In just 2 months, I’m going to be giving my very first IT workshop at the 2018 Women in Cyber Security (WiCyS) conference in Chicago. My current emotions range from elated, excited, and empowered to terrified, inadequate, and sometimes even a bit nauseous.
When I wrote my proposal for N00bSec to Cyber-Champion: Hacking the National Cyber League for Success, I had one goal in mind: to help other women take the plunge to compete in a hacking competition so that their resumes could get an extra boost to help them get jobs. The confidence boost they would get from succeeding would simply be a bonus.
But it’s honestly a terrifying first step. There are plenty of Women in Tech talks that I have been to that say men will apply to jobs that they have about 60% of the requirements and women will not apply for jobs unless they have 100% of the requirements. I believe the same to be true of whether or not women decided to compete in cyber competitions. If they are not sure they have a chance of succeeding, they shy away for fear of failure. I used to be the same way.
That being said, while in college for cybersecurity, I believe that every student (male or female) should participate in some form of hacking competition. Why do I recommend the National Cyber League (NCL) so highly? Because you can compete and succeed in this competition with exactly ZERO computer science or IT experience.
For those of you who think I’m exaggerating, I couldn’t even log-in to my school workstation because I could not locate the “Ctrl+Alt+Delete Button” during my first competition with NCL. Seriously, I had to ask someone every day because no one would show me that this was, in fact, three separate buttons that had to be pressed at the same time. It was kind of a running joke to the guys who sat next to me in class. (Jokes on them, because by the 2nd season, I was kicking their butts! But, we will get to that part later)
So I was voluntold by an overly-eager professor to compete in the 2015 Fall NCL Season. I was signed up and paid for by the Westchester Community College Cybersecurity Club so I felt obligated to at least log-in and look at the competition. And in that very first round of the season, I did poorly. I barely scored any points. I went home from school that day and genuinely cried. I relayed to my partner that I was too stupid to be in this field and going back to college was a waste of my time and our money. I was devastated.
After a couple of glasses of wine, copious amounts of chocolate, and a good amount of self-pity, I decided that I wasn’t going to let this beat me down. In the next round of the competition, I discovered that Open Source Intelligence was a category that should have been called, “Go Google it, Genius!” Now, all of a sudden, this dumb chick who couldn’t log into her computer completed an entire category of questions.
With time left on the clock, I decided to try to next category which was Cryptography. In case you can’t tell by my name (@CryptoKait), I LOVE cryptography. It was the first thing that interested me in the field of cybersecurity. I discovered I had a natural talent for it. I didn’t get all the questions, but I got a good number of them and was feeling pretty confident because now I had completed as much as I could of not one, but two categories. After this second round of the season, I had moved up the rankings by about 400 places. Not too shabby!
So round three happened. I quickly blazed through what I could of the challenges I was familiar with and started to hunt for my next category. I discovered that Log Analysis could be done using Excel (if you’re pretty savvy at managing data that way) and Password Cracking was relatively similar to Cryptography and there were TOOLS THAT DID THE HARD PARTS FOR YOU! Again, my rank jumped by the hundreds.
Now ranking in the top 500 competitors, I still felt pretty intimidated to be on the NCL post-season TEAM for the school. Terrified of the other people on my team, I tried to be quiet and not bother anyone. Eventually, I spoke up and showed them all the answers I had found for Crypto and PW Cracking. These were areas the rest of my team were struggling in so they were impressed that I had found the answers. And they taught me new skills in return for showing them how I figured out what I did.
And after that, I was a pretty fierce competitor. I was a co-captain the following season. I was a team coach every season after. I rose and rose in the rankings. Last season, I ranked 94th out of about 3,500 competitors nationwide, I was interviewed by the National Cyber League as a Cyber-Champion, and I coached one of the first high school teams to compete in the NCL. I’ve even received a scholarship from Pace University’s Women in Technology grant through General Electric for coaching NCL among other projects. Just recently, because of my advocacy for students to try this competition and for my work on this workshop, I was named the Cheif Student Ambassador for the National Cyber League. And that brings us back to why I wrote the proposal in the first place.
I wanted students and educators to know that this competition is unique in the fact that it is broken down in a way that is meant to challenge competitors of all skill types. It’s designed to be a learning tool no matter what stage of your collegiate career you are in. I have competed from a freshman who knew less than Jon Snow to a grad student who teaches a high school cybersecurity class. I have been a competitor, captain, and coach. Every single time I compete, I am challenged, but I am not defeated by my own self-doubts.
So as nervous as I am for this workshop, if I can help one other woman get hired because they can showcase their mastery of skills by competing in a hands-on competition that’s actually accessible to cybersecurity noobs, then I will have made the difference I hope to make in this world. I wrote my first workshop with the intention to give the advice, advocacy, and tools and tricks I wish someone had given me. Seriously, if I can succeed in this competition, there is no reason you or your students couldn’t do so also!
I hope that many of you who read this will be able to attend my workshop at WiCyS in March. For those of you who aren’t able to attend, materials will be published on my blog shortly after to help you start your very own NCL team at your college or university. I will have sample challenges (with directions) as well as my list of the key skills you should practice going into your very first competition.
If you have questions about NCL, WiCyS, or why this crazy person keeps writing on the internet, feel free to reach out. I’ve had a lot of meaningful mentorships that have gotten me where I am today and I am more than happy to pay it forward.
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