Living Our Mission Blog Series: Building Hyper-Scalable Cyber Training Experiences with Randy Thornton, Enterprise Architect at Circadence

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A newly minted Engineering Fellow, Randy Thornton has dedicated his craft to software development for over 30 years. His passion for learning and using new technologies is evident in Circadence’s cyber range platform, Project AresÒ.

Randy joined Circadence in 2005 when the company was selling its WAN Optimization product, MVOÔ. His background in scientific computing software for CAD/CAM, telecom, and seismology have all been brought to bear to transform Project Ares from a mere cool idea that met unique market demands, to now, a full-fidelity, hyper-scalable range training tool for cyber security professionals used worldwide.

Randy and Circadence: Then and Now

In the beginning, there were about four Circadence employees working on the Project Ares prototype, which was eventually adopted by government and military agencies who were looking for better ways to train their cyber operators. Fast forward to today, Randy is leading the Project Ares team to redesign the architecture to scale within Microsoft Azure.  The goal is to provide private sector enterprises the same cutting-edge opportunity to train their cyber teams of any size and location on a gamified range—persistently, authentically, with flexibility and relevant to their specific cyber readiness needs. And Randy has been there through it all!

Today Randy mentors the engineering team at Circadence and helps them identify and collate standards around how the company’s products’ code is written and tested. He also helps identify what technologies to use and evaluates the technical feasibility of using new tech in the products themselves.

“Researching and learning new technology and staying on the cutting-edge is one of the most exciting parts of my job,” said Randy. “I see so much potential for Project Ares…so much promise…and being able to build out complicated networks in the cloud is a welcomed challenge for me.” he added.

Fellow Designation Reflected in Technical Capabilities within Project Ares

Randy’s contributions have been celebrated with a promotion to an Engineering Fellow, a significant career milestone that honors his achievements, expertise, and technical leadership to Project Ares, Circadence, and the cyber security industry as a whole.  The well-deserved recognition clearly stems from the fact that Randy never stops learning! He recently completed his Azure architecture certification exam, which helps him contribute to transitioning Project Ares to run on Microsoft Azure intelligent cloud.

“Project Ares’ ability to scale across regions is even more prevalent now thanks to Microsoft Azure,” said Randy. “The usability, the functionality, and its capability to connect across multiple locations and look like one single installation will be very beneficial to enterprise and government entities looking to scale their cyber training efforts effectively.”

A professional motto that drives Randy’s belief in continuous innovation in Project Ares is “Every time we change code, we should improve it.” It is this technical philosophy that has kept Randy and the Circadence engineering team on their toes and moving at pace to meeting market demands for scalable cyber training experiences.

Evolving Cyber Training to Scale for Customers

Randy’s current project lies in Project Ares.Next, an evolution of Project Ares from an on-premise application to a true cloud native SaaS platform that fully exploits the advantages of the cloud computing model.  Many of the cloud native improvements for Project Ares will be “under the covers”.  But customers will see performance improvements in mission virtual machines and new cyber curriculum will be able to be added to the platform more expeditiously. Project Ares users who want to train their teams from anywhere in the world will be able to do so persistently, without compromising user experience and impacting mission load times, etc.

As Project Ares evolves, we start to adapt to Go and Google standards and Kubernetes standards,” said Randy. “We’ve been working closely with Microsoft engineering teams on how we use the Azure Cloud most effectively and efficiently,” he adds.

The work of Randy and his teams is technical in nature and we greatly appreciate the level of knowledge and expertise they have to ensure Project Ares stays on the cusp of cyber training market demands using the latest technology to automate and augment the cyber workforces of tomorrow. We are grateful for their work to make Project Ares better every day as they use their talents to inform what our customers experience in the platform.

Learn Project Ares, including recent mission and battle room updates!

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Living Our Mission: Learning is Built into Project Ares, Thanks to Victoria Bowen, Instructional Designer at Circadence

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Victoria Bowen has worked in the instructional design field for about 35 years – primarily developing e-learning with a smattering of web development, SharePoint development, and Learning Management System administration. She holds an undergrad degree is in psychology, a master’s in special education, and doctorate in curriculum, instruction, and supervision with emphasis on instructional design.  What that means is that she knows how people learn and what aids and interferes with learning in training products. Victoria worked an IT security services company and then transitioned to a training role with the Air Force’s Cyberspace Vulnerability Assessment/Hunter (CVAH) weapon system. “I was responsible for the training database and the app store for several versions of CVAH.  I also developed user guides and training materials,” she said. Victoria served in that role for about nine months before joining the Circadence team.

Since September 2013, Victoria’s main job as an instructional designer has been to analyze training needs for Circadence products. She helps assess target audiences for Circadence products to determine learning goals and objectives for the product designers. She establishes the behaviors that a user would be assessed against, after engaging with the product, to ensure learning has occurred. Victoria also suggests ways to evaluate those behaviors to optimize product utility. In doing so, she prepares training outlines and documentation and writes content development processes and learning paths. Mapping Job Qualification Requirements (JQRs) tasks to training tasks is a regular function of Victoria’s job alongside mapping National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) standards to training tasks. She ensures the core skills addressed in our curriculum creation tool Orion™ align to defined NIST standards.

Applying instructional design theory to new technology

What keeps Victoria returning to her desk every day is the challenge of learning and applying instructional design theory to cutting edge training technology. Although the old rules still apply, Circadence is leading the way in developing new rules and research on how learning happens and best practices for simulations like Project Ares®. We know a lot about constructivism as an underlying theory, but to apply it gaming environments like Project Ares is new and fascinating,” she says.

The challenge of applying theory to technology is complicated by the fact that new books about instructional design and cognitive analysis and processing are published frequently. And there are new online articles every month. Also, there is a growing emphasis on instructional analysis before beginning training development projects, so there is a growing emphasis on analytical skills for instructional designers. These skills help us design the right training, just enough training, and just in time training for learners.

“Ensuring we are constructing an environment in which the player is constantly learning, not just performing a task or activity is essential.  We need the player to understand the what, when, how, and why related to the tasks they perform in the environment.  For deeper learner and better retrieval from long term memory, we also need the player to understand how their tasks relate to each other.” Victoria says. “Furthermore,” she adds, “we want the player’s understanding and performance to progress from novice to intermediate to expert. That doesn’t happen just by repetition. There must be instruction too.”

Instructional design within Project Ares

For the Project Ares Battle Rooms and Missions, Victoria collaborates with cyber security subject matter experts to write the learning objectives and assessment criteria, provide role-based learning content outlines, identify gaps and redundancies in content, and review product design to ensure high quality instructional design aspects. For inCyt™, she’s written the scripts for several of the cyber security lessons. Finally, Victoria also reviews and identifies instructional design issues such as scrolling text and text display not controlled by the user, “both of which interfere with cognitive processing by the user and adversely affect transfer from short term to long term memory,” she adds.

“I have a different challenge every day and I like challenges. I’m also fascinated by cyber security and enjoy learning more about it every day. Instructional research has consistently supported that interactivity is the most important component of instruction regardless of delivery method. We have a very interactive environment and that’s great for retention and transfer of learning to real world application.”

Victoria’s passion for intelligent learning systems dates back to her time in school. “When I was a poor graduate student at the University of Georgia, I paid around $25 a month in overdue fees to the library so I could keep the AI books I checked out longer. (Once they were turned in, professors usually got them and could keep them up to a year.) There were only about 25 books on that topic at the time. Today, it is remarkable to see what our AI team can do with Athena.”

Why persistent cyber training matters

The cyber world is changing very fast. People need to learn constantly to keep up with their job requirements. Cyber challenges are not about cookie cutter solutions. It’s important that the cyber operator learns cyber problem solving, not just cyber solutions. By jumping into a training program and being able to craft different approaches to solving problems and test those approaches, the cyber professional can learn skills that directly help them do better on the job. Plus – a big plus – the training is fun!

Living our Mission: Creating Authentic Cyber Training and Learning Environments Inspired by Real-World Experience: Todd Humes, Sr. Mission Designer

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Bringing his Air Force and military security engineering background to use, Senior Mission Designer Todd Humes understands what it takes to defend networks from adversaries. Prior to Circadence, he served in various government security roles including as a Systems Security Engineer and Systems Administrator and on the commercial side as a Director of Network Defense Operations at a Managed Security Service Provider. He noticed a gap in commercial cyber training and readiness that eventually lead him to Circadence.  

In his current role, Todd ensures that real-world training exercises developed meet critical training objectives and are authentic for the end-user. “We want to provide a safe place for trainees to learn cyber…so he/she doesn’t have to worry about causing damage on actual networks when trying to build skills,” he says.  

It’s important trainees in Project Ares experience true-to-life cyber threat scenarios that they would in their actual workplace.

In “mimicking a controlled environment that they would see” in the workplace, trainees gain “an experience that is highly relatable and allows for professional development,” Todd says.  

When developing new missions Todd and his team examine market verticals and threats associated with those industries to identify unique scenarios that can be built out in a Project Ares mission. “We do our own research and threat intelligence targeting verticals, brainstorm specific scenarios and begin designing what the network environment should look like,” he says. The automation and orchestration of how the mission will unfold require a great deal of programming. Between building the mission components, the layout, and the services that will be “affected” in the exercise, Todd and his team bring cyber threats to life in the most authentic way possible. Sometimes, he adds, “we have to reverse engineer the malware [for example] to get the capability we want,” adding layers of complexity and back-end work to produce the final product.  

But the intricacies of building missions is anything but dull. “It’s never boring! We’re always learning day in and day out and the people who are successful in this field are the individuals who continue to learn themselves,” Todd says.

To ensure missions stay relevant against today’s threats, Todd is always keeping a pulse on the latest research and vulnerabilities by studying online reports and attending cyber conferences and industry-related events to network with like-minded leaders.  

He believes by continuously learning about the industry, all professionals in this line of work and beyond can find new and better ways to address an exploit and stay one (or several) steps ahead of hackers. He considers cyber security one the few industries and specializations that requires persistent learning and skill building in order to “extend the life” of security across organizations and companies.   

Learn Project Ares, including recent mission and battle room updates here.   

How Cyber Security Can Be Improved

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Every day we get more interconnected and that naturally widens the threat surface for cybercriminals. In order to protect vulnerabilities and keep pace with hacker methods, security – and non-security professionals must understand how to protect themselves (and their companies). And that involves looking for new ways to improve cyber security. To start, we believe cyber security can be improved by focusing on three areas: enterprise-wide cyber awareness programs, within cyber teams via persistent training, and in communication between the C-suite and the CISO. Check out our recommendations below and if you have a strategy that worked to improve cyber security in your company or organization, we’d love to hear about it.

Company-Wide Security Awareness Programs

Regardless of company size or budget, every person employed at a business should understand fundamental cyber concepts so they can protect themselves from malicious hackers. Failure to do so places the employee and the company at risk of being attacked and could result in significant monetary and reputation damages.

Simple knowledge of what a phishing email looks like, what an unsecured website looks like, and implications of sharing personal information on social media are all topics that can be addressed in a company-wide security program. Further, staff should understand how hackers work and what kinds of tactics they use to get information on a victim to exploit. Reports vary but a most recent article from ThreatPost notes that phishing attempts have doubled in 2018 with new scams on the rise every day.

But where and how should companies start building a security awareness program—not to mention a program that staff will actually take seriously and participate in?

We believe in the power of gamified learning to engage employees in cyber security best practices.

Our mobile app inCyt helps novice and non-technical professionals learn the ins and outs of cyber security from hacking methods to understanding cyber definitions. The game allows employees to play against one another in a healthy, yet competitive, manner. Players have digital “hackables” they have to protect in the game while trying to steal other player’s assets for vulnerabilities to exploit. The back and forth game play teaches learners how and why attacks occur in the first place and where vulnerabilities exist on a variety of digital networks.

By making the learning fun, it shifts the preconceived attitude of “have to do” to “want to do.” When an employee learns the fundamentals of cyber security not only are they empowering themselves to protect their own data, which translates into improved personal data cyber hygiene, but it also adds value for them as professionals. Companies are more confident when employees work with vigilance and security at the forefront.

Benefits of company-wide security awareness training

  • Lowers risk – Prevents an internal employee cyber mishap with proper education and training to inform daily activities.
  • Strengthens workforce – Existing security protocols are hardened to keep the entire staff aware of daily vulnerabilities and prevention.
  • Improved practices – Cultivate good cyber hygiene by growing cyber aptitude in a safe, virtual environment, instead of trial and error on workplace networks.

For more information about company-wide cyber learning, read about our award-winning mobile app inCyt.

Persistent (Not Periodic) Cyber Training

For cyber security professionals like network analysts, IT directors, CISOs, and incident responders, knowledge of the latest hacker methods and ways to protect and defend, govern, and mitigate threats is key. Today’s periodic training conducted at off-site training courses has and continues to be the option of choice—but the financial costs and time away from the frontlines makes it a less-than-fruitful ROI for leaders looking to harden their posture productively and efficiently.

Further, periodic cyber security training classes are often dull, static, PowerPoint-driven or prescriptive, step-by-step instructor-driven—meaning the material is often too outdates to be relevant to today’s threats—and the learning is passive. There’s minimal opportunity for hands-on learning to apply learned concepts in a virtualized, safe setting. These roadblocks make periodic learning ineffective and unfortunately companies are spending thousands of dollars every quarter or month to upskill professionals without knowing if it’s money well spent. That’s frustrating!

What if companies could track cyber team performance to identify gaps in security skills—and do so on emulated networks to enrich the learning experience?

We believe persistent training on a cyber range is the modern response for companies to better align with today’s evolving threats. Cyber ranges allow cyber teams to engage in skill building in a “safe” environment. Sophisticated ranges should be able to scale as companies grow in security posture too. Our Project Ares cyber learning platform helps professionals develop frontier learning capabilities on mirrored networks for a more authentic training experience. Running on Microsoft Azure, enterprise, government and academic IT teams can persistently training on their own networks safely using their own tools to “train as they would fight.”

Browser-based, Project Ares also allows professionals to train on their terms – wherever they are. Artificial intelligence via natural language processing and machine learning support players on the platform by acting as both automated adversaries to challenge trainees in skill, and as an in-game advisor to support trainee progression through a cyber exercise.

The gamified element of cyber training keeps professionals engaged while building skill. Digital badges, leaderboards, levels, and team-based mission scenarios build communicative skills, technical skills, and increase information retention in this active-learning model of training.

Benefits of persistent cyber training

Gamifying cyber training is the next evolution of learning for professionals who are either already in the field or curious to start a career in cyber security. The benefits are noteworthy:

  • Increased engagement, sense of control and self-efficacy
  • Adoption of new initiatives
  • Increased satisfaction with internal communication
  • Development of personal and organizational capabilities and resources
  • Increased personal satisfaction and employee retention
  • Enhanced productivity, monitoring and decision making

For more information about gamified cyber training, read about our award-winning platform Project Ares.

CISO Involvement in C-Suite Decision-Making

Communication processes between the C-suite and CISO need to be more transparent and frequent to achieve better alignment between cyber risk and business risk.

Many CISOs are currently challenged in reporting to the C-suite because of the very technical nature and reputation of cyber security. It’s often perceived as “too technical” for laymen, non-cyber professionals. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.

C-suite execs can understand their business’ cyber risks in the context of business risk to see how the two are inter-related and impact each other.

A CISO is typically concerned about the security of the business as a whole and if a breach occurs at the sake of a new product launch, service addition, or employee productivity, it’s his or her reputation on the line.

The CISO perspective is, if ever a company is deploying a new product or service, security should be involved from the get-go. Having CISOs brought into discussions about business initiatives early on is key to ensuring there are not security “add ons” brought in too late in the game. Also, actualizing the cost of a breach on the company in terms of dollar amounts can also capture the attention of the C-suite.

Furthermore, CISOs are measuring risk severity and breaking it down for the C-suite to help them understand the business value of cyber.  To achieve this alignment, CISOs are finding unique ways to do remediation or cyber security monitoring to reduce their workloads enough so they can prioritize communications with execs and keep all facets of the company safe from the employees it employs to the technologies it adopts to function.

Improving Cyber Security for the Future

Better communications between execs and security leaders, continual cyber training for teams, and company-wide cyber learning are a few suggestions we’ve talked about today to help companies reduce their cyber risk and harden their posture. We’ve said it before and we will say it again: cyber security is everyone’s responsibility. And evolving threats in the age of digital transformation mean that we are always susceptible to attacks regardless of how many firewalls we put up or encryption codes we embed.

If we have a computer, a phone, an electronic device that can exchange information in some way to other parties, we are vulnerable to cyber attacks. Every bit and byte of information exchanged on a company network is up for grabs for hackers and the more technical, business, and non-technical professionals come together to educate and empower themselves to improve cyber hygiene practices, the more prepared they and their company assets will be when a hacker comes knocking on their digital door.

Photo of computer by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Top 10 Cyber Myths

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The top cyber security myths CISOs and security professionals fall victim to. Empower yourself with persistent training and skill building instead.

A New Perspective: Changing How We Think About Cybersecurity Training

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What if someone told you that there was a new way to commute to work in the morning? A way that was more efficient than taking the highways or backroads to avoid traffic – a way that would allow you to save time, headaches and the dangers of driving altogether…you’d be interested, right? Maybe a little skeptical, certainly, but interested. So would we! Changing the way we think about a process or an act does not happen at the flip of a switch. We know that.  However, the speed at which technology advances and new products and services hit the market with attempts to make our daily lives easier, faster, better requires us to be open to new ways of thinking about traditional approaches. In this blog, it’s about changing how we think about “cybersecurity training.”

While we can’t help you teleport to your office or lend you a flying car, the concept behind the “better way to commute” scenario is exactly what we at Circadence are advocating for—A new way to think about cybersecurity training and skills development. Now, we realize that might not be as “cool” as teleportation but hear us out.

When it comes to cybersecurity, we believe wholeheartedly that there is a better way to train cyber professionals on the latest tactics and techniques. Why? Current ways of developing professionals with “one-and-done” trainings in classroom settings aren’t working. How do we know this? Because businesses are still getting hacked every day. In 2018 alone, we saw a 350% increase in ransomware attacks and 250% in spoofing or business email compromise. If lecture-based, classroom setting, PowerPoint-driven training courses were working, we wouldn’t still be reading about breaches in our local and national news. Something new, something different has to be done.

Talk to your teams

People develop, use and control the technologies we have available to us. People are the mechanisms by which we execute certain security methods and procedures. People are the reason there are actual tools to help us stop threats. Talking to your team can help gain perspective on how they are feeling with their current workloads and where they want to improve professionally.

Without well-trained individuals who persistently learn new skills and find better (more efficient) ways to operationalize cyber processes and techniques, our businesses and our personal information will be exploited—it’s only a matter of time. While you may be thinking “I send my team to an off-site course and they learn new stuff every time” then great! We invite you to take the next step and talk to those teams about how they’re using what they’ve learned in everyday cyber practice. Sometimes the first step in adopting a new way of thinking about a process (in this case, cyber training), we need to talk to the people who actually experienced it (those with boots on the ground).

Talk to your teams about:

  • their experience on-site at the training
  • what their main takeaways were
  • how they are applying learned concepts to daily tasks
  • where they see gaps or “opportunities for improvement”

Listening to teams and asking objective questions like this can shed light on what’s working in your cyber readiness strategy and what’s not.

Reframe negative thoughts

Things that are new and different are disruptive and that can be scary for leaders looking for concrete ROI to tie to cyber readiness solutions. Forbes suggests reframing negative thoughts as well. In thinking about a new way to do cyber training, instead of “gamified cyber learning will never work,” come from a place of inquiry and curiosity instead. Reflect on what feelings or experiences are causing you to think negatively about a new way of doing something.

Ask objective questions like:

Understanding how something works or could work for your specific situation is the foundation for evaluating the merit of any new process or approach presented to you.

Know Today’s Cyber Training Options

How cyber training has been conducted hasn’t changed much in the past several years. Participation in courses require professionals to travel off-site to facilities/classrooms where they gather together to listen to lectures, view PowerPoint presentations and videos, and maybe engage in some online lab work to “bring concepts to life.”

Travel costs incur, time away from the frontlines occurs, and learners often disengage with material that is passively delivered to them (only 5% of information is retained with passive-learning delivery).

One of the biggest gaps in cyber training is that there isn’t a way to effectively measure cyber competencies in this traditional method. The proof is in the performance when professionals return to their desks and attempt to identify incoming threats and stop them. That absolute, black and white, way of measuring performance is too risky for businesses to stake their reputation and assets on.

Leaders who send their teams to these trainings need to know the following:

1) what new skills cyber teams have acquired

2) how their performance compares to their colleagues

3) what current skills they have improved

4) what cyber activities have they completed to demonstrate improvement/progression

Today’s off-site trainings don’t answer those questions until it’s too late and a threat has taken over a network. Professionals can “see” really quick when a learned skill doesn’t translate to real life.

Embrace the journey of learning

There is a better way to train professionals and it can happen with gamification. But don’t let us be your only source of truth. Talk to people. Listen to their experiences training traditionally and hear firsthand what they want out of a skill building opportunity. Read the latest research on gamification in the corporate workplace. Then, make connections based on the intel you’ve gathered to evaluate if gamification is right for your organization’s professional development approach.

We’ll be here when you’re ready to dive deeper into specific solutions.

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