Circadence’s Curriculum Developer Tony Hammerling wasn’t always interested in a career in cyber—but he was certainly made for it. In fact, he initially wanted to be a musician! While his musical talents didn’t pan out for him early in his career, he quickly learned how to create unique harmonies using computers instead of instruments…After joining the Navy in 1995 as a Cryptologist and Morse Code operator, he transitioned to a Cryptologic Technician Networks professional where he performed network analysis and social network/persona analysis. It was there he learned more offensive and defensive strategies pertinent to cyber security and was introduced to network types and communication patterns. He moved to Maryland to do offensive analysis and then retired in Pensacola, Florida. The world of cyber grew on Tony and he enjoyed the digital accompaniment of the work it offered.
For the last few years, now settled in Pensacola, Florida, Tony is a critical part of Circadence’s Curriculum Team, working alongside colleagues to develop learning objectives and routes for players using platforms like inCyt, Project Ares, and other cyber games like NexAgent, Circadence’s immersive network exploration game. Currently, Tony and his team are focused on building out learning of network essentials in NexAgent, and “…are bridging the gap between what new IT professional’s learn in NexAgent and getting them onto more advanced learning pathways in Project Ares,” says Tony.
“We’re starting to introduce new content for [Project Ares] battle rooms so users coming out of NexAgent can have an understanding of the tools and techniques needed for more advanced learning of cyber defense—and actually apply those tools and techniques in realistic scenarios.”
As the technical subject matter expert for cyber curriculum, Tony digs into the details with his work—and that’s where he shines. Tony and his team ensure that user learning is reflective of today’s cyber attacks and vulnerabilities. In the next iteration of NexAgent, users will be able to focus on network segmentation using election security as the theme for game-play. From separating election polling servers to working with registration databases to designing networks to prevent election fraud, learning becomes much more interesting for the end-user.
The most exciting part about Tony’s job is the diversity of material he gets to work on every day. One day he could be helping end-users of Project Ares identify fraudulent IP addresses in a battle room and another day he could be working on a full-scale technical design of a SCADA system modeled after a cyber incident at a Ukrainian power plant.
By understanding corporate demands for new content, Tony and his team have more direction to build out cyber learning curriculum that aligns to customer’s needs. He believes the technical training he’s able to support with learning material in Circadence’s platforms complements traditional cyber learning paths like obtaining certifications and attending off-site classes. The variety of learning options for users of all cyber ability levels (both technical and non-technical), gives professionals the opportunity to be more thoughtful in their day-to-day lives, more critical and discerning of vulnerabilities and systems, and more creative in how they address threats.
“Knowing that people are able to come into a Circadence product and learn something that they didn’t know before or refine specific knowledge into an application/skill-based path is exciting. I don’t think too much of the greater impact my work provides—but perhaps 10 years down the line when we can say ‘we were the first to gamify and scale cyber training,’ it will mean so much more.”
We are grateful for the unique talents Tony brings to the Circadence family of products and how he’s able to craft learning “chords” that when orchestrated, provide a symphonic concerto of cyber learning activity—empowering cyber professionals across the globe with relevant, persistent, and scalable cyber training options to suit their security needs.
The cyber security workforce gap continues to grow, and the availability of qualified cyber professionals is predicted to decrease in the coming years. In fact, a Cyber Security Workforce Study from the International Information System Security Certification Consortium predicts a shortfall of 1.8 million cyber security workers by 2022. Some resources claim upwards of 3.5 million within the next two years too. While this can feel like impending doom and gloom for the industry, AI, or artificial intelligence, can help to quell the concerns while empowering existing cyber workers.
While many other industries have seen robotic systems replacing the need for human workers, this doesn’t appear to be the case in cyber security. Humans are able to accomplish more when supported by the right set of tools. Allowing AI to support and react to human behavior allows cyber professionals to focus on critical tasks, utilize their expertise to analyze potential threats, and to make informed decisions when rectifying a breach.
How? AI can do the legwork of processing and analyzing data in order to help inform human decision making. If we were to rely completely on AI to manage security risks, it could lead to more vulnerabilities because such systems have high risks for things like program biases, exploitation, and yielding false data. Nevertheless, if utilize and deployed correctly for cyber teams, AI has the ability to automate routine tasks for processionals and augment their responsibilities to lighten the workload.
So, is AI going to take over the jobs of seasoned cyber pros? The answer is no; however, AI will drastically change the kinds of work cyber engineers are doing. In order for IT teams to successfully implement AI technologies, they will need a new category of experts to train the AI technology, run it, and analyze the results. While AI may be great for processing large amounts of data or replacing autonomous manual tasks, it will never be able to replace a security analyst’s insights or understanding of the field. There are some data points that require a level of interpretation that even computers and algorithms can’t quite support yet.
AI can help to fill the workforce gap in the cyber security sector, although it may create a need for new skillsets to be learned by humans in the industry. AI and the human workforce are not in conflict with one another in this field, in fact, they complement each other. Thefuture is bright for AI and humans to work in tandem at the front lines of cyber defense.
For more information, check out our white paper on AI and gamification!
It might surprise you to know that the education industry is a prime target for malicious hackers. While threats in this sector are on the rise, many education institutions are not prepared for a cyber attack nor do they know how to recover from one. In fact, there were 122 cyber attacks last year at 119 K-12 public education institutions, averaging out to an attack every three days. A 2018 Education Cyber Security Report published by SecurityScorecard also found that of 17 industries, the education sector ranked dead last in total cyber security safety. Schools are leaving themselves open to student and faculty identity theft, stolen intellectual property, and extremely high cost data breach reconciliation. In fact, a study done by the Ponemon Institute shows the average cost of a data breach in the education sector is $141 per record leaked.
This industry faces some unique cyber security challenges:
Historically, this industry is based on the free exchange of information, i.e the philosophy that information should be readily available to all. The use of computers and internet in education has allowed information to be stored and accessed in many different ways, creating vulnerabilities in storage, network security, and user error which leaves systems susceptible to hacks.
Students and staff may have limited technical skills and prowess to know how to stay safe online.
Online education systems are highly distributed across multiple schools in a district or across state lines, making it easier to infect one system to gain access to all.
Computer systems used by schools often lack a single application, or “source of truth” to safely manage student and employee identities.
There’s a significant change in the user population every year due to students graduating and new students enrolling, making it difficult to track who is using certain resources and who has access to them.
Remote access is often required, with students and parents accessing systems from home computers and smartphones. When you access an online resource repeatedly from potentially vulnerable or unsecure networks, it creates more opportunity for hacks.
So how can educational institutions better protect themselves against looming cyber threats?
Shift the focus to prevention instead of mitigation – by making the focus on securing data before an attack happens rather than after, organizations will be better prepared to protect students and staff against a breach.
IT directors and security operators within educational institutions would be wise to consider persistent training solutions for their teams to optimize existing cyber skills so they don’t go “stale” after a period of time.
Likewise, perform a security audit and work across departments to understand all the digital systems in place (financial, teacher, student portals, etc.) and where vulnerabilities might exist.
HR departments of institutions should consider updating or adopting employee security awareness training to ensure every education-employed professional working on a computer understands the basics of cyber security and how to stay safe online.
Minimize internal threats – Verizon’s 2019 Data Breach Investigations Report found that nearly 32% of breaches involved phishing and that human error was the causation in 21% of breaches. Proper and continued training and awareness around security issues is key in preventing possible attacks.
Make cyber security a priority in IT budgeting – Schools and other educational institutions need to recognize the growing cyber threatscape and prioritize allocating funds to training tools, IT teams, and continued education for internal staff.
Circadence is here to help. Our immersive, gamified cyber learning platform, Project Ares, can help ensure that your cyber team is ready to defend against malicious attacks, and our inCyt product (coming soon!) will keep everyone else in your organization up to snuff on cyber defense and offense. We pair gamification with prolonged learning methods to make learning and retaining cyber security tactics simple and fun for all. Don’t let your institution and students be next in line for a breach–think inCyt, and Project Ares when you think cyber security for the education sector!
If you’re still looking for more information on education and cyber security, check out these handy references:
There’s never a dull moment at work for Circadence Software Engineer Raeschel Reed. Between learning ways to use new technology, improving coding techniques, and operationalizing cyber innovations, Raeschel is a critical part to the success of the company’s product suite.
She currently works on Orion, a curriculum development application that allows learning coordinators or security managers to customize cyber training exercises based on specific needs. Raeschel has been a part of the Orion development team for over nine months, working on the back-end operations to create the logic behind the functionality. The best part about working on this product is the level of collaboration Raeschel gets to experience.
“We do a lot of pair-programming on Orion, where we work in groups of two or three to move tasks along quickly. Everyone has good ideas to share and suggestions that build on one another and it helps expediate the problem-solving aspect of software engineering,” she said.
Prior to joining Circadence, she served as a senior software developer supporting the Naval Integrated Tactical Environmental System Next Generation and before that, at the Battelle Memorial Institute supporting various government contracts for the Department of Defense and Homeland Security. Those experiences helped her learn critical technical skills and computer languages that diversified her understanding of programming and software development. She’s also an alumnus of George Mason University (master’s degree in Computer Science) and Mary Washington College (bachelor’s in Computer Science).
For Raeschel, the process of working with and applying a new tech stack like Kubernetes, back-end tools like Golang (an open-source programming language), and working in Azure, keep the act of software development truly unique and on the cutting-edge of innovation.
While unique hobbies like soccer, sewing and improv feed her need to try new things, it is the tech industry she keeps returning to for career fulfillment.
“Tech stuff I keep coming back to,” she said. “I have a growth mindset where I want to keep learning new things and trying new things and the field of cyber allows me to do that.”
And if that wasn’t enough for Raeschel to feel inspired and innovative at Circadence, the team she works with is second to none in her eyes.
“Team Orion is the BEST!” she exclaimed. “I feel very fortunate to be here and to have found ‘my people.’ Mondays never feel like Mondays.”
The journey to cybersecurity engineer has been an exciting one for Circadence’s TS Reed. The former baseball pro turned security tech expert found his passion for problem solving at Circadence. After completing an undergraduate degree in criminology at Cal State Northridge, he pursued a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at CSUN and then a master’s in cybersecurity engineering from the University of San Diego.
TS started as an intern at Circadence and was quickly onboarded as a full-time employee for his technical prowess, adaptability, and knowledge of modern security functions and processes. For the past three years at Circadence, TS has monitored the company’s network security, tested the security of its products (including Project Ares) and learned how and what to look for to stay one step ahead of attackers.
“It’s impossible to be bored in this job. Security is always changing: the way people build it, the way people attack it. You have to continuously learn and teach yourself the latest and greatest practices,” said TS.
But cybersecurity management wasn’t always in the stars for TS. Prior to joining Circadence, TS coached division one baseball at the University of San Diego and was also an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith. A Cal State Northridge Alum, TS was a well-respected baseball player, hitting home runs in the athletic industry (named a CIF California Player of the Year and a Division 1 All-American at CSUN) with the fourth highest batting average at the 2008 Big West Conference. After college he went on to play one year of professional baseball in St. Louis for the Gateway Grizzlies of the Frontier League.
He traded in his baseball cleats for cybersecurity after discovering the inherent problem-solving nature of the field—a part of the job that greatly intrigued TS to dive into a completely new field of study and long-term career trajectory.
For TS, one of the best ways to “win the game” in the security field is to think like a hacker. By understanding what vulnerabilities they look for to exploit and why, security engineers like TS, know how to harden systems and deploy preventative measures beforehand. And while open forum online communities help TS and other security professionals “understand the mind of a hacker” there is always a level of uncertainty he has to deal with.
“Hackers are attacking constantly and finding new ways to infiltrate networks,” said TS. “We have to stay as close to them as possible,” he adds.
While TS’ professional journey has been unconventional at best, he has noticed many lessons from his baseball career that have translated into the cyber arena.
“Teamwork is huge; I learned early on in baseball that every teammate receives things differently. You have to take the time and care enough to figure out how your team members communicate. [In cyber security], everyone communicates differently too. Both in receiving communication and externally communicating. Step one is always getting a feel for that in order to be as effective as possible when communicating with teammates/team members.”
Likewise, TS learned that in baseball, a player’s own skill level and performance weren’t the sole indicator of how “good” a teammate was. The greatest measure, he says, is how effective one is at making others better and serving them.
“To be good at and handle your job is one thing but whenever you have a team involved, the greatest measure of a player or cyber employee is the capability to lift up those around them and make them better,” he advises. Empowering teammates, teaching them, and learning from them is the approach he lives by at Circadence.
We are proud to have TS as part of the Circadence family and know while he’s not hitting balls out of the park at the stadium, he’s hitting home runs with Circadence, hardening its cyber security posture.
Happy National Cyber Security Awareness Month! We all know that cyber security isn’t just a month-long focus area for businesses and individuals—but this month, we are grateful for the collaborative effort between government entity Department of Homeland Security and the National Cyber Security Alliance that together, place a lens on cyber (as an industry, strategy, and operation). It reminds us that the industry is persistent and impacts us all, and is not siloed into a single time span, or targeted to a specific industry or person. We know this because of data cyberattacks on businesses occurring every day, the continual discussion about the cyber talent “gap” and lack of holistically-trained workforce, and because of the ineffectiveness of passive-learning training models many professionals are exposed to today. Nevertheless, as the world draws its attention around cyber in October and the industry evolves to better serve today’s professionals and businesses, we wanted to communicate the critical idea that cyber really IS for all as we strive to make cyber awareness learning accessible, intentional, and effective.
Making cyber learning accessible
We believe there are three ways to make cyber learning more accessible: providing a comprehensive learning curriculum, making it available via a browser, and using gamification as a tool for ingesting and retaining new information.
Before we dive into each of those areas, let’s get more context about the concept of cyber learning itself. For a long time, cyber security has been thought of as a technical career and while there is a great deal of technical prowess that goes into the day-to-day tasks of a cyber pro, the idea of cyber security being an “anyone can do it” profession hasn’t popularized – and rightly so.
With roots in the military and government (cyber range training), learning cyber security has been a structured, systematic, and data-driven process typically executed in a passive learning setting where students watch or listen and then take a test at the end of the lesson. There is minimal opportunity for hands-on practice in safe and secure environments, making cyber security learning and awareness of its purpose, value, and function a little more ethereal than we in the industry would like.
Comprehensive Learning Curriculum
One way to ensure “cyber for all” (our rally cry this year), is to make cyber training more readily available to reach today’s learner (the next generation of cyber pros) while injecting a touch of personal accountability toward the concept. This should include a learning curriculum that addresses:
– General awareness topics: These are topics that are broadly applicable to all employees of an organization and ones they should know regardless of IT level or expertise. Cyber security awareness topics at this level might include phishing, malware, social engineering, identity theft, removable media security, insider threats, social media vulnerabilities, etc.
– Industry-focused topics: relevant cyber security issues segmented by industry where security is a priority, especially highly regulated sectors like healthcare, government and industry, finance, election security, manufacturing, electricity, etc.
– Executive level topics: more functional/business topic areas where corporate leaders and other high-risk personnel and privilege users are impacted. Cyber security awareness topics at this level might include support/maintenance, consulting, managed services, legislation, risk assessment, etc.
By offering pathways upon which interested cyber enthusiasts or seasoned pros can “walk along,” it gives learners an idea as to how to develop their knowledge and skills. Further, cyber learning and awareness becomes more accessible because there is a route—or cyber learning journey—for everyone to choose.
The other component to ensure learning cyber awareness is accessible is by making the act of learning available to virtually anyone—via a browser. Online trainings today are quite popular for cyber enthusiasts and pros in training who want to hone their skills—and the idea of being able to access a cyber security course or activity online without having to leave the office or home is not only convenient but preferred these days. Some companies (like ours) are taking cyber training a step further by placing it in the cloud (Microsoft Azure) so learning can be scalable, more collaborative, and more customizable to learner needs.
Gamified Cyber Learning
Finally, cyber awareness learning can be attained by making learning fun. We do this with elements of gamification, which engage and inspire learners to train in environments that are not only realistic but also supported by a compelling narrative that invites players to progress through activities. Components like leaderboards, points, badges, and team-based collaboration allow learners to build a sense of “healthy competition” while learning and building skills and cyber competencies. Circadence offers learners of all skill levels various game-based activities from foundational concept learning in games like RegExile to application and analysis in Project Ares’ battle rooms and missions.
One student who played our RegExile cyber learning game in his cyber security course at CU Boulder said:
“I played the RegExile game today and I have to say I have hated regex till now, but when I learned it through the game, I actually liked it. It was really fun. I liked the concept of how a false sense of impending danger from the robots can make you think better and learn more. I was typing out my regex and actually thinking quite hard on how it could work and what I could do to make sure it was right as I did not want to lose the shield. I learned more through this game on regex than what I had in my undergrad class.” ~ Student at CU Boulder Cyber Security Course
Make Cyber Learning Intentional
Cyber learning has to be intentional. In order for students and existing cyber pros to get the most out of their training, they need a curriculum path that is not only diverse (based on skill needs), but also one that addresses all phases of learning: knowledge, comprehension, application/analysis, and synthesis/evaluation.
Can we insert an image that illustrates the “learning phases” of knowledge, comprehension, application/analysis, and synthesis/evaluation?
After understanding what cyber concepts are and how they impact our professional and personal lives (knowledge and comprehension), a learner needs to be able to build their cyber literacy and knowledge “essentials” by developing baseline cyber skills (application/analysis). Then, they can apply those skills in objective-based activities that synthesize concepts (evaluation).
“I personally found Project Ares to be a great learning experience and thought the mission environment was seamless.” ~ Chris N. UNCW Cyber Security Operations Club
Making Cyber Learning Effective
For IT Security Specialists and professionals, cyber learners can advance their competencies via recurring role-based trainingcombined with continuing education and real-world experience trainings. Cyber learning needs to be rooted in best practice, industry-defined frameworks and there’s no better model to follow than the framework set forth by the NIST/NICE organization.
By aligning learning curriculum against work roles, learning concepts and skills inherently becomes more effective because it is RELEVANT for people. They learn concepts, how to apply them and can draw connections to how those concepts apply to their own jobs or jobs they aspire to. Further, the learning permeates into individual’s personal lives as well, enhancing cybersecurity at home.
We have built-in five NIST/NICE work roles that are present in Project Ares for trainees to work toward including:
– Cyber Defense Infrastructure Support Specialist
– Information Systems Security Manager
– Threat Warning Analyst
– Systems Security Analyst
– Cyber Defense Analyst
Intentional cyber learning following this framework focuses on a particular technical topic, such as Incident and Event Management, Identification of Privilege Escalation Techniques, or Elections and Voting Security. This type of work role specification helps make learning cyber a reality.
Summing it up
While there’s no switch to turn on every part of this “cyber for all” plan, we hope it helps shed light on ways security leaders and HR directors can begin to cultivate an inclusive cyber culture in their own workplace, among their own teams. As we celebrate National Cyber Security Awareness Month (NCSAM 2019), it’s important for us to resurface conversations around what it means to actually be aware and how we can manifest that meaning into something that really makes an impact on business’ security posture. We hope this post is one inspiration to start initiating those conversations around shared responsibility to ensure all Americans stay safe.
Are you looking for a more effective, cost-conscious cyber training tool that actually teaches competencies and cyber skills? We’ve been there. Let us share our perspective on the top cyber training alternatives to complement or supplement your organization’s current training efforts.
Cyber training has evolved over the years but not at pace with the rapid persistence of cybercrime. Cyberattacks impact businesses of all sizes and it’s only a matter of time before your business is next in line. Traditional cyber training has been comprised of individuals sitting in a classroom environment, off-site, reading static materials, listening to lectures, and if you’re lucky, performing step-by-step, prescriptive tasks to “upskill” and “learn.” Unfortunately, this model isn’t working anymore. Learners are not retaining concepts and are disengaged from the learning process. This means by the time they make it back to your company to defend your networks, they’ve likely forgotten most of the new concepts that you sent them to learn about in the first place. Read more on the disadvantages of passive cyber training here.
So, what cyber training alternatives are available for building competency and skill among professionals? More importantly, why do you need a better way to train professionals? We hope this blog helps answer these questions.
Cyber Range Training
Cyber ranges provide trainees with simulated (highly scalable, small number of servers) or emulated (high fidelity testing using real computers, OS, and application) environments to practice skills such as defending networks, hardening critical infrastructure (ICS/SCADA) and responding to attacks. They simulate realistic technical settings for professionals to practice network configurations and detect abnormalities and anomalies in computer systems. While simulated ranges are considered more affordable than emulated ranges, several academic papers question whether test results from a simulation reflect a cyber pro’s workplace reality.
Traditional Cyber Security Training
Courses can be taken in a classroom setting from certified instructors (like a SANS course), self-paced over the Internet, or in mentored settings in cities around the world. Several organizations offer online classes too, for professionals looking to hone their skills in their specific work role (e.g. incident response analyst, ethical hacker). Online or in-classroom training environments are almost exclusively built to cater to offensive-type cyber security practices and are highly prescriptive when it comes to the learning and the process for submitting “answers”/ scoring.
However, as cyber security proves to be largely a “learn by doing” skillset, where outside-of-the-box thinking, real-world, high fidelity virtual environments, and on-going training are crucially important, attendees of traditional course trainings are often left searching for more cross-disciplined opportunities to hone their craft over the long term. Nevertheless, online trainings prove a good first step for professionals who want foundational learnings from which they can build upon with more sophisticated tools and technologies.
Gamified, Cyber Range, Cloud-Based Training
It wouldn’t be our blog if we didn’t mention Project Ares as a recommended, next generation alternative to traditional cyber training for professionals because it uses gamified backstories to engage learners in activities. And, it combines the benefits and convenience of online, cyber range training with the power of AI and machine learning to automate and augment trainee’s cyber competencies.
Our goal is to create a learning experience that is engaging, immersive, fun, and challenges trainee thinking in ways most authentic to cyber scenarios they’d experience in their actual jobs.
Check out the comparison table below for details on the differences between traditional training models and what Project Ares delivers.
(classroom and online delivery of lectured based material)
(immersive environment for hands on, experiential learning)
Instructors are generally experts in their field and exceptional classroom facilitators.
Often hired to develop a specific course.
It can take up to a year to build a course and it might be used for as long as 5 years, with updates.
Instructors are challenged to keep pace with evolving threats and to update course material frequently enough to reflect today’s attack surface in real time.
It is taught the same way every time.
Cyber subject matter experts partner with instructional design specialists to reengineer real-world threat scenarios into immersive, learning-based exercises.
An in-game advisor serves as a resource for players to guide them through activities, minimizing the need for physical instructors and subsequent overhead.
Project Ares is drawn from real-world threats and attacks, so content is always relevant and updated to meet user’s needs.
Courses are often concept-specific going deep on a narrow subject. And it can take multiple courses to cover a whole subject area.
Students take the whole course or watch the whole video – for example, if a student knows 70%, they sit through that to get to the 30% that is new to them.
On Demand materials are available for reference (sometimes for an additional fee) and are helpful for review of complex concepts. But this does not help student put the concepts into practice.
Most courses teach offensive concepts….from the viewpoint that it is easier to teach how to break the network and then assumes that students will figure out how to ‘re-engineer’ defense. This approach can build a deep foundational understanding of concepts but it is not tempered by practical ‘application’ until students are back home facing real defensive challenges.
Wherever a user is in his/her cyber security career path, Project Ares meets them at their level and provides a curriculum pathway.
From skills to strategy: Students / Players can use the Project Ares platform to refresh skills, learn new skills, test their capabilities on their own and, most critically, collaborate with teammates to combine techniques and critical thinking to successfully reach the end of a mission.
It takes a village to defend a network, sensitive data, executive leaders, finances, and an enterprises reputation: This approach teaches and enables experience of the many and multiple skills and job roles that come together in the real-world to detect and respond to threats and attacks….
Project Ares creates challenging environments that demand the kind of problem solving and strategic thinking necessary to create an effective and evolving defensive posture
Project Ares Battle Rooms and Missions present real-world problems that need to be solved, not just answered. It is a higher-level learning approach.
If there’s anyone who truly embodies the art of gamification, Hector Robles name just might top that list. As a lead game designer at Circadence, Hector works closely with the company’s content and curriculum departments to take complex cyber concepts and learning paths and artistically weaving them into fun cyber games that make learning desirable.
Hector has more than nine years of professional experience in the game design and cyber security/tech space, but his career wasn’t always rooted in making games for companies. In fact, after graduating from high school, Hector proudly served in the U.S. Army, as a military police officer. It was there he gained an understanding of and appreciation for the importance of security as a whole. Hector saw firsthand how proliferating technology impacted both civilian security and military security operations. After his service, Hector followed his interest and passion for game design by attending the Miami International University of Art and Design and graduating with a degree in game design. Then, he began working with media conglomerates and startup companies as a designer, producer, and artist.
But something was missing. While Hector was accumulating an impressive portfolio of entertainment game design work, he sought something more meaningful—a way to apply his skills in game design to help others. It was then he learned about Circadence and joined the game development team alongside colleagues Kari Sershon, Ronaldo Periera and Jose Velazquez.
Hector has worked on Circadence’s flagship platform Project Ares, specifically the cyber learning games embedded within it. The cyber learning games that Hector has designed will also soon become a part of the CyberBridge Essentials learning hub for wider customer access. Hector’s work can be seen most poignantly in Circadence’s new 2019 game, RegExile, which teaches players how to do regular expression coding work. RegExile helps players learn the syntax of regular expressions so they can efficiently parse through the data in search of evidence of a breach. It is a fast-paced pattern-recognition game that teaches the concepts of regular expression while exercising player’s muscle memory and reaction time. The game challenges players to form the correct expression to select or exclude data while immersing them in a futuristic “save the world” scenario filled with human-destroying robots. Players must recognize patterns in the names and type proper RegEx techniques to eliminate robots before they destroy the colony.
For Hector, designing games like this is fulfilling. “It’s a completely different beast from entertainment game design. It’s meaningful to take complex cyber concepts and turn them into fun, interactive, easily-digestible material for players—whether it’s people just starting out in cyber security or seasoned professionals looking to brush up on skills,” Hector says.
Hector typically approaches new game development by first thinking about how to make a certain concept or task in cyber “fun.” He does a lot of game research to come up with ideas of new game play designs and layouts. The research, which may include playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons to get the cognitive juices flowing, playing an arcade style game to think of narrative storylines and actions, or even breaking out a board game with friends, sparks Hector’s imagination and creativity. Once he has an idea of what kind of game he wants to create to teach the cyber concept that the Circadence Curriculum team has outlined, he develops a one-page pitch for stakeholders that presents his ideas cohesively, including details on game objectives, purpose, and technical specifications. After approval, the fun begins! Hector and his team start prototyping features and components of the game to make the ideas on paper become reality. For RegExile, he planned out the movement of the robots in the game by moving game board pieces around to capture an authentic “in game” feeling for the player.
“I try to always think about what games are out there and how we can make our games truly unique,” says Hector. “We’re constantly thinking about things like accessibility, narrative, and pacing to ensure our games aren’t just entertaining, but that people are really learning from them,” he adds.
Hector is also working on augmented reality and virtual reality card games where players can learn cyber security concepts in industry-specific settings like oil rigs and power plants to further engage one’s understanding of different cyber threats and defense tactics in the cyber kill chain. Users will eventually be able to use physical playing cards to learn things like ports and protocols too. Stay tuned for more on that!
While some may view Hector’s work as all fun and games, it does have a meaningful component that many end-users don’t think about at first. When someone logs onto a game, they are presented with audio/visual and text-based cues to inspire their behavior or ignite an action. Those cues are what allow a player to understand how to engage and act in a game setting, so they are not confused as to what to do or how to do something. Hector’s work takes the guessing out of game play for Circadence’s products. Players who engage with a cyber learning game like RegExile know immediately how to play the game and what the objective is without having to jump through hurdles or be confused at where to start. Thank Hector and his team for that!
“When they get to the platform, they know what to do, the basics of the tool, and more of the narrative and understanding of how they’ll engage with it,” said Hector. “It’s the components we build into the game that allow them to feel empowered when they hit “play” to start,” he adds.
It’s Hector’s team’s expertise behind the coding work, gamification elements, and user interface that comes together to create the best user experience for the player. The art of gamification not only engages and entertains, but it inspires, teaches, and instills cyber knowledge in the minds of players who want to grow in cyber competency and skill.
“Seeing someone’s face light up when they play our games brings a smile to my face,” says Hector. “At first they’re hesitant but then they start playing and there is a moment of clarity that washes over their face that makes the time and energy put into our games all worth it.”
Hector believes the best way to learn is by playing games. That’s what ‘living our mission’ at Circadence is all about. The power of games can cement cyber concepts and we look forward to seeing what Hector and his team whip up next to keep professionals and first-time cyber learners coming back for more knowledge and skill building.
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.
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!