In the 2016 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (NCCDC), DePaul’s Security Daemons* scored third place in a field of 10 regional champion teams.

But first, as the #1 team in Illinois, the Daemons had secured the Midwest title by defeating competitors from universities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky.  “In this year’s NCCDC, the Daemons performed better than any team from the Midwest has ever done,” says Jean-Philippe Labruyere, senior professional lecturer, College of Computing and Digital Media, and team coach (far right, front).

In the intense and prestigious NCCDC—the largest competition  of its kind in the United States—the student teams have to keep the systems of a fictional company working, while fending off constant cyberattacks. The scope of the operation includes multiple servers and Internet services. Each team, working with identical hardware and software, is scored on its ability to 1) detect and respond to outside threats, which are created by  industry professionals acting as hackers and cyber disrupters, 2) keep IT services up and running, and 3) respond to requests for service from various parts of the business.

Matt Anderson (’17), the 2016 team leader (far left), says the three-day contest is stressful, but fun: “I like the action, the fast pace, and the trial-by-fire problem solving. Each of us has a specialty, as well as a preferred system, so we have to work together to cover the whole set up. Plus, the judges throw in twists, like ‘one of your people is on vacation’ and a team member gets pulled for a while. So, camaraderie and collaboration are really important. When we hold tryouts, we pick people based not just on skills but also on overall team compatibility. We help each other out, not just during the contest but also before, when we’re getting ready.”

Robert Border (’17), who spent five years in the military, including a deployment in Afghanistan, before coming to DePaul, also values the buzz of the NCCDC: “I like high pressure situations—that’s why I joined the Marines—so I’m always looking for something in the civilian world with that kind of intensity. Not easy to find, but this competition comes close.”  Like Anderson, Border (second from right, back) will be on the Daemons team again in the spring. “We’re going to win in ’17. Two years ago, we placed fifth. Last year, third. This year, first.  5-3-1: That’s the pattern.”

Above and Beyond

As far as Labruyere is concerned, the students get all the credit for their success:

“Yes, we have an excellent curriculum in cybersecurity—built from the ground up, it’s intensive and complete—but the real key to the team’s performance is the students themselves. They’re dedicated and curious; they have the passion to work hard, even beyond the rigorous demands of the program. They love to learn, and they love to teach each other. They do independent lab exercises: They build servers and systems, break them, and fix them again. They’re both entrepreneurial and collaborative—really mirroring the real world’s cybersecurity culture.”

As a student organization, the Security Daemons could be a model of what to do right. In preparing for the NCCDC and other contests, members drill together, drawing on guidebooks of “lessons learned” from past competitions. The club also hosts events throughout the year, including presentations by alumni and industry professionals. “We’re in the organization to learn from each other and from experts in the field,” says Anderson, the club president. “And we set up great networking opportunities.”

It’s not surprising that Daemons, especially those competing in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, get great job offers before graduation. “Companies and organizations are always, always, always looking for talent. The demand is huge and growing,” says Labruyere. “Our students are among the best in the world, and our graduates—employed in industry, in government agencies, and as consultants—end up being leaders in the field.”

* FYI for readers not well-versed in the terminology of computer science, the name “daemon” is a clever pun. Not only is daemon the term for a benevolent or benign spirit (and hence akin to DePaul’s sporting moniker, Blue Demons), it’s also the name for any process in a UNIX operating system that runs in the background and performs a specified operation at predefined times or in response to certain events. Typical daemon processes include print spoolers, e-mail handlers, and other programs that perform administrative tasks for the operating system (webopedia).