Saturday, April 13, 2024

LSUA, LSUS, and Ingalls Information Security collaborate to grow the cyber workforce in Louisiana

by BIZ Magazine

“As a growing company, we weren’t finding enough people in Louisiana with experience in data breach response. We had a scalability problem we needed to solve,” said Jason Ingalls, founder and CEO of Ingalls Information Security. “So, we decided to tackle that, and that led us to a partnership with LSU.”  

Ingalls, LSUA and LSUS are now two years into a formalized internship program to strengthen cybersecurity talent pipelines in Louisiana. Cohorts of up to four students at a time can receive course credit while working as tier-one cybersecurity analysts at Ingalls and helping banks, insurance companies, hospitals and other businesses secure their networks and data. The students respond to cybersecurity attacks and prevent attacks by monitoring threats through the Ingalls Security Operations Center, or SOC, which has telemetry across the world.  

“Operating a SOC requires multiple tiers of analysts, from beginners to experts,” Ingalls said. “It provides an excellent learning opportunity for junior analysts to come in and get their bearings. We can hand junior analysts a playbook of things they have to do every day, and then have more senior analysts evaluate their work and forward it on to our tier-two folks who have certifications and college degrees—maybe both.”  

Earlier this year, LSU’s flagship campus in Baton Rouge and LSU Shreveport announced the creation of their own student-manned SOCs—a development Ingalls welcomed.  

“In my opinion, there is no better way to study cybersecurity in higher education than to instrument the college computer networks with gear to capture, process and store live data, and then use that data to train cybersecurity students on the current state of the art,” Ingalls said. “In addition to the training value, you gain data protection that allows you to understand and react to a changing threat landscape.”  

Some students transition from interns to employees. Ingalls almost exclusively hires current and former interns to work as tier-one SOC analysts. One of them is Aiden Thaxton from Pineville, Louisiana, who is working full-time for Ingalls while finishing his bachelor’s degree at LSUA. Thaxton will be one of the very first LSUA students to graduate with a degree in cybersecurity—a program added this year. (LSUA launched its computer science degree program last year.)  

“I’ve worked for Ingalls for over a year now. My studies support the stuff I do at work, and vice versa. It fits perfectly,” Thaxton said. “I’m not certified for this job. I haven’t graduated college. No company would have looked at me if it wasn’t for the LSUA internship program and the experience I gained. It got me to where I needed to be to land a job.”  

The internship program is not the sole cybersecurity connection between Ingalls and LSU. Cyrus Robinson, director of the Ingalls SOC and Thaxton’s supervisor, also serves as adjunct professor of computer science at LSUA. Bringing in industry experts as adjunct faculty allows the university a reality check, making sure students gain the real-world skills and expertise their future employers will be looking for.  

“As someone from a small town in Louisiana who was interested in cybersecurity from a young age, I consider myself fortunate to have the opportunity to help the next generation of cybersecurity professionals get their foot in the door,” Robinson, from Benton, Louisiana, said. “Before accepting a position as an adjunct professor at LSUA, I was already helping the university plan and coordinate its course offerings and internships, so when presented with the opportunity to do so in a more formal capacity, it was an obvious win-win.”  

Robinson joined Ingalls after serving in the U.S. Air Force and receiving formal training in computer forensics and incident response at the Department of Defense Cyber Crime Center in Linthicum, Maryland. He and Ingalls both appreciate LSU’s approach to industry engagement through collaboration.  

“It’s going to take academia, industry and government working together to address the talent gap,” Robinson said.  

“Working with industry partners throughout Louisiana to establish adjunct professorships allows LSU to leverage a growing industry presence and get cutting-edge expertise into the classroom,” Ingalls added. “Anytime students get exposure to real-world cybersecurity challenges, it becomes a force multiplier. The things we’re seeing these days, the way people are able to get in and do what they do to just wreck a business is incredible.”  

LSUA junior Elizabeth Gallo from Jennings, Louisiana, recently completed the Ingalls internship program while working toward her bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in information systems.  

“I’m so thankful I took the initiative to apply for the internship program because it’s been, honestly, a complete gamechanger for me,” Gallo said. “I’m now certain I want a career in cybersecurity, and I’m looking at double majoring at LSUA, so I’ll also graduate with a degree in computer science or cybersecurity.”  

Gallo first realized her passion for technology when she decided to build her own computer two years ago.  

“I love gaming, but didn’t have the funds to buy a pre-built computer, so I spent about eight months learning as much as I could about computers so I could build my own,” Gallo said during a Zoom conversation on the computer she built. “As you can see, I still use it.”  

At Ingalls, Gallo progressed quickly through the internship’s crawl-walk-run-style training. Junior analysts start by shadowing a senior analyst, who then shadows them in turn as they take on more tasks. Eventually, everyone works on their own.  

“It was really awesome to see Elizabeth Gallo develop confidence and skills as an analyst,” Robinson said. “We value diversity on our teams. The cybersecurity workforce is predominately white males, but we value diversity and leverage different perspectives on threats to manage risk. Beyond the moral and ethical considerations for being more inclusive, there are serious operational considerations. It’s great to see LSU expanding its cybersecurity programs the way it has, with industry in mind.”  

Ingalls said the estimated 700,000 workforce gap for cybersecurity jobs in the United States (recently updated from 500,000) can be difficult to fully appreciate, especially on the local or regional scale, such as in his hometown of Hicks, Louisiana, which “most people can’t find on a map.”  

“There are a lot of different cybersecurity products available on the market, but these tools are only as effective as the teams maintaining, monitoring and using them,” Ingalls said. “Cybersecurity tools alone just aren’t enough. We need people here to protect organizations in Louisiana, and that’s why our focus is on growing talent, including by partnering with LSU.”  

“One of the problems I see with growing the workforce is that a lot of people just don’t know how to get into cybersecurity,” Gallo, who started as a biology major, said. “The internship helped solidify my passion by giving me the hands-on experience you cannot learn from reading a textbook.”

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