From the Spring 2014 Issue

San Antonio: The Next Hub for Cyber?

Lily Casura
Staff Reporter |

Cybersecurity is a white-hot market these days, and the city of San Antonio — previously better known for the Alamo, its River Walk, and a charismatic mayor gaining a profile on a national stage — is poised to play an increasingly strategic part in that market.

Long before the Wall Street Journal called it “Cyber City, USA,” San Antonio went by the nickname, “Military City, USA,” given the city’s long association with Lackland Air Force Base, now known as Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. Lackland is the nation’s largest military base, through which every Air Force recruit passes for basic training. But it’s also been a city where large numbers of active-duty military retire when they leave the service.

The crown jewel in the city’s focus on cyber has been the 24th Air Force, known as the cybercommand. The 24th Air Force is located at Port San Antonio, in a 460,000-square-foot complex where 3,000 personnel work in “Building 171,” home to 11 different Air Force missions. The 24th Air Force is situated in force-protected facilities that the Port built to stringent specifications on the former Kelly Air Force Base, a casualty of an earlier federal Base Realignment and Closure (“BRAC”) round.

Nearby, a 45-acre parcel known as “Lindbergh Park” stands ready for development, a vision the Port would like to see filled with military organizations as well as defense contractors, a kind of “Crystal City done right,” says Mark Frye, a regional military affairs consultant who wrote the Air Force base conversion handbook that Kelly followed.

Will Garrett, vice president for economic development at the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, an organization that’s long had a focus on the place where military and private industry overlap, sees a natural relationship between the city and the wide range of “former enlisted to general officers who make San Antonio their home,” because “for the past hundred years or so, San Antonio has really embraced the military,” Garrett says. That results in a large available workforce, led by former military, strategic for an “alternate operating location” other than the Beltway, crucial for operations that “don’t want to put all their eggs in one basket.”

“We’re gifted or blessed in San Antonio with the presence of a number of federal agencies,” says Frye, citing the installations of the 24th Air Force, the Navy’s 10th fleet, the National Security Administration (“NSA”), cyber operations for U.S. Army North, the homeland security portion of the Army, the FBI’s cybersecurity unit and Homeland Security as part of what collectively makes San Antonio a hub for cyber. “San Antonio has that perfect combination of government, industry and academia all focused on various aspects of cybersecurity and cyberspace,” says Frye.

Expert after expert cites Texas’ attractive business climate – lower labor costs, a right-to-work state, and an economy that weathered even the last recession relatively intact – while emphasizing the quality of life issues for employees, including greater buying power because of the low cost of living. There’s also hundreds of days of sunshine a year, the freedom from most natural disasters, and an energy grid that keeps prices extraordinarily competitive.

San Antonio’s goal is to become “a recognized cyber community model for others,” according to the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. Approximately 900 businesses in San Antonio are involved in information technology, while multiple San Antonio colleges and universities offer degrees in cybersecurity and cybersecurity management. Increasingly, there’s also an emphasis on creating an educational pipeline that starts in area high schools, a number of which teach courses in cyber and IT curricula, leading up through community college programs, and public and private four-year colleges.

Recently, University of Texas – San Antonio topped the list of best schools in the country for cybersecurity course and degree programs, as published in the February issue of Computerworld magazine. The survey was conducted among 2,000 certified IT security professionals nationwide, and sponsored by Hewlett-Packard. According to Computerworld, “UTSA’s 14 undergraduate and graduate programs in areas such as digital forensics, secure design and intrusion detection and response, were ranked first for academic excellence and practical relevance.”

Additionally, five area colleges are designated by the NSA as National Centers of Academic Excellence: University of Texas at San Antonio, Our Lady of the Lake University, St. Philip’s College, San Antonio College, and Texas A&M University – San Antonio.

The Alamo Academies — “a national model, if not the national model in workforce education and training,” says Will Garret — offer training and certification for IT and cyber professionals who start as high school students, and graduate to high-paying jobs upon completion of their program. (Several of the Alamo Academies are housed at Port San Antonio, where graduates of their flagship aerospace academy graduate to jobs at Boeing and Lockheed Martin.)

“San Antonio has that perfect combination of government, industry and academia all focused on various aspects of cybersecurity and cyberspace,” says Frye. 

A recent development at the end of March was the first “cybersecurity bootcamp,” where private industry joined forces with entrepreneurial military retirees who had ideas for cyber start-ups, but perhaps lacked certain business acumen, or a sense of where the necessary resources were.

“With a long-standing presence of Air Force cyber and intelligence missions in San Antonio, many former blue-suiters have transitioned from military service to start successful cybersecurity companies here,” Richard Perez, president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the cyber bootcamps, said in a prepared statement. John Dickson, president of the Denim Group, an award-winning secure software company based in San Antonio said, “We want to bring those finishing their military service to grow the industry and braintrust locally.”

Will Garrett points to a “reverse malware engineering” as a “niche within a niche” now taking hold in the cybersecurity industry in San Antonio, where Air Force personnel are taking the lead. “This is a niche in the security space that even Austin doesn’t have,” he says, mentioning the state capital up the road where Dell Computer is based.

“There’s talent here you can’t find anywhere else,” says Garrett. “San Antonio will continue to grow in cyber,” Garrett emphasizes, “because the need continues to grow.”

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