USF leads Florida charge to stop cyber crimes

Superman doesn’t need a cape or superhuman abilities to save the world these days. Instead, he (or she) needs an ability to analyze data, spot potential breaches and plug Internet holes to keep the world safe from 21st century’s thieves known as computer hackers.

The University of South Florida has been designated a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cybersecurity. The first student graduated from the school’s new master of science program in Cybersecurity in early August. Another 170 students are enrolled, and many more are expected to sign up as word gets around. 

USF and other schools across the country can’t recruit and graduate students fast enough.

Graduates in cybersecurity are not only in demand with companies at the local, state and national level, but can often command six-figure salaries, says Sri Sridharan, Managing Director and COO for the Florida Center for Cybersecurity headquartered at USF. 

Students in the master’s program must complete 30-to-33 credit hours and can pursue a concentration in one of three areas: cyber intelligence, digital forensics or information assurance. The program can be done online to make it easier for students to pursue while working full-time at other jobs.

For those not ready to pursue a master’s degree, USF also offers a 12-to-18 credit hour graduate certificate in cybersecurity and an industry certification review training for information security professionals. 

“We live in the information age and cyber crime is a serious threat,” says Sridharan. “All you have to do is read the news to see that individuals, businesses, the military and the federal government are being challenged with identify theft and classified data stolen.“

In July, the New York Times reported that in the last year alone, the personal information of half of all American adults had been hacked. The most wide sweeping attack was a breach of computers at the Office of Personnel Management, exposing the sensitive data, including some fingerprints, of 21.5 million people.

A statewide resource

In addition to providing much-needed academic instruction in cybersecurity, USF is also playing a key role in a bigger plan that could be a boon for economic development.  

Sridharan, along with Jan Resch, Senior Director and Chief Partnership Officer for the Florida Center for Cybersecurity, or FC2, are laying the groundwork for what they and state leaders hope will be a blossoming cybersecurity industry in Florida.

Efforts are underway to develop Florida as a national hub for cybersecurity workforce development, research and innovation. It’s a plan that could pave the way for high-tech, high-pay job creation.

FC2, headquartered at the USF Tampa campus, is a collaborative effort among the state’s 12 public universities, including Florida State University and the University of Florida, says Sridharan.

The program launched in July 2014 with $5 million in initial funding from the Florida Legislature. It is currently housed on the seventh floor of the Interdisciplinary Sciences building, but Sridharan said the next step calls for a future “secure” facility to be built with classrooms, labs, offices and a data center. A $36 million proposal needs approval from the Legislature, says Sridharan.

The first year was spent putting together the infrastructure, helping USF launch its master’s program and surveying the other state schools to get a handle on what programs they currently have in place in cybersecurity, says Resch.

In addition to rolling out an academic curriculum that will train high-tech cybersecurity professionals, the goal is to attract the contracts and grants needed for universities to conduct high-end, innovative research in cybersecurity.

At the same time, Sridharan plans to begin recruiting high-tech companies that will want to be near the wealth of talent, resources and information coming from the state’s academic centers. Eventually he sees the growth of spin-off companies translating research into marketable products and start-ups launching to take advantage of the growing excitement.

For Florida residents it means the potential to earn high pay at local tech jobs without having to relocate out of state.

Being chosen to host the Florida Center for Cybersecurity was quite a coup for USF. 

Sridharan cites a number of factors that made USF the best choice.  These include key industry leaders, especially in the financial area; Tampa Bay’s proximity to the Interstate-4 technology corridor; and the strong military presence in the area – MacDill Air Force Base, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, both of which are headquartered at MacDill. 

This coming October, FC2 will host a two-day conference with Gen. Keith Alexander, retired four-star general who served as commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, director of the National Security Agency and chief of the Central Security Service. 

Wanted: Military vets

Veterans are the focus of new workforce development effort in cybersecurity.

JPMorgan Chase recently partnered with FC2 to launch “New Skills for a New Fight,” an educational recruitment effort targeting veterans. A pilot program, funded with $300,000 from Chase, will launch at USF next spring.   

“Vets are the perfect candidates for jobs in cybersecurity,” says Sridharan. “Many already have security clearance and they are familiar with data analysis.” The program is intended to help reintegrate vets into the workforce with a post-military career path in a high-demand industry. Training will be provided in networking, programming, network operations and security. Eventually the program will be rolled-out statewide at other participating state universities.

In a statement announcing the new program, Sen. Mel Martinez, chairman for JPMorgan Chase in the Southeast U.S., notes that “veterans bring a unique skill set to the cybersecurity field and opportunities to harness those skills will create a strong talent pipeline for all industries in our country.”

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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