Why NCL at WiCyS Was So Important

This post was originally written for another magazine and it, unfortunately, did not work out. That being said, I think the message is important, so I’m posting it here.

There are two organizations that helped me find my passion and my voice in the cybersecurity industry: The National Cyber League (NCL) and the Women in Cybersecurity Conference (WiCyS).

When I went back to school for computer science, it took me a while to realize what was “off” about my classes. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t belong. For a while, I attributed it to the fact that the last time I had been in school, I was taking advanced Shakespeare classes as a theatre major. Soon, I started looking around my classes for a friendly face to ask questions when I realized I was frequently the only female in my classes.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I never once let that stop me, but it’s hard to feel like you belong when there isn’t anyone around you reaching out to bring you into their group. Eventually, I wanted to give up and I went to my advisor to find out how to withdraw from classes. Thankfully, John Watkins at Westchester Community College is one of the most enthusiastic educators I have ever met, and he had this crazy idea:

I was going to be put on the “hacking team.”

I distinctly remember laughing at him. I didn’t think I had anything to contribute. I could barely operate my class workstation, never mind compete. But he did not take no for an answer and I was signed up for the NCL competition.

My first game did not go well. I didn’t even figure out how to navigate the virtual gymnasium and couldn’t even find most of the challenges. I was legitimately still looking things up in my textbook instead of using the vast resources of the internet. Frankly, I did terribly.

But my professor asked, “Did you know any of the answers before you started?”

The answer was a big fat no. And so, I went on to the second game of the season. With a little more guidance on how the competition navigation worked, I rocketed from placing in the thousands to the top 900. Not great, but I discovered I had a cyber skill I didn’t even know was cyber-related: I could solve most cryptography puzzles by hand from having played a plethora of Nancy Drew games as a child.

It turned out that this was a skill most of my peers had not mastered and so I used this one piece of knowledge to trade. I would help them in cryptography if they taught me something they knew. By the end of the season, I had ranked in the 400s overall and in the top 70 of my bracket.

The next season, I was asked to be a co-captain since I had learned from the ground up and had a lot to offer others. The following season, I was asked to be a coach. Soon, I was consistently ranking in the top 15% of the thousands of competitors nationwide. Now, I knew I had some skill, but I had not found my voice.

Again, the same professor told me to apply for the WiCyS Conference scholarship. Figuring I would never get accepted, I applied. Much to my surprise, I was not only awarded the conference registration scholarship but by I also received the Cisco travel stipend scholarship. I was able to attend the conference for free. As someone who would have found any excuse not to attend, this made it impossible for me to refuse.

Before I attended WiCyS, I graduated from community college and was now enrolled in a graduate program at a different school, Pace University. They kindly invited me to be a part of their GenCyber workshop at the conference and I gratefully accepted hoping this would give me some guidance as to what to do at a tech conference.

It was there I met my mentor (who would change my life). She told me I really needed to be on Twitter to stay in the loop and so, my casually applied nickname, CryptoKait, became my new identity. She encouraged me to share my story with others and to give back to the community, and so, I started my blog where I began to create content to help first-time NCL competitors get their feet on the ground. She encouraged me every step of the way and is still one of my first resources for important career advice.

Throughout the WiCyS conference, I connected with some amazingly talented women. I even met one of my current best friends. But most importantly, I tapped into a network of supportive and encouraging women who will go out of their way to help and encourage you in ways you can never pay back. It was here I learned that we can accomplish more by building each other up, and I began to do everything in my power to pay it forward.

When the following year’s WiCyS Conference opened their CFP, I knew I wanted to share the importance of competing in CTFs to bridge the gap between curriculum and careers. I pulled in every resource I had and developed my very first technical workshop, “N00bSec to Cyber-Champion: Hacking the National Cyber League for Success.” For the first time, I was able to combine the two organizations that had brought me so much success and there was really a lightbulb moment for me.

The workshop was extremely successful and the feedback I received from other college students was beyond anything I can describe. During the workshop, NCL hosted my hand-selected challenges in the actual competition environment, hosted my workshop on their Facebook Live channel, and I was offered a position with NCL as their Chief Player Ambassador.

As Chief Player Ambassador, I have worked hard to make being a young woman in tech more visible, the good, the bad, and the ugly. So, when the WiCyS CFP opened this year, I KNEW what I wanted to propose. I didn’t want just 2 hours to help students get their feet wet in CTFs. I wanted the length of the entire conference to help students see the value I’ve seen over the past four years. Even more important, I wanted the opportunity to meet with educators to show them the content and materials that can really help their students and to offer ways to incorporate NCL in their classrooms.

With this Social CTF, industry professionals came to hang out and offer their time as a tutor or mentor to students working on the CTF. Recruiters spoke with our board members to find out how to get access to the comprehensive scouting reports that NCL creates on each of their competitors.

Most importantly, there was no cost, no such thing as failure, nothing to lose and everything to gain. I hope that everyone who took advantage of this unique opportunity. And I always hope that they find their passion and their voice as I have through these two wonderful organizations.

Some of my favorite moments were the ones that came from the ideas of the students who wanted to participate. They inspired a Welcome event where the CTF coaching room was open while they waited for registration and a pajama party on the last night of the CTF where students brought a pot lock of snacks and beverages. It was these almost missed moments that made the experience once in a lifetime.

I’m also incredibly proud of the diversity that we saw in the coaching room. Our participants were incredibly diverse and that is well represented in our winners. We had to returning students who were 50+ years old, LGBT, and women of color. It told me that we created a truly welcoming competition that excluded no one and opened doors for everyone.

I could not be more grateful for the experience to have run this CTF nor the honor of receiving the WiCyS 2019 Rising Leadership Award. I can’t wait to see what next WiCyS has in store.

For Everything You Need to Know About NCL at WiCyS, click here to check out my blog post by the same name.

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