Living Our Mission: Building a Roadmap to Bring Product Vision to Reality with Circadence’s Raj Kutty

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This installment of the “Living our Mission” blog series features Circadence’s Rajani “Raj” Kutty, Senior Product Manager.  

Raj is fascinated by technology’s evolution in the marketplace and that interest has informed her career path toward success. She achieved her masters degree in computer science from University of Pennsylvania in 2003. From there, she spent 15-16 years in the tech industry and has always been interested in the everchanging advancements in technology. Her tech background consists of Java programming, business analysis and product management. In the beginning of her career, she worked on mobile app designs, web app development, and programming for various industries including finance, insurance, retail, and more. For the last 10 years, she’s moved into the direction of product management. Her shift into this area began because she enjoys building a roadmap for product development and seeing it through the various stages from identifying a problem in the market, and creating a product that solves pain points for customers. Her experience working with many different industries provides an advantage to Circadence since she has a first-hand understanding of why these businesses can benefit from additional cyber security training to protect company assets.

Raj started at Circadence about 7 months ago and was immediately captivated by the concept of cyber readiness and the security industry as a whole. Throughout her profession, she noticed a growing issue many companies faced: a lack of cyber security awareness and training. Over the years, she heard a lot about the cyber workforce shortage and knew the first step to creating a solution for this problem was to get the user engaged with the right type of training. In her mind, if the user is engaged in training, then it would result in better cyber defense for the organization. Her previous work experience, thoughts about cyber security readiness and ideas around engaged training were validated when she heard what Circadence was doing to help companies be “cyber ready” using gamified learning platforms. In the past, training would consist of a video, classroom lecture or reading textbooks- something dry and boring, she said. Raj felt Circadence offered a unique solution to get people interested in cyber security, which could lead to more strategic cyber defense performance and possibly minimize the cyber workforce gap.

“Training has to be fun and interesting to the user, while still being effective. I feel like Circadence is offering this to the cyber workforce in a game-play mode, which is more engaging for the user.”

Day to day, Raj works with different departments and team members at Circadence developing product strategy and bringing a product roadmap to life. Her knowledge across many industries helps ensure our products meet the needs of different organizations, while still maintaining in-depth cyber training and ease-of-use for the customer. Much like planning a road trip, which requires knowledge of route to destination, Raj leads her team every day by investigating and communicating strategy and plans to determine where they need to go next to bring the product to market.

Her main focus over the last couple months has been a new portal Circadence is developing called CyberBridge. CyberBridge is the entry point at which users can access all Circadence cyber learning platforms including Project Ares®, inCyt®, Orion® and more. It’s a global SaaS platform that offers different types of cyber training content for different markets.

“I love that I get to help design a product that addresses the cyber challenges across different industries and the ability to provide a readiness solution pertinent to each sector’s security pain points.”

The products Raj helps map to market fulfills her goal of bringing much-needed cyber awareness and training solutions to everyone and every business. Her perspective: With every tech integration, Bluetooth connection, and device-to-device communication we implement to make our working lives easier, we inherently increase our cyber risk as our attack surface widens. There are no signs of a slowing tech usage, hence why the importance of cyber awareness continues to grow each day. When we talk about how businesses need to protect themselves, we’re really talking about the people of a business, since people are what make up a company. In today’s world of escalating cyber threats, it’s everyone’s responsibly to gain cyber awareness to protect a company.

“Cybersecurity is like community immunity, when everyone gets vaccinated, we are improving and protecting our greater community, and cyber security works the same way.”

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Microsoft Security Blog: Rethinking cyber scenarios—learning (and training) as you defend

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In this third and final post in the series, Microsoft’s Mark McIntyre addresses more advanced SecOps scenarios that an experienced cyber practitioner would be concerned with understanding.

Human Resources Takes on Cyber Readiness: How to Mitigate Cyber Risks with Security Awareness Training

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Every year hackers come out of the woodwork to target various companies, specifically around the holiday season. In fact, cyber attacks are estimated to increase by as much as 50 – 60% over the holidays. With staff often spread thin and consumers taking advantage of online shopping and banking for added convenience, the timing is perfect for HR professionals to stay vigilant with how they onboard new employees with cyber education while encouraging good cyber hygiene among existing colleagues. Understanding the risks employees come across while online, how to train them to detect and mitigate these risks, and how you as an HR manager can ensure continued efforts to harden security posture will make you a cyber safety hero this holiday season!

While IT and cyber professionals are primarily responsible for securing a company’s networks and ensuring teams are up to snuff, the reality is that cyber risk extends beyond what occurs in the server room. Human error continues to be one of the top reasons cyber attacks are successful. This means that not only do security teams need to be trained, but cyber training across every department, with every employee who works on a computer, is essential to obtain and maintain good cyber hygiene across the company. If every employee in your organization understands how their actions can impact overall company security, more personal responsibility will be taken to maintain cyber safety.

Don’t fret! HR professionals need not be masters in cyber security. There are great tools out there to help anyone learn the basics and be able to share their foundational learning with others. So, what are some of the things you can learn and train employees on to mitigate attacks?

  • Phishing emails – With inboxes flooded daily, it can be hard to spot potential threats in emails. Hackers send targeted emails that may address a work-related matter from a co-worker or manager. One click on the wrong email, and you could be infecting your business device with malware. It is important every employee understand what suspicious emails “look” like and how to avoid nefarious click bait.
  • Using company devices for personal work – It’s an easy thing to do – grab a work device off the counter and start online shopping, emailing friends and family, or finally getting around to baking that chocolate chip cookie recipe from Martha Stewart. However, accessing un-secured sites and opening personal, and potentially phishing, emails on a work computer puts companies at risk. As an HR manager, you must recognize this common occurrence and be able to speak to it with your staff. If a hacker is able to gain access to a business computer through an employee’s personal use, they gain access to all of the company information on that employee’s device as well.
  • Using personal devices to conduct business – The same can be said for using personal devices to conduct business. It can be difficult to “turn off” after work hours and many employees answer some work emails on their cell phone, or load a work document on his/her personal tablet or laptop. When company staff access potentially sensitive business documents on their personal device, they risk leaking that information to a hacker. To prevent attacks company-wide, HR pros must be aware of how often this type of behavior occurs and work closely with their IT department to learn how company networks are secured when remote access is granted to employees outside of home and work IP addresses.

HR managers: Spread good cyber hygiene!

Security awareness training is becoming increasingly prevalent at companies that know what it takes to have good cyber hygiene. According to a recent report by Infosec, about 53% of U.S companies have some form of security awareness training in place. While this is still barely over half, it’s a start. So what can you do to rank among companies leading the charge in cyber security?

  • Offer continuous training – Cyber security awareness training is not a “one and done” event. This kind of training should continue throughout the year, at all levels of an organization, and be specific to different job roles within the company. Technology is always changing, which means the threatscape is too. When you are battling a constantly shifting enemy, your employees need to be vigilantly trained to understand each shift.
  • Perform “live fire” training exercisesLive fire exercises (LFX) happen when users undergo a simulated cyber attack specific to their job or industry. One example is having your IT department send out a phishing email. See how many people click on it and show them how easily they could have been hacked. This data can be used to show progress, tailor problem areas, and train to specific threats as needed.
  • Stress the importance of security at work and at home – Showing employees the benefit of cyber awareness in the workplace translates to awareness at home as well. Help prospective and existing employees gain a wide breadth of understanding about cyber best practices by making learning approachable instead of unattainable or intimidating.
  • Reward good cyber hygiene – Reward employees who find malicious emails or other threats with your company’s IT team and share success stories of how employees helped thwart security issues with vigilant “eyes” on suspicious activity. Equally, it is important to also empathize with employees who make mistakes and give them the tools to learn from their mistakes. Many employees receive hundreds of emails each day, and while training tips and education are helpful tools, it is not a perfect solution.

Training employees to be cyber aware can be difficult unless a structured program and management strategy is in place. We’re here to help! Circadence’s security awareness platform, inCyt, is coming soon! inCyt allows employees to compete in cyber-themed battles and empowers them to understand professional and personal cyber responsibility. By cultivating safe cyber practices in virtual environments, HR managers can increase security awareness and reduce risks to the business.

To learn more and stay in the know for upcoming product launches, visit www.circadence.com

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Living our Mission: Project Ares Takes Full Flight with Cloud-Native Architecture

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According to CIO magazine, about 96% of organizations use cloud services in one way or another. In partnership with Microsoft, we are proud to announce that Circadence has redesigned its Project Ares cyber learning platform to fully leverage a cloud-native design on Microsoft Azure.  This new, flexible architecture improves cyber training to be even more customized, scalable, accessible, and relevant for today’s professionals.

This transition to cloud infrastructure will yield immediate impacts to our current customers.

  • Increased speeds to launch cyber learning battle rooms and missions
  • Greater ability to onboard more trainees to the system from virtually any location
  • More access to cyber training content that suits their security needs and professional development interests

Proven success at Microsoft Ignite

At the recent Microsoft Ignite conference (November 2019), more than 500 security professionals had the opportunity to use the enhanced platform.  Conference participants set up CyberBridge accounts and then played customized battle rooms in Project Ares. Microsoft cloud-based Azure security solutions were integrated into the cloud-based cyber range to provide an immersive “cloud-in-cloud” sandboxed learning experience that realistically aligned to phases of a ransomware attack.  The new version of Project Ares sustained weeklong intensive usage while delivering on performance. 

So what’s new in the new and improved Project Ares?

Curriculum Access Controls for Tailored Cyber Learning

One of the biggest enhancements for Project Ares clients is that they can now control permissions for  training exercises and solution access at the user level. Customer Administrators will use the new CyberBridge management portal to tailor access to Circadence training exercises for individual users or groups of users.

Single-sign-on through CyberBridge enables the alignment of training exercises to individuals based on their unique learning requirements including:

  • Cyber skill-building exercises and complex missions within Project Ares for cyber professionals
  • Cyber foundation learning with Cyber Essentials tools for the IT team
  • Security awareness training with inCyt for general staff

Cyber Essential learning tools and the inCyt game for security awareness will be added to CyberBridge over the next several months. With the capability to pre-select training activities reflective of a company’s overall security strategy, enterprise security managers can call the shots.

“As the administrator, you now choose what curriculum content your team should have. “This provides more flexibility in cyber training for our customers in terms of what they can expose to their teams.” ~ Rajani Kutty, Senior Product Manager for CyberBridge at Circadence.

Greater Scalability and Performance in Cyber Training

With a cloud-native architecture design, Project Ares can support more simultaneous users on the platform than ever before. Project Ares can now handle over 1,000 concurrent users, a significant improvement over historical capacity of 200-250 concurrent users on the platform.  The combination of  content access control at the group or individual level and the increased scalability of Project Ares creates a solution that effectively spins up cyber ranges with built-in learning exercises for teams and enterprises of any size.  Additionally, this means that no matter where a cyber learner is geographically, they can log on to Project Ares and access training quickly. We see this as similar to the scalability and accessibility of any large global content provider (e.g. Netflix)—in that users who have accounts can log in virtually anywhere in the world at multiple times and access their accounts.

Now that Project Ares can support a greater volume of users on the platform, activities like hosting cyber competitions and events for experts and aspiring security professionals can be done on-demand and at scale.

“We can train more people in cyber than ever before and that is so impactful when we remember the industry’s challenges in workforce gaps and skills deficiencies.” ~ Paul Ellis, Project Ares Senior Product Manager at Circadence

The previous design of Project Ares required placing users in “enclaves” or groups when they signed on to the system to ensure the content within could be loaded quickly without delay. Now, everyone can sign in at any time and have access to learning without loading delays. It doesn’t even matter if multiple people are accessing the same mission or battle room at the same time. Their individual experience loading and playing the exercise won’t be compromised because of increased user activity.

Other performance improvements made to this version of Project Ares include:

  • Quicker download speeds of cyber exercises
  • Use of less memory on user’s computers, and resulting longer battery life for users, thanks to lower CPU utilization.
  • These behind-the-scenes improvements mean that training can happen quicker and learning, faster.

New Cyber Training Content

One new Mission and three new Battle Rooms will be deployed throughout the next few months on this new version of Project Ares.

  • Mission 15, Operation Raging Mammoth, showcases how to protect against an Election attack
  • Battle Rooms 19 and 20 feature Splunk Enterprise installation, configuration, and fundamentals
  • Battle Room 21 teaches Powershell cmdlet (pronounced command-lets) basics

Mission 15 has been developed from many discussions about 2020 election security given past reports of Russian hacktivist groups interfering with the 2016 U.S. election.  In Operation Raging Mammoth, users are tasked to monitor voting-related systems. In order to identify anomalies, players must first establish a baseline of normal activity and configurations. Any changes to administrator access or attempt to modify voter registration information must be quickly detected and reported to authorities. Like all Project Ares Missions, the exercise aligns with NIST/NICE work roles, specifically Cyber Defense Analyst, Cyber Defense Incident Responder, Threat/Warning analyst.

Battle Rooms 19 and 20 focuses on using Splunk software to assist IT and security teams to get the most out of their security tools by enabling log aggregation of event data from across an environment into a single repository of critical security insights. Teaching cyber pros how to configure and use this tool helps them identify issues faster so they can resolve them more efficiently to stop threats and attacks.

Battle Room 21 teaches cmdlet lightweight commands used in PowerShell.  PowerShell is a command-line (CLI) scripting language developed by Microsoft to simplify automation and configuration management, consisting of a command-line shell and associated scripting language. With PowerShell, network analysts can obtain all the information they need to solve problems they detect in an environment. Microsoft notes that PowerShell also makes learning other programming languages like C# easier.

Embracing Cloud Capabilities for Continual Cyber Training

Circadence embraces all the capabilities the cloud provides and is pleased to launch the latest version of Project Ares that furthers our vision to provide sustainable, scalable, adaptable cyber training and learning opportunities to professionals so they can combat evolving threats in their workplace and in their personal lives.

As this upward trend in cloud utilization becomes ever-more prevalent, security teams of all sizes need to adapt their strategies to acknowledge the adoption of the cloud and train persistently in Project Ares. You can bet that as more people convene in the cloud, malicious hackers are not far behind them, looking for ways to exploit it. By continually innovating in Project Ares, we hope professionals all over the globe can better manage their networks in the cloud and protect them from attackers.

Rethinking cyber learning—consider gamification

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This post originally appeared on Microsoft’s Security Blog, authored by Mark McIntyre, Executive Security Advisor, Enterprise Cybersecurity Group

Living our Mission Blog Series: How Tony Hammerling, Curriculum Developer, Orchestrates a Symphony of Cyber Learning at Circadence

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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.

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Why Cyber Security is Important for Higher Education Institutions

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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:

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Living Our Mission: Embracing the Art of Gamification with Hector Robles, Lead Game Designer at Circadence

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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.

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!