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Originally published April 25, 2014 at 8:15 PM | Page modified April 25, 2014 at 11:49 PM

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WWU gets its first try at cyber-defense title

An eight-member team from Western Washington University is competing this weekend in a national collegiate cyber-defense competition.


Seattle Times higher education reporter

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Western Washington University students are competing, for the first time, in a national competition that pits computer-science students against each other in a three-day exercise in cyber defense.

Winners of the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition get a trophy and bragging rights. But even more meaningful, all the students who compete get to pass their résumés out to major corporations that are very interested in hiring top college talent.

At past competitions, students have been courted by $150,000 starting salaries — “that’s higher than almost all the faculty in this university,” said David Bover, associate dean of the College of Sciences and Technology and a professor of computer science at Western. Bover coaches Western’s team.

“It’s really incredible, the opportunities this opens up for students,” Bover said of the competition. It’s sponsored by Raytheon, a major American defense contractor and world’s largest producer of guided missiles. Raytheon gives the finalists an all-expenses-paid trip to San Antonio, Texas, to compete.

In previous years, the University of Washington was the top dog in the cyber defense region, making the finals five years in a row and winning the national competition in 2011 and 2012.

This is the first time Western has edged out the UW in the regional competition to make it to the national competition. (Organizers divide the nation into 10 regions, and the winner of each goes to the finals.)

“At regionals we felt like the obvious underdogs,” wrote Western team member Katie Klions, a senior from Silverdale, Kitsap County, in an email. “We feel very confident about nationals. If we can reproduce the same atmosphere we had at regionals we will do really well.”

Western team co-captain Aaron Griffin, a junior from Stanwood, described cyber security as a kind of intellectual puzzle that requires rigorous computer detective work.

In the competition, which started Friday and ends Sunday, Western’s eight-member team will try to defend its computer network against attacks launched by the “red team” — professionals in the industry who know a thing or two about how cybersecurity works.

They’ll be competing against some big-name schools, including the University of California, Berkeley, Rochester Institute of Technology and the Air Force Academy.

The Western team practices on virtual machines set up on an isolated network, hacking into the network and then fixing it in a safe environment. The team members also do individual research on their own areas of expertise.

Griffin estimates he spends four or five hours a week reading up on cybersecurity issues, and many more hours on individual preparation. The team has tried to be both broad and deep: “Everybody needs to be pretty good at everything, and very good at one thing,” said Griffin, who has made routers his area of specialty.

In Washington, Western is sometimes overshadowed by the much larger, nationally recognized UW computer-science department. But Western’s department is growing fast, in large part due to the increasing interest in computer science among all college students, Bover said.

About 100 students are expected to graduate this year with a computer-science major, and in a few years, that number could reach 150.

“We’re just growing like crazy,” said Perry Fizzano, chair of Western’s computer-science department, who said all the big-name tech companies in Washington — Microsoft, Amazon, Adobe, Boeing — heavily recruit Western’s graduates.

In fact, Western has been struggling to keep up with the demand for computer-science classes, Bover said.

Last year, Western, UW and Washington State University received money from the Legislature to expand computer science and engineering. Western is hiring five new faculty positions, which would bring the number of faculty teaching computer science to 13.

Before the competition, Griffin was thinking about working in cybersecurity when he graduated. The competition has cemented his interest in it as a career.

Klions said she’s more interested in software development as a career, but the training won’t go to waste.

“Having knowledge about cybersecurity in any area of computer science is a huge benefit,” she said.

The team’s other co-captain is Troy Tornow of Spokane. The other team members are Tim Sargent, Bremerton; Mark Shipley, Silverdale; Remi Gattaz, Montbonnot, St. Martin, France; Michael Hennings, Kingston, Kitsap County; and James Collins, Conway, Skagit County.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @katherinelong



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