Selling Cybersecurity As A Sexy And Socially Conscious Career Choice For Young Hackers
When Hamed Al-Khabaz found a security flaw in his college’s records system, he thought he was doing a good deed by bringing it to the administration’s attention. The school disagreed and Al-Khabaz was expelled. Faced with what he deemed a hostile learning environment at school, his friend and future business partner, Ovidiu Mija, quit in solidarity. “After reporting the flaw to the administration, we felt like we did the right thing. We weren’t expecting anything in return other than their appreciation towards our well-intended actions,” Mija says.\
This is a scenario that Alan Paller, the founder of Cyber Aces, doesn’t want to see happen to other students. Instead, he wants to give young would-be Edward Snowdens the opportunity to develop cybersecurity prowess in a controlled environment and build employable skills.
“If you’re good, you have nowhere to practice right now except the open internet, where it’s a federal crime. Cyber Aces helps participants realize their potential in a supervised environment. It offers them a structured and stimulating curriculum with controlled simulations and then shows them what their future might be, through the residency program. We create an environment that celebrates their accomplishments, fosters friendships with others who share their passion – and then we connect them with employers who want to pay them well for their skills. We make a future of doing good from the inside a lot more appealing than the alternative.”
The Cyber Aces foundation offers free short courses and quizzes to test abilities in cybersecurity. Top performers are then invited to compete in state championships. The winners are provided with scholarships to Cyber Aces Academy, where they receive the same high-level training offered to businesses and governments by industry vets. Students are also placed in paid corporate internships with companies that have pressing cybersecurity needs.
Ryan McVeety, a freshman at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU, competed in the New Jersey Cyber Aces state championships last spring and has long-term plans to complete a Masters in the field of cybersecurity. While he calls himself a hacker, he says it has much more to do with youthful inquisitiveness than a desire to wreak havoc.
“The popular notion of a hacker is an evil person, someone who breaks the law for his own good, but the original definition was of a person who had a very in-depth knowledge of how his/her computer worked and could take advantage of that knowledge to solve problems. That problem could be Can I make this code run faster? just as much as it could be How can I break into this computer? More often than not, there’s an I wonder what happens if I do this? moment; curiosity is an important aspect of hacking that I don’t think the modern definition captures. I consider myself a hacker in that respect. I am a problem solver, I am curious and my tool of choice is a computer.”
Paller believes that the field of cybersecurity offers an opportunity for students like McVeety to apply a much-maligned skill set for social good, while also securing their career future in an age when stable, well-paid work is hard to come by for Millennials.
“Millennials want jobs that make a difference in people’s lives. They’re growing up reading about Stuxnet disabling a nuclear facility and might have a family member who’s had their personal information compromised online. At the same time, Millennials have a lot less job security than their parents. Cybersecurity jobs happen to be among the highest-paying jobs in IT, with zero unemployment and openings that are going unfilled. This is one job the US isn’t going to outsource to China,” he says.
As for Al-Khabaz and Mija, their story has a happy ending. After international news of his expulsion broke, Al-Khabaz received job offers from the likes of Google , but the friends decided their interests lay elsewhere. They have gone on to found the award-winning Outpost.Travel, the biggest aggregator site in the peer-to-peer travel industry and are about to close their seed round of funding.