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Cybersecurity student team Security Daemons places third in national competition

Team credits friendships, real-world experience in launching their careers

When DePaul’s student cybersecurity team, the Security Daemons, compete at an elite level, it’s like they’re the only ones there. “We don’t feel the heat of other teams during the competition,” says team captain Anna Andler.

In late April, the team placed third at the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition among 177 other college and university teams. Computer science faculty call this the March Madness of cybersecurity, and this is the fourth year in a row DePaul has risen to nationals after taking the titles at state and regional levels.

“We practice like we play and simulate the competition the best that we can,” Andler says. “We set up the same infrastructure and even have a scoring system that we built ourselves to make sure that our team is competition ready.”

The team, based in the Jarvis College of Computing and Digital Media, spends hours a week fending off the same cybersecurity attack scenarios facing corporations and governments, not to mention individuals. Email, smartwatches your online banking can all become susceptible to attacks, explains coach and faculty member Ryan Haley. He says the Security Daemons builds on foundational knowledge from the classroom and brings it into the real world.

“During competition, students are learning new technical skills, expanding critical thinking, analyzing and prioritizing different problems,” Haley says. “It helps them see the big picture.”

As six of the team members get ready to celebrate earning degrees at commencement this June, they’re launching cybersecurity careers and recruiting the next group of national champions for DePaul. Their pitch: Come for the career-building cybersecurity experience. Stay for the friendships.

Team at In-N-Out Burger
Team takes a break to visit In-N-Out Burger in Texas. (Photo by Ryan Haley)
Competition to career
“Friendships are a big part of Security Daemons. And I think we’re all competitive in nature,” says Victor Atanasov, a senior set to graduate this June from the cybersecurity program. “We get to explore that competitive environment with something we have a passion for. Putting those two together makes it so worth it.” After interning at Google, Atanasov was offered a full-time role to stay on as an investigator. He will be working with companies who rely on Google to respond to security breaches and ransomware.

Cybersecurity is an in-demand career with more open positions than qualified people to fill them. While students note finding an entry-level position can be a challenge, DePaul is connecting them with internships, research and a combined graduate degree option that places them ahead of other candidates.

“We’re all working while taking classes, most of us full time,” says Zack Musgrave, graduating this spring with a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity. “I do a lot of time management. And like cybersecurity, it’s a lot of having to deal with two stressful things at the same time.”

Assisting a fascinating research project is also keeping him afloat: Musgrave will continue this fall in the master’s degree program and is conducting research on TikTok and cybersecurity with faculty member and Security Daemons coach Filipo Sharevski in the Adversarial Cybersecurity Automation Lab. Together, they’re looking at how the TikTok algorithm responds to user interaction, with an eye toward how people with malicious intent might manipulate it. “We get the most faculty support. Filipo and Ryan are so helpful helping with schoolwork and external projects outside office hours. It’s super awesome,” Musgrave says.

The students also call out their DePaul alumni network for bringing them into the fold.

Andler is also working full time while taking graduate courses in the combined degree program. She credits a Security Daemons alum for networking her into the role. “They knew the experience I gained here would be valuable on their own team,” she says. “It helped a lot.”

As the only woman on the team, Andler said it would “absolutely be a great thing” to increase gender diversity in cybersecurity. She said it’s an issue not just at DePaul, but across the teams that competed at nationals. “There were a couple of teams that didn’t have any women. The team that won had two,” she says with a laugh. “Maybe that’s what the difference was.”

Recently, the Canadian National Railway agreed to be the Security Daemons’ principal sponsor for the next five years, which will help cover travel to competitions, software for practice and fuel for the hundreds of hours of practice the team does each year (read: snacks). The gift is in honor of retiring Canadian National board member and DePaul graduate Jim O’Connor and also provides premier sponsorship of an Annual Supply Chain Management Conference in the Driehaus College of Business.

“The support is amazing and will help us with resources going into next year’s competition,” Haley says.

Learn more about DePaul’s cybersecurity program, which has been designated a National Center of Excellence in Cyber Defense by the National Security Agency.

Team at table with laptops
The Security Daemons gather to celebrate and demonstrate their skills during a May event with their principle sponsor, Canadian National Railway. (Photo by Bree Fahey, DePaul University)