Capture the Flag…to Land a Cybersecurity Job

Ajay K Gupta, CISSP, MBA
Program Chair   UMUC

It’s all too common these days to hear absolutely huge numbers of cybersecurity job vacancies thrown around.  An informal Indeed.com job search for “cybersecurity” was conducted November 7th of last year. The search resulted in over 9,000 job openings – and that is just in the DC area. Forbes back in 2016 sited 209,000[1] job opening for cybersecurity throughout the US. ISACA[2] tops even that by estimating a global shortfall by 2019 cyber security professionals of 2,000,000! With numbers like that, it’s not hard to see why statements like Cybersecurity = Job Security abound.  And yet, a question I hear all too often is, “How do I get into cybersecurity?” My answer is always the same – participate in Capture the Flag cyber competitions.

What are Capture the Flag Competitions? 

Capture the Flag competitions, also called CTFs for short, create scenarios in which participants, often in teams, must defend their computer systems against the attackers. Participants gain experience in changing default passwords, patching known vulnerabilities, and locking down permissions. The role of the attacker in these scenarios is often played by real-world hackers.

Capture the Flag competitions may be an effective means for students – whether recent graduates or career changers – to demonstrate their technical & soft skills in a way that is not always available within the walls of a traditional classroom or on the ink of a resume.  The competitions themselves are a fun and exciting way to develop important technical and critical thinking skills. Additionally, they can land you in the workplace. This is because the skills taught in Capture the Flag competitions are often directly transferable to a professional job.

UMUC Competitions

At UMUC, where I am the Chair of the Computer Networks and Cybersecurity Program and run the University’s student hacking team – the Cyber Padawans – our student team competes in a full schedule of competitions, both locally and across the country.  We compete in live competitions where all competitors are in a single space. Additionally, we compete in virtual competitions where different teams log in from numerous locations across the globe.

Our teams do quite well in the competitions themselves. They often place among the top three contestants.  Even better than those results are the growth we see in individual team members. We can see their technical and interpersonal skills skills advance from each competition. We also see improvement in their ability to communicate and work with others towards a shared goal – and in a pressure situation.

This does not go unnoticed by potential employers.  Many of our students receive job offers and are hired – before graduation – from highly reputed and sought-after employers. These employers range from local security start-up firms to European auto manufacturers, to Silicon Valley tech bell weathers.

UMUC’s Cyber Padawans student hacking team and the competitions we compete in are wonderful mechanisms to help students learn the ins and outs of cybersecurity. It is an even better channel for helping them land their dream job.


[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevemorgan/2016/01/02/one-million-cybersecurity-job-openings-in-2016/#2431770e27ea

[2] https://image-store.slidesharecdn.com/be4eaf1a-eea6-4b97-b36e-b62dfc8dcbae-original.jpeg

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