The Opportunity

Last fall, close to a one hundred Cisco women across the globe participated in the CyberStart Challenge.  Cisco is the first public company to test the platform, which involves solving a series of cybersecurity challenges with increasing levels of complexity.  There are three verticals, called “Bases”), 29 levels, and 236 challenges covering a wide swath of cybersecurity from basic crypto to advanced forensic and reverse engineering!  The gamified platform was originally targeted towards college students to allow them to discover their aptitude to excel in the field of cybersecurity and be inspired to pursue a career in the field. It has evolved into a well-architected, scalable platform that provides a fun and engaging way to learn cybersecurity. The game allows participants to learn on their own using the included “field manual”, collaborate with others on their team, learn through available Internet resources or just by experimenting.  There are hints for each challenge; however, using the hints cost points.

The Challenge

At Cisco, we wanted to create an internal competition to encourage our Women in Cybersecurity community members to step out of their comfort zone and learn new areas of cybersecurity.  By using CyberStart, we reasoned, they would discover that they could become more proficient in much-needed cyber skills.   The internal competition involved local play in each of the major theaters (Americas, Europe, and Asia Pac) and then a “finals” round engaging the top three teams from each theater.  After the competition we gave the participants an extra four weeks to complete as many additional challenges as possible.  The carrot was a “challenge coin” for all who completed 70% or more of the challenges.   We were very impressed to see that 29 teams or singles completed at least 72% of the challenges.  A one-person team in Poland completed 96% of the challenges, and a two-person team in Raleigh NC completed ALL the challenges.

The Feedback

The feedback from the program was positive, and it created wider visibility about how exciting cybersecurity careers can be.   Here are a few examples of the written comments from women who participated:

  • “Really, truly enjoyed it, something different!”
  • “The concept of having the goal you are moving to was motivational.”
  • “I love the idea to keep resolving the puzzles.”
  • “Different way to learn.”
  • “We really wanted to know the solutions!!! Sometimes we would all chat late at night trying to resolve the same challenge.”
  • “Python labs were really good, great for someone to start learning.”
  • “I did not know anything about cybersecurity, it was great way to learn new stuff and what kept me motivated was the challenge. I could not stop – sometimes even doing it late in the evening as I wanted to know the solution and find the flag.”

Many of the participants said they wished they had more time to play, and most played during non-working hours.  A few dedicated women spent their holiday shutdown period mastering the challenges and having fun!

More to Come

We hope to run more CyberStart competitions and increase participation each time. There are two benefits of such a program expansion: First, more and more Cisco employees will develop expanded knowledge, confidence, and hands-on mastery of cybersecurity skills that will be valuable in their work at Cisco.   Second, and potentially equally important, twenty-six states (including California and North Carolina) have encouraged teachers to use CyberStart in the schools as an enrichment activity. They see it as an excellent tool to open the door for young men and women to learn about the field, discover their aptitude, and be motivated to pursue a career in computer science, and/or cybersecurity.  However, most high school teachers need a catalyst to get the program started, to overcome their concerns about not knowing enough about cybersecurity if students ask questions. The reality is that they don’t need any cybersecurity expertise; all the students need is in the game.  But they do need something to get them started.  Cisco CyberStart participants could go out and help a teacher introduce the game to their students.  As the number of teachers using CyberStart grows, they will substantially expand the pipeline of talent entering the field, especially young women and people of color. The CyberStart platform is a reliable gauge of the player’s curiosity, tenacity, and ability to master new technical information quickly and be able to apply it – characteristics shared by many top performers in cybersecurity – just the type of talent that Fortune 500 companies want to hire!

Thanks to SANS

CyberStart was created by the SANS Institute. I have been a fan, supporter and partner with SANS for many years. We share a passion for building a pipeline of talent for the cybersecurity industry and increasing diversity in the industry at the same time.  If you share the same passion, I encourage you (well, I challenge you) to learn more about the Cyberstart program and run a competition at your organization, school, or club. You can learn more about it here: https://www.sans.org/CyberStartUS.


Michele D. Guel

Distinguished Engineer & Data Security and Privacy Strategist

Office of the CTO, Security Business Group