Cybersecurity program graduates first students
Among the students receiving degrees from Virginia Tech this spring and summer will be the first 50 graduates of a fast-growing cybersecurity program specifically designed to meet the high demand for professionals with both technical and business expertise.
The program, known as BIT-Cyber, is a specialty in the business information technology major in the Pamplin College of Business. A hallmark of the program, launched in fall 2019, is its requirement of an extended field study or internship in the final semester to help prepare students for the workplace.
The field experience builds on the foundation of the program’s academic curriculum, said Justin Monday, an assistant professor of practice who coordinates the field study. “There is really no substitute for the application of knowledge in a real-world environment, especially where technology and security threats are constantly changing, and the stakes for businesses and individuals are high.”
Cybersecurity jobs are numerous, Monday noted, but employers prefer to hire workers who have experience. Through the field study, employers get a chance to get to know a prospective hire and gain tangible value from the student’s efforts, he said. “The employers routinely express gratitude for the work ethic and intelligence of our BIT-Cyber students.”
For students, the value of the field study is immeasurable: They get to discover which of the many aspects of cybersecurity they wish to pursue and what being a professional involves. “Certainly, they have the opportunity to advance their cybersecurity skills when they tackle their assigned tasks, but there are also other learning experiences from being immersed in the demanding environment of business expectations, including deadlines, presentations, communication skills, supervisee roles, and diverse business cultures,” Monday said. “There’s no doubt that our students level up after these experiences.”
Holly Kania and Jason Kim are among the program’s graduating students who feel better equipped to start their new jobs as risk analysts at Deloitte in metro Washington, D.C.
Both completed paid internships at Cyentia Institute, a technology research firm in metro D.C. co-founded by Virginia Tech alumnus Wade Baker, who received his Ph.D. in business information technology and is now also a faculty member in the department.
In his field study, Kim researched, gathered, and analyzed data for a forthcoming report on web application security and security trends. “My responsibilities included finding and extracting relevant information from reports available online or within Cyentia’s own library.”
His field study was a career “wake-up call” for him, Kim said, opening his eyes to how unprepared many organizations are in application security. “I have learned just how critical this line of work will become for the future of so many businesses out there. I now work with a greater sense of purpose and determination.”
In her field study, Kania researched, collected, and analyzed data on the 100 largest cyber loss events of the past five years. That research has been published in a report.
“I gathered information that included who the threat actors were, how the incident occurred, what the response of the organization was, and what records, hard files, and monetary sums were lost.”
Her study helped her recognize the characteristics of attacks and discern trends, Kania said, including the many breaches that could have been prevented with employee training or security protocols adherence as well as the less than effective responses to breaches, including disclosure delays.
The work experience and the report’s publication have been a resumé and confidence boost, she said. “Being able to post about it on my LinkedIn has been so exciting.”
She and Kim credit their classroom courses for giving them a solid academic grounding for their field work. An information security course taught by associate professor Tabitha James, Kania said, provided conceptual knowledge that enhanced her understanding of the technology and allowed her “to research with more ease.”
Kim said, “I used quite a lot of concepts and tools for data analysis that I learned from several of my classes, such as interpreting the data, determining if it is usable, finding statistical points of interest, and then comparing the data with others.”
The Excel techniques and analytical tools he had learned helped him organize and observe information, Kim said. Lastly, he noted that many of the reports he examined were highly technical, with little explanation of industry terms. Had it not been for his coursework, he said, he would have had to spend far more research time on understanding the terms themselves.
“This experience tested me on a lot of the concepts and tools I had learned and gave me great academic practice on how these could be applied in the real world and assist in making work easier.”
Both students completed their field studies entirely online and also worked closely with the professionals on their teams, participating in meetings and collaborating as needed.
All students in the BIT-Cyber program, which currently enrolls nearly 300, have to secure their own internships. But they receive a lot of help, Monday said, from faculty who serve as internship coordinators and from Pamplin’s career services office, which sends information on opportunities, and Business Horizons career fairs and Career Days.
“In addition, we have built partnerships with dozens of companies and other organizations where students and businesses may be evaluated for paired, targeted opportunities,” Monday said. The field study’s employer participants, past and present, number more than 50 so far — including such major companies as Goldman Sachs, IBM, Cisco, Northup Grumman, Barings, NetApp, Advance Auto, and all Big Four accounting firms; federal agencies, such as the FBI and Freddie Mac; and boutique businesses, such as Cyentia and Kindlyanswerme.
Monday added that the department is developing an apprenticeship program that would let students work part-time for organizations during the school year and qualify for their field study in the process.
Expressing her appreciation for her Virginia Tech education, Kania said her professors “have done an astounding job creating opportunities for those willing to put an extra foot forward.”
Her teachers have also served as sources of inspiration and professionalism and supporters in her job search, she added. “They have cohesively worked together to help me be the best that I can be, and it makes me extremely hopeful for my future.”