CBC places seventh in national cyber security competition
Levi Staley has always had a knack for technology. In high school, he decided to turn a profit from his talent by repairing broken cell phones and reselling them once they were usable.
“Then I got into helping people fix their computers and helping people recover data,” he said.
Despite his ability to maneuver around the motherboard, Staley enrolled in Columbia Basin College’s paramedic program. It took a little brotherly advice before Staley hit restart on his education.
His brother recognized Staley was a natural at working with computers and told him about the cyber security program at CBC.
“I really liked the medical program and the idea of savings lives, but I switched. And when I got to my computer classes, everything just clicked,” Staley said.
With cyber crime increasing at a rapid pace, CBC offers students a chance to earn a Bachelor’s degree in information security. The department even has its own team called the Cyber Hawks—students with skills ranging from data recovery to networking to coding.
“A lot of these kids want outlets like everybody. A hobby to do the fun things you do—not just lectures all the time,” said Matt Boehnke, CBC’s director for cyber security.
Boehnke, who started working at CBC less than a year ago, entered his Cyber Hawks in the Pacific Rim Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in 2015. They came in last place, but the competition got students excited and interested in the club, including Staley, who joined the eight-person team that competed in April 2016.
Thirteen schools from Oregon, Idaho and Washington sent teams this year, including the University of Washington’s Seattle and Tacoma campuses and Central Washington University. Teams were given a mock scenario to work through as organizers tried to disrupt their systems and challenge their skills.
In this year’s scenario, teams were told a death ray was heading toward Portland and they needed to patch software and redirect the satellite ray away from the city.
“I did the database, websites and helped with the network,” said Staley. “Some malicious hacker was trying to break into our website and we were trying to keep all our systems up. It was fun — and a little like being in a movie.”
After three days, the judges were ready to announce the winner. Boehnke said their goal was to get out of last place and into the top 10.
“Third place was Western Washington University, and they’ve been doing it a lot longer than CBC. Second place was ITT Technical Institute out of Boise—and they focus on computer science,” said Boehnke.
Boehnke said he would have been happy if the Cyber Hawks would have gotten fourth, or even 10th place.
But when the winner of the regional competition was announced, Boehnke was thrilled and surprised.
“I basically dropped my phone and the kids were yelling—it was really exciting,” he said.
Winning regionals qualified the Cyber Hawks for the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Boehnke and his team barely had a chance to blink before packing their bags and boarding a plane to San Antonio, Tex.
“We won on Sunday, and the next day was literally the start of the spring quarter at CBC,” said Boehnke, who had to get five classes ready between handling the Cyber Hawks’ travel itinerary.
Out of ten regions, CBC was the only community college to make it to nationals. Staley said it made for some awkward introductions.
“A lot of people thought we were from Columbia University, and then we said we’re from Washington, and they thought Washington D.C.,” Staley said. “We had to say no — the state — and not the green part. We’re from the desert.”
Even some of the event sponsors — big companies in need of the best and the brightest cyber security professionals — were impressed once they learned students from small community college in Pasco, Washington had bested so many big name colleges and universities.
“Amazon [representatives] thought we were out of Pennsylvania,” said Boehnke. “I said, ‘No, we’re in the same state as you are, just three and a half hours from where you’re at.’ And the guy said, ‘No you’re not.’ And I told him to cross the mountains and check us out.”
The Cyber Hawks ended up placing seventh at the national competition, out of 180 teams vying for the grand champion title. Being in the top ten nationally has made companies like Wal-Mart and Microsoft, who have representatives attending the event, sit up and take notice of the Cinderella school.
“The programs at CBC are really great, and they gave us the foundation to beat a lot of the competition,” said Staley, adding that teams got to spend two hours talking with businesses and handing out resumes. “There were a lot of companies interested in us, and in one of the interviews I did, they asked me how I learned how to protect the system. I said, ‘The classes.’”
Staley’s had jobs offers in Washington D.C. and Seattle. This summer he’s considering an internship, but he’ll be back at school in the fall to start his senior year, which gives him one more year to compete with the Cyber Hawks.
“We’re losing three seniors that won’t be there,” said Staley, adding that the Cyber Hawks are actively recruiting new members regardless of skill level. “We had some team members who were just beginning the program. Three of the eight students were in CS-101, and that’s literally the first class you take, so it doesn’t matter the skill level. We meet and we train. If this is what you really want to do and you’re willing to put in the work, we’ll teach you.”
Boehnke is proud of what the team accomplished. In addition to the regional title and national placement, he said CBC is trying to get accredited with the National Security Administration thanks to the relationships they built at the competition.
“I don’t think the students are going to realize the impact of what they’ve done for years. They’re trendsetters,” said Boehnke. “We’ve opened a lot of doors and put CBC on the map when it comes to cyber security. It’s a career field that’s growing and we can train the right workforce.”