Why I Became an NCL Player Ambassador – John’s Story

I didn’t start out as an expert. I guess no one really does. I had a limited run as a software developer and test engineer, and then I joined the military.

There, I had some exposure to Information Assurance (IA), and I fell in love with it. I studied and got my CompTIA Security+. Later, I got my CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner (CASP+), and my B.S. in Information Technology (IT). After getting my Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA), I thought that I was pretty smart. I spent the next seven years chasing that assignment again. In the military, you don’t always get the job you want, and you don’t always get the job you are best suited for. I never got back to IA – so I transitioned out of the military. 

I decided I needed to update my skills, so I went to a community college. Community colleges have a unique environment: they often have working adults and people returning to change careers, or like me, there to update their skill set. These people were a lot like me.

I decided, before I was ready for a national-level cyber competition, I would go to one of the regional competitions – a competition run by General Electric’s GhostRed team. I didn’t know a single person there. We formed a team on-the-fly. I walked in pretty cocky with my B.S. and my certs…

After one hour, I still had not submitted a single point.

After two hours, one member of our team just walked away.

After another hour, two more walked away “to do homework”.

Left by myself, I tried to submit anything I could find. I managed a few… just enough to keep our team in the same place they were in: not last.

I was so humiliated at the end of that competition I nearly swore off competitions completely. I clearly did not know anything. I doubled down on the classes I was taking and was frustrated. The classes seemed too easy, but I was stuck between these huge boulders of what I knew and what I didn’t.

I heard that a faculty member was holding some after-hours lab time, and that they had built a hacker space. I was very interested in this, and after introducing myself to the faculty, I realized that there was a lot of opportunity here. The professor was quite interested in putting together a team for the Virginia Cybercup. He had organized a meeting and I made sure that I was there.

At that first meeting, I walked in and we all took an inventory of our skills. We had some from finance, some from years of programming, some with no experience at all, and we had some project managers. We had a few that knew what a capture-the-flag (CTF) was, but not many. We had a mini-election and I was elected president of this new group.

I had done some research on CTF’s but could not really find anything on the specific challenges that would be present at the Cybercup. In my research I found several regional competitions run by four-year colleges, and a national competition just for students: the National Cyber League (NCL). I didn’t know what the Cybercup would be like, but the NCL format was very straight forward. Several categories, question-based with answers that had increasing point values – a “jeopardy style” game as I heard it called. Not only is this the most straight forward format, it allows players of any level to compete.

The event was not free. It required a buy-in registration fee which was something that I was not sure about. It was cheaper than a textbook, and so I figured if I pay for it, I had better use it. Our plan, to be clear, was to use the NCL to train for the Cybercup. The Cybercup had a limit – only 10 players. We decided the top ten scorers in NCL would represent the team. We were playing for position, just like race car drivers have to qualify and compete for their position before the race even starts. It was a hard decision to make, but it seemed fair.

The NCL has a Gym, where you train before the actual event. Then there is a pregame that sorts you into competitive brackets. With a LOT of googling and practicing in the Gym, I managed to get into the Gold Bracket. That is a hard place to be in, there are expectations! During the actual competition, I did really well. Not the top scorer for my team, but I was happy with my position.

Our team did quite well at the Virginia Cybercup. We came in fourth… and top team out of all the community colleges. This was largely to do with the NCL. We decided to formalize our group into an officially sanctioned club on campus.

We were breaking a lot of new ground as a new Cyber Club, and with a group of new competitors. In my research, I found CryptoKait’s blog, which was immensely helpful. I was so grateful to see someone writing directly to newcomers, I reached out to her on Twitter and told her so. 

We continued to correspond, and even compete in some online CTFs together. So, when she “asked” (told) me to be a Player Ambassador, I said yes without even pausing. After doing this for a season, the level of content, quality of content, and volume of content we were producing exploded. And so we brought on more Player Ambassadors. I am very proud to be a Lead Player Ambassador and I’m looking forward to our further expansion and growth.

Thank you for reading!

“Mako” McGill

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