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A look back at the winners of the cyber 9/12 student challenge 2018

Team Black Knights, US Military Academy at West Point

Team Black Knights of the US Military Academy at West Point were the winners of the Cyber 9/12 Student Challenge 2018. The GCSP had the chance to interview them six months after they championed the competition. Grab some advice, learn from their experiences and take a look at what to expect at the 2019 challenge!


Team Black Knights consisted of Coach Patrick Bell and team members: Nolan Robert Hedglin, Sungpyo Choe, Hannah Whisnant and Lexie Johnson.

GCSP: What did it mean to your team to represent US Military Academy at West Point and compete in a European-based event?

Competing in a Europe-based competition was definitely a challenge for an American military team. Europe works through very different institutions and takes different approaches when dealing with cyber threats. It required us to look at the challenge through a new lens, which was something we improved at in each round of the competition. In the end we were very proud of the results of that effort to embrace a new perspective.


GCSP: What is your best memory of the challenge? What is your most challenging memory of the competition?

Following Round 1, we realized from the judges' feedback that we were a step behind compared to the European teams in understanding the relationship between European nations, the EU, and NATO. As the scenario developed in Round 2, this became an urgent issue. We had to figure out how to respond to the situation while also learning more about the European system, in one night. We think this was the hardest part of the competition, possibly even more challenging than preparing for the final round in 15 minutes.


GCSP: It is really great that you had a gender-balanced team as cyber is currently a very male-dominated domain; do you think that there will be more women represented in the field in the future?

Coach Patrick response:

I definitely think that cyber will become less male-dominated over time. Initiatives like Girls Who Code and the emergence of prominent female leaders like Sheryl Sandberg in information technology companies will help attract more women into the field. Additionally the operationalisation of cyberspace by militaries throughout the world and the increasing role it plays in national and international security will likely attract people to cyber from academic backgrounds that may be less gender-equality challenged than computer science and information technology have been historically.          


Team member Nolan response:

Yes. Hannah and Lexie are two of the most talented lieutenants in Army Cyber right now and they both bring in valuable and unique perspectives to tackling issues in the field. West Point does a phenomenal job of exposing underrepresented groups to the field of cybersecurity through initiatives such as requiring all students to take computer science courses and offering the cyber engineering sequence, a three-semester program focused on programming, to students unfamiliar with computer science.


Team member Hannah response:

Our team was balanced in a lot of ways—not all of us were American, we had diverse educational backgrounds, and we were gender-balanced. I think that diversity was a great strength for us, and I do think that we will see the cyber domain begin to reflect similar diversity in the future.


GCSP: How do you view the progression of the European challenge?

Each competition seems to become more realistic over time. It is frightening how the scenarios presented in the competitions seemingly occur within 6-12 months following competitions.


GCSP: Coach Bell, have you seen an upsurge in interest in cyber, both from the public and in terms of new emerging talent?

Our team’s success and subsequent graduation certainly inspired many applicants to try to fill their shoes. With the global cyber workforce shortage and an unprecedented US government budget dedicated to cyber, it seems all forces are leading to increased interest in cyber.


GCSP: How has winning the competition changed your life?

Externally, winning the competition brought a lot of favorable attention to our team at West Point. We were interviewed by West Point’s local newspaper and alumni magazine, as well as mentioned in our Superintendent’s briefing to VIPs. 

Internally, we all feel that we grew during each phase of the competition and learned more about the domain we were soon to enter. Overall, we feel more prepared to make a positive impact in the field once we enter the cyber force.


GCSP: As the 2018 winning team, do you have any advice/tips for to future competitors?

Don’t forget that some tasks are more time sensitive than others. During one round of the competition, while describing our nuanced siloed approach to our policy proposals, we may have inadvertently largely overlooked an uncontrolled aircraft that required immediate attention and risked hundreds of lives.


Did you  miss the Cyber 9/12 Student Challenge 2018? Then

-          Check out the 2018 Report

-          Check out the 2018 Highlights

-          View the 2019 Promotional Video