Michael Roberts ’19 took second place at this year’s U.S. Department of Energy’s CyberForce Competition, held virtually Nov. 14.

Due to the pandemic, this year’s CyberForce competition shifted from an in-person test designed for teams to a virtual challenge designed for individual competitors. More than 450 college students from across the nation were selected to participate in the sixth annual competition, but only 201 students from 36 states earned points in the cybersecurity exercise intended to mimic the energy sector.

This year’s scenario required competitors to secure and report on a fictitious wind energy company in charge of more than 20,000 megawatts of electricity generation that had been experiencing abnormal network activity.

“Each individual competitor needed to possess the knowledge and skills and perform all the work typically spread among a six-member team,” says Associate Lecturer of Computer Science Tom Nedorost, faculty advisor for UCF’s Collegiate Cyber Defense Club known as Hack@UCF. “Michael demonstrated both exceptional breadth and depth of skills and knowledge required to configure, secure and defend multiple Linux and Windows servers, networks, firewalls and [incident command systems] operating turbines of commercial windmills.”

digital forensics graduate student, Roberts earned a bachelor’s in information technology from UCF in 2019 and is a member of the Hack@UCF team that placed second at last year’s CyberForce competition and first in the 2018 competition. He has also been captain of the teams that placed second in 2018, 2019 and 2020 at the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition as well as the teams that placed first at the Panoply National Competition in 2017 and 2018 and the Leidos Cyber Challenge in 2017.

“I’m just excited to see my hard work pay off and to be recognized by the Department of Energy for getting second place,” says Roberts. “I am glad that there are competitions like this that improve the visibility of the work we do. These competitions are training undergraduate students, so they gain new skills, as well as people like me who are already in the industry, so we can gain additional skills that can be applied on the job.”

In addition to having an active role in Hack@UCF, Roberts has completed internships at Northrop Grumman, IBM and Chick-fil-A, and currently works as an information security engineer at Abbott Laboratories in Orlando.

“Cybersecurity really has two sides,” Roberts says. “There’s the offensive side where you’re trying to break into a company to test whether they’re secure or not, and then you let them know how they can be improved; and then there’s the defensive side where you secure the company from attacks. I interned at different places to get a variety of experience and to discover what I liked best. For the past year or so, I’ve been working in the healthcare field, and it feels nice to be making some very important healthcare products more secure, especially given this pandemic.”

According to the Center for Cyber Safety and Education, unfilled cybersecurity careers are expected to reach more than 1.8 million by 2022 — a 20% increase in demand since 2015.

The DOE established the CyberForce competition to address this growing need, by raising awareness of energy sector cybersecurity as a career path among budding professionals.

“The American cybersecurity workforce is facing a gap in talent, and this competition is an exciting, engaging part of helping to fill that gap,” says Nick Andersen, principal deputy assistant secretary of the DOE’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response. “Every year, we see incredibly promising students competing in the CyberForce Competition, and this year was no exception.”

Story by Laura J. Cole, UCF Today