There’s a lot at stake in training tomorrow’s security professionals – but it doesn’t always have to be completely serious. Young people can and should have fun in their efforts to develop their skillsets and learn about the opportunities to be had – and CyberCenturion is a great example of how to do it!

A competition brought to you by Northrop Grumman, CyberCenturion allows participants aged 12-18 to learn about networking, defence and digital security. In doing so, it helps to foster the connections, experiences and interest through which a young person can launch their digital security career.

If there’s one thing these past few decades have taught us, it’s that cyber criminals are only getting faster at innovating their attack techniques. Investments like this are essential if the next generation are to take up the mantle against these digital threats.

Rhiannon Fairweather was an ex-finalist in CyberCenturion V (2020), and she kindly agreed to share her firsthand account of what it was like to participate in the competition. Here’s what she had to say.

CSC UK: Can you tell me a little bit about CyberCenturion? What is it, and how did you actually come across it?

RF: I came across CyberCenturion whilst attending a CyberFirst Defenders course in 2017. A guest speaker came in and told us about how they were running this new national cybersecurity competition for teams of 12- to 18-year-olds. From that, I took the idea back to my ICT teacher. They agreed that if we could form a team, it would be really good at that point, as I really wanted to go into cybersecurity.

CSC UK: So, when you decided you’re going to do it, you were part of a team called “Binary Ninjas.” I’d love to hear the story about how your team formed and then how it evolved.

RF: Yeah, it changed a couple of times. The first teams consisted of myself, Jacob, Darcy, Adam and Sam. In that team, only myself and Sam had any knowledge of cybersecurity. It was very basic from the Defenders course, while Sam had been coding and researching from a very young age. He was the one who trained the rest of us on what we needed to know. The second year, we had the same team, except Adam from the second round on was in a different country. He was unable to participate with us, and so we became a team of four for the rest of 2018, which was quite a shock. Finally, last year’s team had to change because Jacob left to go and study physics at Exeter, as he was the year above us. We asked Sami to join the team as a reserve. He attended the first round, but then due to commitments, he couldn’t attend the rest of them. So we were left as a team of four.

CSC UK: Trying to do the challenge is one thing, but actually trying to manage the team and new people coming in must be difficult. You spoke there a bit about a mixture of boys and girls. Do you feel like that was beneficial? Is that something that actually helped your team?

RF: I didn’t feel that being the only girl, being a mixed team, actually had that much difference. I think if you were with completely new people, it might have had an effect. But for us, it had no effect because we were all very good friends, anyway.

CSC UK: Good. So, obviously doing CyberCenturion was a good experience for you and your team. What were some of the key skills that you learned during your time participating?

RF: Apart from expanding on the basics of cybersecurity and what was required to complete the competition, resilience was definitely one of them. There were some extremely tough rounds over the years where we thought, “How on earth did anyone else do this?” But being able to sit down as a team the day after and ask, “Okay, right. What have we done? What ideas have we had overnight that we could take into the next round to improve?“ was how we actually got to the final; we improved over those three years.

CSC UK: Brilliant. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience in the final? How was that?

RF: It was amazing. It was the first time we’d ever attended the final. And in our final year! All of us apart from Sammy are going off to uni this year. It was our last competition. We just went in with that sense of “We’ve made it. We’ve improved.” We started as a team with very basic knowledge and got through to the final in a room where some of the other people had qualifications. For us, who’ve been working out of a shed with very limited outside support, it was quite humbling, and for all of us, we felt really lucky to be there.

CSC UK: That’s great. Getting to the finals is a massive achievement. Were there any other particular high points that you could pinpoint from your experience with CyberCenturion?

RF: I think every round had its own high. No matter how hard the round was, our team spirit was always there. Whether it was with endless ridiculous jokes or funny YouTube videos that the boys would find, It was always someone making the rest of the team laugh no matter how hard the round was. That is what you need because you want to be able to have fun.

CSC UK: Definitely. Obviously, you want to learn and have fun. On the flip side of that, was anything you would have changed from your experience? Would you have done anything differently?

RF: For us, we didn’t use our time in the practice rounds a lot because we all lived quite far apart with our school. So, we couldn’t meet after school to do the practice rounds. We only had lunchtime, but all of us had other lunchtime commitments. We didn’t have the ability to utilize all the time we were given for the practice rounds, and I think if we were doing it again, we could utilize those practice rounds a bit better because they give you an idea of what’s going to be coming in the actual rounds.

CSC UK: One of the big parts of CyberCenturion is having a team leader. You need someone to lead the team, to help mentor and things like that. Can you provide any insight into how your team leader helped and supported you?

RF: Our team’s leader was our school’s ICT and computer science teacher. He had obviously worked within computer science, but he never worked within the security industry. His main role was liaising with CyberSecurity Challenge and passing back information on to us. During the rounds, he kept in contact, made sure we were alright and worked to boost our morale. Any skills mentoring came more from Sam. If our team leader had had some knowledge of the industry, that would have helped. We could have done a bit more training with someone who had been in security, but having a team member who knew a lot kind of substituted for that.

CSC UK: Yeah, that makes sense. Can you tell me a little bit about some of your teammates now? What are they doing? How did Cyber Centurion actually impact their decisions moving forward?

RF: Jacob had to leave because he’s gone to study physics at Exeter. He’ll be going into his second year this year. Darcy has decided to go on to study medicine, while Sam is going off to study electronic engineering with nanoparticles. And then Adam has decided not to go to university. He is going to be doing backend systems testing and product testing for a bank-to-bank payment solutions firm that manages a lot of the banks in South Africa. For him, CyberCenturion definitely gave him the idea of a career he could pursue. Although he’s not directly in cybersecurity, he still knows a bit more about what to look out for from doing CyberCenturion. He knows some common flaws, and he can look at them whilst doing his job in backend systems. And Sami is going into his last year of A-Levels.

CSC UK: That’s really cool. Let’s move away from CyberCenturion a bit. Based on your own experiences and opinions you mentioned right at the start, what do you think can be done to attract more females to STEM and cybersecurity in particular?

RF: From when I first got interested, a lot more opportunities have come up. There’s now the CyberFirst Girls Competition. A lot of the residents are now running girls-only courses, as well. So, it’s now a push on getting it in schools. This isn’t a boy’s sport, and that comes from the teachers, as well. It comes from making sure that we are portraying a lot more girls in these roles on social media and in the news, where younger girls are going to see them and go, “Oh, I could be like that. There are actually people like me already doing this. I’m not going to be the first one doing this.”

CSC UK: Definitely, and I think things are improving all the time. Like you say, it’s important to have role models out there, and I think you see a lot on social media, which is good. There’s a lot of good people out there. There’s a lot of good speakers at events; there’s a lot of people especially in cybersecurity who set the example and can encourage others to come into the industry.

So this leads to the last question: what are your plans for the future?  What do you plan to do over the next couple of years? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

RF:  This year, I’m planning on taking a gap year. I’m going to take a step out from my studies and focus on my other hobby, which is horse riding. I’m going to go work at a competition livery yard, so it’s very different. Alongside that, I’m planning on getting some of my qualifications within cybersecurity online, so I can do that from home. Next year, I have accepted an unconditional place to go and study cybersecurity and forensic computing at Portsmouth.

CSC UK: Excellent! That’s fantastic news. I hope it all works out and then. Hopefully, we’ll see you in the cybersecurity industry in a few years’ time.

RF: Thank you!