The Energy Department Is Transforming a Cyber Competition into a Hiring Tool

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Winners of the Energy Department’s CyberForce Competition next month could leave with more than just medals, trophies or bragging rights for their hacking or defending success—this year, some who come out on top could secure a job with the federal government. 

An Energy executive and national lab insider who have helped pave the way for the competition’s growth from fewer than 10 teams in 2016 to more than 100 in 2019 shared insights with Nextgov this week into their work to shape the unique event into a tool that can help close critical gaps across the federal workforce. 

“Our goal is to actually hire some of the winning team members based on their performance and their understanding of this environment,” Assistant Secretary for the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response Karen Evans said. “So, success to me would be these professional teams competing, having an understanding and scoring well on the competition, and then CESER hiring some of them.”

The first CyberForce Competition launched at Argonne National Laboratory four years ago, and since then has ballooned to 10 times the people competing at 10 national labs across the United States. Participants will be tasked with maintaining the security of one of four separate infrastructures, which include an energy distribution substation, solar energy generation facility, high-performance computing data center and manufacturing facility. The teams will have to communicate and connect with the three other infrastructures they’re not assigned and ultimately compete to keep their own safe as it’s attacked. The majority of teams this year, and through all previous years, are students from universities across America.

But in 2019, the competition also includes a professional pilot, through which individuals outside of school—who expressly want to work for Energy or a national lab in the future—will compete and could eventually have their scores considered in hiring for future federal positions. 

“Their performance on this competition can demonstrate that they understand the culture and environment,” Evans said. 

As Argonne worked to develop the program over the years, federal executives have simultaneously been thinking up new ways to beef up America’s workforce, which is dealing with critical gaps in technology fields and, particularly, cyber and infrastructure security. Under the president’s direction to help fill more than 300,000 cyber job openings, Evans saw an opportunity for alignment with the CyberForce event already in place—and a chance to use the competition as a hiring mechanism. 

“I mean, I give credit to Assistant Secretary Evans,” Amanda Joyce, the competition’s director who also serves as the leader of Argonne’s strategic cybersecurity analysis and research group, said. “She kind of sprung the idea upon us, and we said, ‘we’ll take the challenge on.’” 

Joyce has worked on CyberForce since its inception and said the goal of the program has always been to reduce the gap for cybersecurity specifically within the energy sector, “but also just in general.” But it was through conversations with Evans that the team was initially inspired to open it up to professionals, with hope to fill new areas in the government’s challenged workforce pipeline. During the competition, participants work hands on with federal equipment, she noted, and are given the opportunity to tackle real-world problems that those working in the energy sector must face every day. 

“Too many people don’t realize that the grid is running on deprecated, old hardware that costs way more to replace than it does to just keep going,” Joyce noted. “So what we do with this competition is we give them old deprecated systems and make them go outside their comfort zones.”

In that capacity, the experience translates well into what it could be like working in CESER’s or a lab’s environment. Since 2016, Joyce has also seen a real community connect and grow through CyberForce. Some teams of students, she said, are competing for the fourth time in a row this year. 

Part of the way she measures the success of the program is through the mentors’ responses at the end. She said many are often excited that their schools, which range from small community colleges to large university institutions, can not only access national lab environments, but also really get to interact with other folks who could be hiring them in the future.

“And the energy from the students, that’s something I’ve never been able to come close to with anything else I've done at the lab,” Joyce said. “There is so much mix of emotions in a room on that day.” 

The competition’s director said she’s particularly excited to see how the energy of the rooms shift once the professionals are introduced to compete against the collegiate competitors in the simulation. She said the program is scalable and could eventually be used as a tool or prime example to help other agencies fill their own gaps, as well. 

Evans shares the same hope. 

“The competitions can be structured in a way that helps us close down those skill gaps,” Evans emphasized. “And based on this pilot, we will roll it out in a bigger group of folks in next year’s competition and I’m going to partner with the [chief information officer] and ask the CIO Council to get people to sign up.” 

Evans added the team at Argonne is also working on ways to measure individuals’ contributions to their overall team so potential employers can spot strong candidates to hire through the competition.

“You compete as a team, but you get hired as an individual,” the assistant secretary noted. “If I am looking for a specific skill set that the competition is measuring, and the person excels but the team loses, that person should still get credit for their ability and how they did in that part of the competition, so that I can see that as a potential employer and be able to hire them.” 

Going forward, she also hopes agencies will be able to look to specific competitions that relate to the skill sets they have gaps in, to identify diverse pools of new candidates who are equipped to do the jobs that they need filled. 

“This competition really helps spark that discussion about what is the right career path and how can we close this [gap] in our community,” she said. 

And at Argonne, Joyce said the ultimate aim is also to continue to grow the CyberForce program into something that will help federal insiders and potential candidates alike. 

“A major goal for me this year would be to increase the participants’ awareness of the jobs that are actually actively available at the national labs and [Energy],” she said. “But ultimately, at the end of the day, for me the success—and that’s probably because I interact so much with them—is that I just hope the teams have fun and learn something, and I always feel that at the end of the day with them.”