10/02/2013 10:04 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2013

Developing a Talent That Becomes A Career

In coming years, conflicts with serious real world consequences will be fought online. The risk of your private information falling into the wrong hands is also rapidly rising. Americans are growing up being told that these are serious concerns for our generation. But if you're interested in actually learning about computer security, it can seem like there aren't many resources to help develop your talent.

Feeling this way, my friends and I started a computer security club during my junior year at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, looking to find other students with who were interested in the topic. We started with a mentor from the computer security industry, who taught us, gave us weekly lectures, and brought in experts from the field. Unfortunately, he had to leave due to other commitments, so we were forced to take it upon ourselves to grow the club and teach each other.

But as a student organization tied to the school, we were afraid to demonstrate, or practice offensive techniques. Getting hands-on experience in what we were interested in could be seen as immoral, and perhaps more importantly, illegal. But how can you learn to secure a system if you don't understand how it can be attacked? There wasn't a safe way to learn and practice both sides of securing a computer system or application.

We looked beyond the school, and entered a series of "capture the flag" style competitions, where participants have to access a system and retrieve a secret key that proves they were inside. It didn't go so well at first, but we didn't give up. As we continued to improve, and entered more contests, the training paid off and we slowly did better and better. Last spring, as a high school senior who had only started exploring computer security the year before, I took first place at the Cyber Aces Virginia Governor's Cup Cyber Challenge.

Now I'm starting my freshman year at the University of California, Berkeley. I often think of high school students who still have to learn everything on their own. There are very few classes teaching computer security, and there aren't typically clubs for it, either. Reading books or websites just can't beat hands-on experience, and will never produce the rewarding thrill from solving a difficult problem.

For students in the same situation, I recommend starting a club, because there are more people interested in this area than you might think. While the club started small the first year, a huge diversity students started showing up when we started promoting it in our second year. I also strongly recommend entering some of the competitions available. Cyber Aces is just one of them, and the current season is open now. I was able to make great use of its online tutorials and ended up learning a huge amount in the process of preparing for the competitions.

When I graduate, I'll be able to turn my passion into a career that makes a real contribution to people's safety. There is a national urgency to improve our security capabilities, and luckily there are resources out there, if you know where to look.

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