ECU's Alex Hardt wins national cybersecurity competition

East Carolina University graduate student Alex Hardt had one reaction when his name was called as the winner of a $10,000 national cybersecurity competition.

“Disbelief,” he said.

East Carolina University’s Alex Hardt reacts after he is announced as the winner of the Palo Alto Networks Secure the Future cybersecurity competition. (Contributed photo)

Hardt, a student in the College of Engineering and Technology, missed the first three days of classes this semester as he traveled to California for the Palo Alto Networks Secure the Future cybersecurity competition. He, along with fellow ECU student Dylan Kerkhoff, were among 10 national finalists for the competition that began in the fall of last year.

For winning, Hardt received a $10,000 first-place prize.

“I’m going to do something boring with it. I’m going to max my IRA (individual retirement account) out,” Hardt said. “I’m far closer to 30 than I am 20, so it’s probably about that time. I am going to buy some dirt bike parts before that though.”

The competition took place throughout the fall semester when participants submitted assignments and essays on various aspects of cybersecurity in one of three industries — energy, finance or health. Hardt focused on energy. The final assignment was a paper and PowerPoint presentation. Participants received points for each assignment, and the top 10 were invited to Palo Alto Networks in Santa Clara, California, for a final 10-minute presentation to determine the winner.

“It was a 10-minute presentation to cover something so broad,” Hardt said. “It’s hard to fit all of that down into 10 minutes.”

Hardt admitted to being nervous before his presentation but said his experience in making presentations at ECU helped. Still, he said the competition was tough.

Hardt stands with his first-place prize of $10,000. (Contributed photo)

“I was the seventh or eighth to present, and the person who had gone right before me, Sarah Conrad, was really solid,” Hardt said. “She had a really good presentation, and I thought that was the end: I didn’t win. But, it came down to who was the best presenter. It wasn’t so much about the technical aspect at that point.”

Beyond the competition, Hardt said all of the finalists had a chance to interview with about a half-dozen dozen Palo Alto work teams, adding to the experience of the trip.

Hardt said he appreciated the support of Kerkhoff, as they shared the process and time constraints associated with the months-long competition.

Hardt, who graduated ECU in December with a concentration in network engineering and is focused on cybersecurity for graduate school, said more cybersecurity competitions are in his future as a part of an ECU team that is scheduled for at least two national collegiate events later this year.

He hopes his victory can have lasting effects.

“I think it’s good for ECU, but I think we can do more as a state to bolster cybersecurity,” Hardt said. “We have RTP (Research Triangle Park), which is a great technology center, but I would rather have them hire North Carolina residents than moving people in from D.C. or somewhere else.”

See related: ECU students reach finals of national cybersecurity competition