My Experience in Secure the Future 2019
Last fall, as part of my final year of my Master of Science program in information and communication sciences at Ball State University (BSU), one of my professors, Dr. Steve Jones, approached me one day and told me that he had recommended me and two fellow students as potential candidates to participate in Palo Alto Networks’ Secure the Future Academic Competition, the first of its kind.
Though I had already determined that I was interested in a career in data science and specialized in it, I had been interested in cybersecurity since my first years in engineering school at IMT Atlantique (in France) prior to my enrollment at BSU. My studies and personal research had not only helped me to learn more about the common types of cyberattacks, such as DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) or social engineering techniques, but also to understand the devastating effects cybercrime can have on small and large businesses, individuals, and the society as a whole. A 2019 report estimated the cost of cybercrime worldwide to be about $600 billion (USD) per year, and each year this figure increases.
Participating in this competition, I realized, would be a tremendous opportunity to learn more about cybersecurity, as well as about Palo Alto Networks, a leader in the fight to secure the digital world. Not only would the competition be a great learning experience and opportunity for exposure to industry professionals, but the top three competitors would receive cash prizes of up to $10,000 and would be offered the opportunity to interview for internships and/or full-time employment with Palo Alto Networks. Although I knew it would take months of hard work, I was excited to participate.
The competition was developed by the company as a way to engage more students in the field and provide a pipeline for new talent to the company. It was designed “to challenge student candidates to make decisions regarding the protection of operational assets through the analysis, comparison, and selection of advanced security tools, methodologies, and implementation options.” Competitors each had to select an industry — finance, health care, energy, or a sector of our choice — then research and develop a competition report, summary video, and presentation that would include methodologies for deploying end-to-end attack detection, alert triage, threat hunting, investigation, orchestration, and automated response activities.
Money is very often listed as the first motive of cyber attacks, such as ransomware or phishing. The money cyber attackers extort from their victims is then withdrawn from the scrutiny of financial institutions and laundered by financing all kinds of illegal activities. Preventing this money from leaving its normal circuit as much as possible is therefore an important step in reducing these crimes. So I selected the finance industry as my area of focus, as I knew that threat actors had increasingly been targeting banks and because I believe that strengthening security in this sector is essential to building a safer world. I wanted to focus on what could be done to further improve the security of the banking industry. This would be the focus of my research for the next four months.
The competition was comprised of four phases, the first being the qualifier phase, during which time candidates took a pre-test to determine whether we had the fundamental skills necessary to compete. Only those who successfully passed the qualifier round were invited to continue on to phase 2, the competition research, and learning phase. This stage was quite challenging, as I needed to conduct independent research while also completing a four-module course of assignments and assessments — as well as completing my coursework for the last semester of my degree program.
In the third phase, we completed and submitted our competition reports as well as a five-minute video summary of our research. The top 10 candidates from this group would be invited to phase 4, which involved preparing a 15-minute slide deck presentation about how to secure the future of our selected industries, which included a five-minute Q&A with the board members at Palo Alto Networks.
My hard work paid off because I was fortunate to be one of the top 10 candidates selected to move on to the final round, and in the end, I placed third in the competition. Not only did I receive a cash prize of $2,500, but after four rounds of interviews, I also was offered a full-time position as a Data Scientist with Palo Alto Networks, which I accepted and started in February 2020 and have truly enjoyed.
My main take-away in this competition regarding the security of the financial sector is that we must continue to insist that financial institutions invest even more in their security and strengthen intelligence sharing (given that most financial institutions are linked through systems like Swift — the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) because the threat is growing and the techniques are becoming more and more sophisticated. Securing this sector can help curb the development of illegal activities that the stolen money finances, thereby contributing to the construction of a safer world.
Participating in the competition was a huge challenge, and it required me to stay motivated and consistently dedicate many hours of my time each week to it. At times it was really difficult, but overall it was a great experience. Aside from the prize and the position, I gained benefits that will prove valuable throughout my career, including a more thorough understanding of cybersecurity and the ability to take ownership of my learning and work autonomously.
The competition involves an extraordinary level of commitment. You need to stay very organized in terms of completing work on time and adhering to a strict, detailed schedule. You must read all instructions and meet strict deadlines, and you can’t be afraid to ask questions. Most importantly, have fun! I encourage all students who are passionate about IT or cybersecurity — anyone interested in finding ways to build a safer world — to participate in the Secure the Future competition. It may be one of the most challenging experiences of your academic career, but it could also be one of the most rewarding.