Imagine this scenario:

You’ve just been hired as a network and security team at a small company and will be taking administrative control of all information systems and technologies. You have a limited time frame to familiarize yourself with the network and systems and to begin the security updates and patches before a red team of professional ethical hackers starts attacking your company.

In the midst of all the commotion, you have to keep up with the needs of the business and user demands while maintaining service level agreements for all critical internet services.

A team of Alexandria Technical and Community College cybersecurity students tackled this challenge with flying colors, taking home first place honors in the Minnesota Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition on Saturday, Feb. 6.

The competition was a live but staged hacking attempt on a network, and students had to use their skills – without the assistance of their instructors – to thwart a team of volunteer hackers. The event was held remotely because of the pandemic with teams participating from across the state.

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It’s the first time in recent history that an ATCC team won the event, according to faculty advisor, Logan Martinez.

“The last time we went to regionals was 2014 under a second place wildcard drawing under Jeff Morse's direction,” Martinez said. “Then before that, we went to regionals under the leadership of Steve Richards in 2007. So I am pleased that we can bring this first-place victory to campus in 2021.”

Martinez credited the hard work and dedication from the 10 students on the team.

“They are the ones who took on the challenge in this event, and they deserve all the credit they received,” he said.

In the middle of the competition, faculty advisors were allowed to enter the room and talk to the team for 15 minutes.

“When I entered the room during this break, I was happy to see that the team was very calm and collected despite being four hours into the competition,” Martinez said. “They said, ‘We continue to help each other out whenever we can and continue to do the best possible.’ This calm-under-pressure attitude is what we try to instill in our students, and we are very proud of the work they have accomplished so far this year.”

The team will move on to the Midwest regional competition in March. “Now it's time to see how we pair against the other teams in the qualifiers from the surrounding states’ best teams,” Martinez said.

The competition brings together security professionals and students for an intense day-long defensive competition where the professionals hack and disrupt the virtual business environments being administered by the student teams.

Not only do students get a chance to test their knowledge in an operational environment, they also get a chance to network with industry professionals who are always on the lookout for up and coming engineers, according to organizers.

Unlike traditional “hack and defend” or “capture the flag” contests, this competition tests each team’s ability to operate, secure, manage, and maintain a corporate network while performing typical business tasks, organizers said.

“This competition is the first to create, as closely as possible, a realistic corporate administration and security experience – giving the competitors a chance to compare their education and training against their peers, and to tackle the real world challenges that await them,” organizers said in a news release about the event.

Martinez thanked the local state contact, Janice Aanenson, and her team for all the hard work in coordinating the event. “We know it takes a team to make this successful, and they did an outstanding job making sure it all went smooth,” he said.

The Minnesota State IT Center of Excellence provides high school and college students a variety of resources and programs to support the changing world of Information Technology and computer science. It reaches out to thousands of secondary students, funded dozens of new curriculum efforts, and leads numerous other efforts aimed at increasing the quality and quantity of IT talent in the state.

This year, more than 100 students from eight different Minnesota State System institutions competed.

Each team started with an identical set of hardware and software and was scored on its ability to detect and respond to outside threats, maintain availability of existing services such as mail servers and web servers, respond to business requests such as the addition or removal of additional services, and balance security needs against business needs.

Throughout the competition, an automated scoring engine was used to verify the functionality and availability of each team’s services on a periodic basis and traffic generators continuously fed simulated user traffic into the competition network.

The competition was tight this year, according to the organizers, with the top five teams all within 300 points out of a total of 28,000 possible points.