Recent CICS grad Lionel Somé was one of the ten finalists invited to Palo Alto to take part in Secure The Future—a national competition on Cyber Security hosted by Palo Alto Networks. He shared what the 4-month long process looked like for him.

Robert Becker and Lionel Somé

Robert Becker (left) and Lionel Somé (right) were selected as two of the ten finalists in the Palo Alto Networks National Cyber Security Challenge. Photo: Ball State CCIM.

In an ever-evolving digital landscape, cyber-attacks against business systems are increasing at an alarming rate, threatening to cripple small, medium and big companies alike, and cause wide-spread damage to production and organization reputation. According to the Accenture report the Cost of Cybercrime, “almost 80 percent of organizations are introducing digitally fueled innovation faster than their ability to secure it against cyberattackers.” In this context, it is now more important than ever to hire talents able to keep pace with the trends in cyber threat and pair them with with solutions to defend corporate business systems and applications.

Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to be part of the top ten candidates that were invited by Palo Alto Networks at their HQ in Santa Clara, CA, for the finals of Secure the Future 2019. The competition was designed “to challenge student candidates to make decisions regarding protection of operational assets through the analysis, comparison, and selection of advanced security tools, methodologies, and implementation options.” During the competition, we had to research and develop a competition report, a summary video, and presentation that includes methodologies for deploying end-to-end attack detection, alert triage, threat hunting, investigation, orchestration, and automated response to incidents. However, in order to get to the final round, we first had to successfully complete three other phases.

“Be warned that participation in this competition requires determination and commitment but it is also an excellent learning opportunity.”

This journey started back in September when I was selected by our professor Dr. Steve Jones to be part of the competition along with other CICS students. The first phase was the competition qualifier where we had to take a pre-test to determine our fundamental IT networking knowledge. Those with the Palo Alto Networks Certified Cybersecurity Associate (PCCSA) certificate were exempted. Only those who passed this first phase were invited to move on to the next round. Not only was it a long round (about 6 weeks), it was also intense. We were asked to select one out of three sectors–healthcare, energy and finance—and conduct independent research while completing assignments and assessments every week.

Robert Becker and Lionel Somé

Robert Becker (left) and Lionel Somé (right) working in Ball State’s Center for Information and Communication Sciences (CICS) lab. Photo: Ball State CCIM.

I chose to research on the financial sector because I believe that strengthening security in this sector is essential to building a safer world. Hackers in that sector are seeking financial gain and engage in money laundering that funds all kinds of illegal activities. Preventing the money from leaving its normal circuit as much as possible is therefore an important step in reducing these crimes. This round required a deep commitment to meet the deadlines considering the workload I had in graduate school. However, it was a rewarding exercise and I got to learn a lot about the current financial sector climate, and possible ways to secure it further.

During phase three, we summarized our work with a competition report and video summary. At the end of the third round, the top ten candidates were invited to Palo Alto Networks’ HQ. I was fortunate enough to be among the top ten with my fellow CICS student Robert Becker. The finals consisted of a ten-minute presentation and five-minute Q&A before an audience of five judges who are experts in in their field. I really enjoyed meeting the other finalists, all of whom are passionate about the field of cyber security. Learning about the solution they crafted to improve security in their chosen sector was also fascinating.

Lionel Somé in Palo Alto Network

The ten finalists of the Secure The Future competition pose with their judges. Photo: Palo Alto Networks.

At the end of all the presentations, the first three candidates were selected based on their final presentation but also on the points they obtained during the previous three phases. So, it was a four-month long competition. I placed third. In addition to the $2,500 cash award I received, I had the opportunity to interview for full-time positions with different teams at Palo Alto Networks. Being on par with the competition’s cyber security theme, CICS also received received firewalls for its lab!

My main take-away in this competition regarding the security of the financial sector is that we must continue to insist that financial institutions invest even more in their security and strengthen intelligence sharing. This is because the threat is growing and the techniques are becoming more and more sophisticated. As I mentioned earlier, this is essential in order to curb the development of illegal activities that stolen money finances. All of these efforts will also ultimately contribute to the construction of a safer world.

Lionel Somé speaking to fellow CICS student Robert Becker after the competition. Photo: Palo Alto Networks.

Overall, this was a great experience, and I want to thank all the CICS faculty, staff, and my fellow CICS students (especially Robert Becker) who represented CICS in that competition with me. I encourage all students who are passionate about IT–not only those in the field of cyber security but all those who are eager to learn more about ways and means to build a safer world–to participate in the competition. Be warned that participation in this competition requires determination and commitment but it is also an excellent learning opportunity. To future candidates, I recommend three things: read carefully the instructions for each phase of the competition, make sure to meet the deadlines for the competition assessments, and do not hesitate to ask for help when needed.

Update: After interviewing with the recruitment team at Palo Alto Networks, Lionel got offered a Data Scientist role within the company, which he accepted. He will start his new position at their HQ at the end of February 2020.