December 18, 2012, 3:10 PM — Organizers played "Eye of the Tiger" and "We are the Champions" over the loudspeakers as participants in the SANS Institute's NetWars Tournament of Champions sat down at their laptops and prepared for action.
About 200 cybersecurity professionals, and about 30 high school students, gathered last week in Washington, D.C., for two nights of NetWars, a realistic cybersecurity competition, with prizes including an Apple iPad, Star Wars chop sticks and gift cards. But many participants were playing as much for pride as they were for the prizes.
The competition is both educational and fun, said Jorge Orchilles, manager of the infrastructure vulnerability assessment team at Citi Global Security Operations. Orchilles participated in the competition last week and finished in third place in a NetWars competition in 2011.
"I participate to measure myself up with the best in the industry," he said by email after the event. "After the session I can look at the areas where I can improve as well as the areas I have mastered."
In last week's competition, featuring about 30 top scorers in past NetWars competitions, Orchilles was among the top 25 scorers, he said. "I plan to play next year for sure and do much better!" he said.
If the competition itself wasn't enough motivation to pump up participants, SANS instructor Ed Skoudis, on the first evening of the tournament, pointed to the presence of the high school students, invited to participate in NetWars because they did well in a student competition. "If they pass you up, you will be the past," he told the older participants.
The high school students could do well in the competition, said Randall Brazelton, a program manager with Tyonek Native and a contractor for the U.S. Air Force. Young people can use online tools to train themselves in cyber defense and offense, he said.
"The tools are out there on the open market," said Brazelton as he observed the tournament. "A training class or two, some open-source tools, and I'm a threat."
At least six of the students made it to level two of the five-level competition in just one night of participation in the two-night event, said Mark Estep, a computer science teacher at Poolesville High School in Maryland. "There was some degree of working together -- but not as much as I expected," he said in an email "They worked fairly independently. None returned for the second night of competition (something about having to do homework!)."
The Air Force has been using an adapted version of NetWars for about two years to train its own cybersecurity professionals, Brazelton said. He cheered when one of his coworkers was the first competitor to level two in the first day of the tournament.
"That's one of my guys," Brazelton said.