Cyber cadet balances competition, life

(Courtesy photo/Amy Gillentine)

(Courtesy photo/Amy Gillentine)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- For Cadet 1st Class Kevin Cooper, cyber competitions are every bit as rewarding as flying.

"Pilots get this adrenaline rush, but then it's over," he said. "With cyber competitions, you stay busy - it lasts; it's challenging all the time."

The Academy senior has been a star performer in the Academy's cyber competition, placing 12th in the National Cyber League event and finishing second during the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's CyberStakes challenge.

Twelfth place might not seem noteworthy, but Cooper stopped participating with three days left in the weeklong event to focus on the service academy competition.

"When I had to stop one competition to start the other, I was in first place," he said. "It was a little disappointing to move on when I was doing so well. But, I still placed really high in a field of more than 1,000, so that was encouraging."

Cooper asked to be a cyber-security officer upon graduation, and Dr. Martin Carlisle, head of the computer science department, believes he belongs in the career field.

"He has done a lot of independent study to learn topics beyond the curriculum," Carlisle said. "This depth of knowledge will help him be a leader in cyber. Also, his ability to learn on his own will be critical to keeping up with the fast-changing nature of the cyber domain."

And the cyber domain offers plenty of challenges in the cyber-security realm, Cooper said.

"When J.P. Morgan Chase gets hacked and 70 million accounts are breached, that's a problem that has to be solved," he said. "The damage just a few hackers can do can be more damaging and longer lasting than a bombing run."

Cooper's competitive spirit will also benefit the Air Force, Carlisle said.

"The mission of the Air Force is to fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace," he said. "The cyber team helps develop a strong competitive spirit that will drive us to win the cyber fight."

Cadets on the competition team compete in several tournaments every semester, teaching them to balance classwork and competition.

"It can be hard," Cooper said. "I had two cyber competitions in a row, and so there were about two weeks when I didn't sleep much, but I'm able to manage time so my grades don't suffer."

Cyber competitions all all-day events, so cadets must work round-the-clock to protect their network from constant attacks.

"Cadets on the team constantly learn new technologies, to cooperate with others and communicate technical matters to a non-technical audience," Carlisle said. "These skills are crucial in cyber."

Cooper agrees.

"I wouldn't want to be in charge of Airmen who are experts in what they do and not have some sort of technical knowledge," he said. "I want to be able to lead them by showing them I understand their mission and how important it is."

Carlisle said the Academy team is the only service academy to advance to the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

"We've been there for the last four years," he said. "We frequently beat the other academies in capture-the-flag competitions, and we're the top team in the western hemisphere in the 2013 UCSB International CTF."

The Academy is winning with less investment than other service academies, he said.

"Both West Point and Annapolis are making significant capital and personnel investments in their cyber programs," Carlisle said. "They're making great gains. We are hopeful the Air Force will also make such an investment."

Col. John McCurdy, the Academy's research director, shares Carlisle's vision.

"Our top priority is to develop cadets who lead in the battle space of the future," he said. "They'll be expected to ensure air, space and cyber dominance over the coming decades. Academy research can play a key role in their development by exposing them to multi-domain activities fostering innovation and inter-disciplinary awareness."

Cooper started hanging around the cyber competition team as a freshman, before he was able to compete himself. The next year, he joined the team and declared his major as computer engineering.

"There are a lot of opportunities," he said. "And one of those was last summer's research project. I was able to work at the Institute of Defense Analysis doing classified research."

He also travels with the team four or five times a year. Last year, the team went to California for reverse-engineering training and they've visited other places for penetration testing. 

All the effort gives Cooper an advantage if joins the Air Force cyber mission as a second lieutenant.

"There's a lot of information you don't get as an undergraduate," he said. "Things you don't learn. This will give me a leg up there. You want the officer to have technical knowledge that you have - and this will give me that."

As much time as he spends hunched over a computer screen, Cooper doesn't want to be called a hacker or embrace the stereotype of a computer nerd.

"Hacker has so many negative connotations," he said. "I prefer cyber security analyst. I don't want to be stereotyped - so I stay active."

Cooper used to box on the intramurals team and this year, he's busy with off-base Jujitsu classes.

"I stay active," he said. "I'm not an athlete, but I go to the gym, and I do Jujitsu - things that are physically challenging - to break those stereotypes."