To quote Hannibal Smith, George Peppard’s character on the A-Team, I love it when a plan comes together. In this case, it’s the long lead-time for growing new tech talent and building an entrepreneurial ecosystem, the central mission of MAGIC, or the Mid-Atlantic Gigabit Innovation Collaboratory.

MAGIC divides time between three categories of activities: Tech Incubation, Tech Innovation, and Tech Experiences.  The last of these activities focuses on programs and events that expose high school and college students to experiences that develop tech skills, nurture their interests, connect them with employers, and provide opportunities for them to build and demonstrate those skills.  One of those events is our Capture the Flag Ethical Hacking competitions, one of the few entry-level cybersecurity competitions available for free to students and career changers.

We just conducted our sixth competition, this one global in reach with teams participating from Paide, Estonia and Quito, Ecuador, as well as across the U.S., including the CTF mothership at the Community Media Center in Westminster, MD. One location was in Sandpoint, ID, another Ting town. Sandpoint, ID is a peer city to the Westminster Fiber Network, the first and largest publicly owned community wide gigabit network in the mid-Atlantic region, powered by Ting.

Paide, Estonia competitors going strong.

This competition was special for several other reasons.  One of our goals with Tech Experience programs is to develop the tech skills of our students, thus preparing participants for success through 21st century workforce development.    Each competition, we approach the winners and offer them opportunities to continue developing their skills by working on cybersecurity puzzles, the Amazon Web Services(AWS) infrastructure of the competitions, and other opportunities to improve the competition experience.

Four of our previous participants accepted that challenge and ran with it.  They were trained up on AWS by our adult tech professional volunteers, and continued tweaking the platform by improving and adding new puzzles.  One of the students also built and implemented a new scoreboard with additional features.

As if that wasn’t enough, on the day of the competition, about 20 minutes into the live action, the new scoreboard crashed, freezing up the system and bringing the event to a grinding halt. While the competitors took a break to eat pizza and hydrate, the student admins scrambled to isolate the problem, analyze it, and implement the fix, which they did in less than five minutes.  The competition was back on, no data was lost, and the rest of the day came off without a hitch, all administered by students who were participants in prior competitions.

The key moment was when several of us less technically inclined adults began nervously whispering among ourselves about whether it was time to panic and how worried should we be?  What do we do now? One of the tech pro mentors who helped train the students casually sipped his coffee, calmly leaned back in his chair and said:

“Be quiet, and stay out of their way.”

This kind of experiential learning is priceless, and a key ingredient for not only building the technical skills, but also the problem-solving, teamwork, and confidence of young techies. In the heat of the moment, with crushing pressure and the expectations of a global audience pressing down, these four young people rose to the occasion, worked together, and applied what they knew, literally saving the day.

Maybe next time it’s a cyber attack on our power grid, or a healthcare system, or a major failure of some other critical system with lives on the line. Because of this experience, unplanned, unscripted, but with very real consequences, we now have four more budding tech professionals who have a leg up on successfully meeting those challenges, thanks to MAGIC.

Article by Robert Wack, President, Board of Directors, MAGIC