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Working in cybersecurity rarely looks like the movies, said Oregon State University student Zander Work.

“It’s usually not like that big scene in 'WarGames' (with banks of monitors in a command center),” said Work, the president of the OSU Security Club. “Usually, it’s more like, ‘we have a spike in network traffic, let’s see what it’s all about,’ and someone whips out a laptop.”

But a cyberdefense competition sponsored by the Department of Energy at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington, where Work and his club competed against student teams across the country, did look a little like a movie.

Work said the competition, held in early April, was in a room originally designed for monitoring power systems, and there were in fact monitors all over the walls, showing network traffic, scores and live video feeds of other competition sites across the country.

Teams were tasked with designing a network to handle things like email and information technology support before the competition, then deploy it during the competition while monitoring it as professional hackers tried to penetrate the systems. The teams were scored on how usable their systems were, how secure they were and how they handled problems thrown at them through the day, such as a user’s account being compromised.

Work’s team placed first of six in the region, and fourth nationally, he said.

Work, a freshman computer science major, is not able yet to take cybersecurity courses, but he’s already working in the field. While a high school junior, he helped found NW Cyber Camp, a weeklong cybersecurity educational experience for high school students. Now in its third year, the day camp is expanding from its original locations in Portland to Bend and Corvallis.

“There weren’t a lot of cybersecurity options for high school students,” he said.

Work, who had already been interning in cybersecurity, worked with Charlie Kawasaki, the chief technical officer of camp sponsor PacStar, and Kawasaki’s daughter Amelia Kawasaki, also in high school at the time, to start the camp.

“I’m passionate about cybersecurity, and I wanted to share my knowledge with other students so they could get involved,” Work said.

The camp was at a single location in its first year and expanded to three locations, all in the Portland area, in its second year. This year, the camp’s third, it will be held simultaneously in five locations the week of July 16.

Work said the camps mix lessons with hands-on experience using the Air Force Association CyberCamp Program curriculum. The Corvallis location will be on campus at OSU and instructors at the location will include Work and OSU computer science professors.

Work said about half of the 30 spots at the Corvallis camp are still open. The camp costs $250, but Work said scholarships are available, so all interested students should apply at www.nwcyber.camp.

The camp is an awesome way for students to get an introduction into a growing field that has interesting challenges for workers, Work said.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average pay for an information security analyst is $95,500, and demand for people to work in the field is going to grow much faster than average growth in employment demand over the next decade.

Work said he first became interested in cybersecurity after beginning to learn to program in middle school. As a high school sophomore, he set up a virtual windows computer at home and began learning exploits that hackers use to get into the systems.

“It’s the best way to secure the system, to know how they get in,” he said.

Work said with the OSU Security Club he’s really emphasized professional ethics so club members are always behaving responsibly and following the law with the skills they learn.

Work said many cybersecurity competitions task student teams with using the same skills hackers do to get into a network set up specifically for the competition, but he’s more interested in the club competing in more cyberdefense-oriented competitions like the one sponsored by the Department of Energy.

Work added that he believes everyone using a computer should learn about security. His top tips for staying safe are listed in the sidebar to this story. 

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Anthony Rimel covers education and can be reached at anthony.rimel@lee.net, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.

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