Florida Colleges Rush to Create Cybersecurity Soldiers

Recent breaches have sparked a mad dash for cybersecurity experts — and another mad dash to recruit and educate students in that field.

by Jerome R. Stockfisch, Tampa Tribune / January 12, 2015
The brand new Florida Polytechnic University (pictured) in Lakeland has a concentration in information assurance and cybersecurity in its computer science and information technology degree track. Flickr/Robert Du Bois

(TNS) — Target. Home Depot. Sony Pictures.

The now infamous computer hacks infuriated consumers who had personal information compromised and Hollywood honchos who had embarrassing emails made public.

But headline-grabbing computer intrusions are only a fraction of what is going on in the Wild West of cybercrime. According to Nextgov, the online resource for federal technology decision makers, energy giant BP faces 50,000 attempts at cyberintrusion a day. The Pentagon? Ten million a day. The National Nuclear Security Administration? Another 10 million.

Dramatic websites from two major computer security companies, Norse Corp. and Kaspersky Lab display vivid real-time maps of ongoing cyberwarfare being waged around the globe.

That has sparked a mad dash for cybersecurity experts — and another mad dash to recruit and educate students in that field.

“It’s a hot topic — a very hot topic,” said Sri Sridharan, managing director and chief operating officer at the Florida Center for Cybersecurity on the campus of the University of South Florida.

It’s particularly hot among universities in the Tampa Bay area. Consider:

  • The University of Tampa has announced it will begin offering an undergraduate major in cybersecurity this fall.
  • Saint Leo University launched a master’s program in cybersecurity in August, complementing its undergraduate program in information assurance and security.
  • The brand new Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland has a concentration in information assurance and cybersecurity in its computer science and information technology degree track.
  • Last year, buoyed by a $5 million allocation from the Legislature, the Florida Cybersecurity Center, or FC², opened on the campus of USF, acting as a statewide clearinghouse to share knowledge, resources and training among the state’s 12 public universities.

“The demand is very high. I’ve had students get into cyberspace companies with just one security class, never mind an entire major,” said Kenneth Knapp, a professor of information and technology management at UT and head of the school’s cybersecurity program. “With all of the high-profile breaches over this last year or so, more focus has been on security than I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been doing it since I was 21 years old in the Air Force.”

According to Burning Glass, a placement firm focusing on the tech industry, there were 209,749 national postings for cybersecurity jobs in 2013, up 74 percent from 2007. The average salary for those jobs was $93,028.

There were 23,457 postings in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, the top area for tech talent demand as the federal government beefs up security. Tampa was 24th on the list of metro areas, with 1,932 job postings for cybersecurity positions, up 58 percent from 2007.

The gold standard for cybersecurity professionals is the Certified Information Systems Security Professional credential. But CISSP designation takes at least four years of professional experience, and it’s difficult to fast-track students into the field. Nevertheless, FC² is offering certifications in addition to degrees and holds classes online so those already working in the field can earn or raise their accreditation.

But administrators say they prefer a multidisciplinary approach.

“Our cybersecurity program is housed in the College of Business, because we emphasize it as a business problem,” said UT’s Knapp. “These students are going to get the full load of tech classes and cybersecurity, but they’re also going to get the business classes, finance, law, accounting. They’ll understand the business environment and they’ll also understand the technology. They’ll be very well-rounded.”

At USF, undergraduate cybersecurity work spans five different colleges, Sridharan said. At Saint Leo, the program is also in the School of Business.

The Tampa Bay area schools say they’re doing their part to bridge the talent gap.

“For us, it’s trying to keep up with the demand,” said Derek Mohammed, chairman of the computer science department at Saint Leo. Administrators were expecting a dozen students in the school’s inaugural graduate cohort last fall but ended up with 19. This month, they were expecting 15 students, and more than 30 are now on board.

The Florida Cybersecurity Center expects to eventually produce 550 certificates, 475 undergraduate certificates or concentrations, 270 graduate certificates or concentrations, nearly 900 bachelor’s degrees, 215 master’s degrees and 50 doctoral degrees each year.

The center’s Sridharan attended a recent Brookings Institution event and had a conversation with Michael Daniel, the White House cybersecurity czar.

Daniel told Sridharan that the federal government would be hiring 6,000 computer security experts in the next 18 months.

“I asked him, ‘Where the heck are you going to find 6,000 people?’” Sridharan recalled. “He said, ‘I’ll come to the University of South Florida.’

“I said, ‘Good answer.’”

©2015 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.)