CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., May 5, 2014 – The first to graduate from Southeast Missouri State University’s cutting-edge cybersecurity program in May are days away from a hot ticket college degree, most armed with jobs or multiple job offers and ready to defend the world from cyber threats.
They enter a job field mushrooming by 20 percent annually and with starting salaries of $55,000-$60,000. After all, corporate hacking is a very high dollar industry, said Dr. Vijay Anand, director of the cybersecurity program and assistant professor of industrial and engineering technology at Southeast.
“Stealing information has become an organized crime,” he said, where online information is stolen and then sold on the Internet.
“Information is the most sought after commodity,” said Jeremy Wiedner of Imperial, Mo., who is among the first seven students to complete Southeast’s cybersecurity program.
Wiedner will soon add a Bachelor of Science in cybersecurity to his resume, bolstering his credentials which already include a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice.
“Billions is lost each year because of breaches of valuable (online) customer information,” he said.
Security of online information has long been a corporate afterthought, Anand said, until hackers began breaking cyber enabled systems. Now, corporations “want their infrastructure rebuilt so it is secure end to end,” he said, referencing a recent breach of private information among Target store customers.
“When people talk about cyber security attacks, nobody thought a brick and mortar location could be attacked,” he said. “But it was.”
Jacob Schnurbusch of Jackson, Mo., who also is graduating from the program, said people think hackers are someone else’s problem.
“It takes an action to be personal before they really start to react,” Schnurbusch said, adding hacking is a low risk, high reward proposition because it offers criminals anonymity.
Private sector companies, as well as civilian and military installations along with cybercrime divisions of metropolitan police departments need cybersecurity specialists, Anand said. He predicts the next generation war will be a cyber war threatening both national and economic security.
“You take out another country’s communication systems, and they are dead in the water,” Schnurbusch said, adding robotics, drones and unmanned warfare would be adversely affected.
Anand said, “That’s why secure programmers are needed.”
Enter the first soon-to-be graduates of Southeast’s cybersecurity program. They are: Wiedner; Schnurbusch; Travis Holland of Dexter, Mo.; Nathan Ponder of Perryville, Mo.; and Niroshan Rajamuni Dewayalage, Ayodya Prathibhani Rathnasekara Wijeratna Mudiyanselage Don and Nisal Weganthala Watte Gedara, all of Sri Lanka.
Upon graduating, Schnurbusch has a job waiting for him at Accretive Health in Cape Girardeau where he is currently employed as an intern working with hospitals’ patient protected health information regulated under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Wiedner has employment possibilities with both Emerson Electric in St. Louis, which employed him as an intern last summer, and with Dell Secure Works with offices in Atlanta, Myrtle Beach, Fla., and Chicago. Enterprise in St. Louis has hired Holland for its security team along with Ponder. The three Sri Lankan students are applying with contracting companies, Anand said.
The students are in such high demand, he says, that several Southeast students in the program who plan to graduate in December also already have jobs. A sophomore in the program was tapped at a recent cybersecurity competition by Palo Alto Networks of California with company officials asking him to keep in touch. The job demand, Anand says, should have every university exploring cybersecurity as an essential academic program.
“You get some real-world skills you can take to a corporation,” he said. “It prepares them for fruitful careers for a very long time. It’s also fun and challenging. Anybody in the world should be comfortable hiring our graduates.”
Southeast launched its cybersecurity program in fall 2011 to address America’s growing demand for professionals to protect computers and computer networks from assault. The program is housed in Southeast’s Department of Industrial and Engineering Technology in the College of Science, Technology and Agriculture. The program has a comprehensive focus integrating topics of security in hardware, software and networking while working on the lines of industrial processes to comply with legal and industrial regulations within an ethical framework. The program also is preparing graduates to meet workforce needs in government, business and industrial sectors.
The program began with 15 students enrolled in fall 2011 and was the first program in Missouri to offer its graduates a Bachelor of Science in cybersecurity. Today, about 100 students are participating in the program.
“This is the most well-rounded program I’ve seen,” Wiedner said, “with its overarching technical aspect.”
Anand says the emphasis is on teaching students to write secure programming code and on embedded security related technologies.
“You have to understand how code can be broken and how to make your code so it can be trusted,” he said.
As Southeast’s cybersecurity program has grown, so have similar programs at other universities. In 2011, about five cybersecurity programs were offered in the United States.
“Now, everybody wants one like ours,” Anand said.
Many universities are slowly starting up programs on computer networking, software or management, but few focus on hardware and the comprehensive integration with networks and software, he said.
The hands-on approach of the program at Southeast has prepared its students well for the job market. Southeast’s Cyber Defense Club, which Wiedner pioneered for his classmates, took second place in March at the 2014 Midwest Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC) in Chicago. The team advanced to the competition after taking first place for the second straight year at the Missouri Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in February.
The Midwest CCDC was designed to test each student team’s ability to secure a networked computer system while maintaining standard business functionality, according to the competition team pack guidelines. The teams were expected to manage a computer network, keep it operational and prevent unauthorized access. The objective of the competition was to measure a team’s ability to maintain secure computer network operations in a simulated business environment. Student teams were scored on the basis of their ability to detect and respond to outside threats, including cyber attack, while maintaining availability of existing network services such as mail and web servers, respond to business requests such as the addition or removal of additional services, and balance security against varying business needs.
“When we think of CCDC competitions, we are talking about nationally recognized competitions,” Anand said. “Think of NCAA Division I Athletics. It is a big deal for us to win Missouri.”
The Cyber Defense Club is a student organization open to all majors with an interest in cybersecurity. The group was launched to connect students to companies and professionals in the field of cyber defense. The club also provides students with experiential learning opportunities, such as these competitions. In addition, Wiedner says the club offers students the opportunity to network with other students of similar interests.
“It (the Cyber Defense Club) is one of the best things to come out of” Southeast’s cybersecurity program, he said, adding the outside-of-class activity allows students to learn Linux operating systems and how to solve problems analytically on their own.
The students work in a lab in the Otto and Della Seabaugh Polytechnic Building. The lab, which has 16 stations for students to learn the basics of security software and participate in network security simulations, already in the process of being upgraded. The new equipment is modeled after security labs found in such industries as Motorola, where Anand previously was employed.
“Industry was fun, and there a few things I did in industry I am proud of, but my primary goal now is to teach and research,” he said. “I know what industry is looking at when hiring people at this level.”
That’s why the cybersecurity program he has created is rigorous, he said. But the students know the demands of the program have them prepared for the workforce.
“You want it to be difficult when you are looking at security,” Schnurbusch said.
The students say they haven’t given much thought to being the first to graduate from the cybersecurity program as they still have projects and final exams to complete before they walk across the stage May 17 in the Show Me Center. Anand, though, has already begun to reflect on their achievements.
“I am absolutely proud of my students,” he said. “They have done an amazing job. I would write recommendations for all of these students.”