy of UTSA.

CIAS, together with Rackspace and others, hosts a program called CyberPatriot, which basically teaches kids how to hack for the greater good. Like a giant game of cops and robbers, kids are divided into teams trying to either hack or defend information systems. Attention parents of gamers: This is a win win.

Perhaps the most attractive feature of the UTSA cybersecurity program is the job placement. Washington was as excited about this distinction as any other. UTSA serves a majority Hispanic population, and it is targeting one of the most high-demand job markets in the country. As its program matches graduates with jobs, the growth in the workforce and the middle class could increasingly reflect the changing demographics of our country.

Current graduates are employed by a range of companies, from accounting firms such as Ernst & Young, to tech industry giants Intel and Hewlett-Packard, to aerospace and defense companies like Lockheed Martin. Government agencies are employing more cybersecurity personnel, too, as vulnerability to foreign cyber-attack becomes a more urgent challenge.

Michael Reski is one such alumnus who found a dream career in cybersecurity with the U.S. Government.

Michael Reski on graduation day.  Courtesy photo.
Michael Reski on graduation day. Courtesy photo.

Reski was a student at Austin Community College, unsure of where his education was leading. Like many tech-minded students, he knew he wanted to work with computers, but wasn’t sure what that would look like. His advisers there knew that he had the talent to apply to UTSA’s Information Assurance Scholarship Program. He won the scholarship, and suddenly doors began flying open into the world of cyberdefense.

“From there it was a rocket ride for me,” said Reski.

After two internships at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C., Reski realized that what he learned at UTSA could actually increase the sophistication and effectiveness of the U.S. Department of Defense. The summer before he began work on his master’s degree – also at UTSA – he took an internship with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), the Department of the Navy’s information platform.

This summer, spent working at a higher clearance level than most summer interns, Reski was inspired. He saw a need in the SPAWAR system for a data defense solution, and began developing a product to meet that need when he returned to UTSA. The product is now patent pending, and could soon be part of our country’s defense arsenal.

Meanwhile, Reski took classes with Robert Kaufman, whose real-world expertise and connections allowed students to run “penetration tests” for local companies and organizations. It was through that kind of hands-on learning that he got the training he would need to go back to SPAWAR and work with a “red team.” Red teams are outside groups commissioned to essentially play the villain against an organization to increase its effectiveness in a given area. At SPAWAR, red teams try to steal or compromise classified data, leading to tightened security.

Reski rose quickly through the ranks to become deputy director of SPAWAR’s Red Team Assessment for the East Coast. He spends his days devising ways to hack the national government and he gets paid to do it.

Michael Morris, his supervisor, believes Reski will go even farther.

“I’ve got 50 government employees and 400 contract workers. Mike Reski is the smartest one I’ve got,” Morris said.

Reski, at the encouragement of Dr. Nicole Beebe, is looking into ways to strengthen research ties between UTSA and national defense employers. According to Morris, the jobs are there, too.

“If you’ve got more, send ’em,” Morris said.

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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.