ECU students reach finals of national cybersecurity competition

Two East Carolina University students from the College of Engineering and Technology are among 10 national finalists for the Palo Alto Secure the Future cybersecurity competition.

East Carolina University graduate student Alex Hardt works on his computer in the atrium of the Science and Technology Building. (Photo by Ken Buday)

Dylan Kerkhoff, a senior from Indian Trail outside of Charlotte, and Alex Hardt, a graduate student from Germantown, Maryland, are scheduled to fly to Santa Clara, California for the finals on Jan. 13-14.

“I was pretty surprised,” Hardt said of reaching the finals. “I never participated in something like this before, and usually when people do something for the first time, they don’t end up in the top 10. Obviously if you have 500 people, it’s not good odds, but I just figured I would do as well as I could and see where I end up.”

Competitors submitted assignments and essays on different aspects of cybersecurity throughout the fall semester. Each competitor focused on one of three industries — energy, finance or health. Kerkhoff and Hardt both focused on energy.

“It was both a learning course as well as a chance to show what you already knew,” said Kerkhoff, who is scheduled to graduate in May with a degree in information security.

He said the hardest assignment for him involved development security operations.

East Carolina University senior Dylan Kerkhoff works on his computer in the cybersecurity lab of the Science and Technology Building. (Photo by Ken Buday)

“It’s about the application development cycle, so it’s about going from a concept to development of an application,” Kerkhoff said. “That’s not something I’m real familiar with. That’s more computer science and software engineering. That was definitely the hardest part, that and juggling the work with this competition and all the other schoolwork.”

The final assignment was a paper and a recorded video PowerPoint presentation.

“I learned a lot about niches in the industry,” Hardt said. “… I was fortunate to take a deeper dive on topics that I had only glazed over in class and never really investigated.”

For the finals in California, each competitor will give a 10-minute presentation on how to best secure the future of their chosen industry. First place receives $10,000, with $5,000 for second and $2,500 for third.

“Ideally, hopefully I’ll win. That’s the motivation,” said Hardt, who graduated from ECU in December with a concentration in network engineering and is focused on cybersecurity for graduate school. “Hopefully I can make some contacts out there. I’ve made a lot of contacts in the industry in Raleigh, but I’ve made none out on the West Coast.”

According to its website, Palo Alto Networks is a global cybersecurity company based in Santa Clara, California, and protects tens of thousands of organizations across clouds, networks and mobile devices.

– By Ken Buday, University Communications