“It was more of a confirmation: ‘You can do this, buddy,’” said Kelly, who wants to pursue a career in cybersecurity after placing 11th at the Cyber Aces State Championship at Moraine Valley Community College on Saturday.
“I’m ready for my education. This is what I want to do.”
Saturday’s program was one of seven state championships organized by Cyber Aces, a nonprofit dedicated to discovering and developing talent for the Internet security industry.
The term hacking can have a negative connotation, as a means to break into computer networks, but in the context of competitions such as the one held Saturday, it is used to described educational and social events for computer programmers.
More than 100 people across Illinois qualified for the competition — the most so far this year in any of the seven states where Cyber Aces competitions are held, according to the nonprofit’s founder, Alan Paller.
“(Our) whole reason for being is the U.S. has a radical shortage of people with cyber skills,” said Paller, who served as co-chair of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Task Force on CyberSkills and is the director of research at the SANS Institute.
During the four-hour competition, students, veterans, professionals and other job-seekers demonstrated their hacking skills in a defense simulation called NetWars, a hands-on security simulator used by the U.S. military to train officers in network warfare.
“You’re basically breaking into another computer as a learning tool, and even then there is a forensic side to it where you … figure out how the computer was compromised,” Kelly said. “It was pretty intense.”
According to a 2012 Homeland Security cyberskills report, the number of professionals with sophisticated technical skills to combat cyber attacks is so limited that “federal agencies compete with one another and the private sector to hire them.”
And if recent breaches at major companies like Target are an indicator, that problem still exists.
“Every time you see targeted attacks the reason those attacks work is because of a shortage of cyber skills,” Paller said.
On Saturday, the three competitors with the highest scores received scholarships for security certification programs and training. The top 12 scorers were invited to apply to the Cyber Aces Academy at Moraine Valley. If accepted, those participants will receive a full-ride to attend.
In July, participants from all seven states will have the opportunity to attend an online job fair with a range of security companies and government agencies, including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, CitiBank and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
“These contestants blend common sense with computer savvy to show they have the talent to excel in the demanding cyber security industry,” said Jay Rowell, director of the Illinois Department of Employment Security, in a statement Saturday. “Cyber security is real. Whether these careers are in the military guarding our country or in retail or banking protecting our vital information, a cyber security career offers a lifelong opportunity at economic security.”
Niles resident Julian Makas, who placed third on Saturday, said that while he isn’t currently looking for a job, the competition was a good way to increase interest in information security career paths.
“We need to get more people in the (industry) and try to make it exciting,” said Makas, 38, who works at a information technology company in Park Ridge. “It’s a huge need, and it really does the nation a huge service.”