TAMPA – A new cohort of cyber threat hunters are among the thousands of University of South Florida students who graduated this spring.
The group of 44 students — all with an interest in pursuing a career in the cybersecurity field — took part in the 2023 ReliaQuest Labs. The program, in its fifth and final year of the cybersecurity firm’s $1 million dollar partnership gift with USF's Muma College of Business, is an intensive training lab where industry experts from ReliaQuest teach students how to detect and neutralize cyber threats.
Since 2018, the program has graduated more than 350 students over seven cohorts in an effort to fill the immense talent gap in the cybersecurity industry. For the first two years, organizers held the lab in the fall and spring semester.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for information security analyst jobs is expected to grow by 35% through 2031, much faster than the average for all jobs.
The six-week program is designed to sharpen a student’s cybersecurity and incident response skills by working alongside industry experts at ReliaQuest who serve as mentors. The curriculum is split into four hands-on labs and teaches participants how to perform in-depth analyses on potential cyber threats.
Program developers said the 2023 iteration of the labs offered its most challenging curriculum and was designed to give students a hands-on approach with added time working in small groups with their mentors.
“My time with ReliaQuest Labs was an amazing eye-opening experience,” said Matthew Reeder, a USF graduate student who completed the 2023 ReliaQuest Labs. “Seeing the pace things can move and the knowledge and skill required to do what the analysts and threat hunters do help me understand the necessary tools to succeed.”
Reeder is earning a master’s degree in Information Assurance and Cybersecurity Management at USF. He applied for the labs to get real-world experience for his future profession. The most useful things he gained were the experience, knowledge and insight provided by the mentors, he said.
Fellow cohort graduate Johnson Simon agreed.
“Given my non-cyber background, there was a lot of learning in each class for me,” he said. “But the in-depth course material, excellent mentorship, and hands-on experience using real-time scenarios made it so much easier.”
Simon is a master’s student majoring in Business Analytics and Information Systems at USF. He has a background in application development and analytics, and understands the importance of security in information and networks.
Simon said he graduated from the program with an appreciation not only for hunting down cyber threats, but for the learning and growth-focused culture that the ReliaQuest Labs instilled.
“It’s the little things that ReliaQuest does that showed us how much they care,” he said. “I liked how they started every ReliaQuest lab session with a mindset moment. It helped us calm down and tune into the program.”
At the cohort’s April 28 graduation, participants were given time to reflect on the experience. Many thanked their mentors and spoke about learning the importance of not being afraid to fail at something.
Mike McPherson, senior vice president of security operations at ReliaQuest, encouraged graduates to take the hands-on experience learned in the labs as a first step in their cybersecurity careers.
“Cybersecurity is the fight, in my mind, of good versus evil,” he said. “At the end of the day, there’s a bad guy trying to penetrate a network to steal information, or ruin a brand, or steal money. You’ve taken a step in that journey of being a part of a cybersecurity team, but you’ve only taken one step.”
The labs began in 2018 as a partnership between the USF Muma College of Business and ReliaQuest — a first-of-its-kind cybersecurity-certificated program aimed at drawing more students into the cybersecurity field and filling the talent gap. The securities operations company started in Tampa in 2007 and has over 700 customers worldwide and 1,200 teammates working across six global operating centers.
Matt Mullarkey, a professor of instruction in the School of Information Systems and Management who oversaw the collaboration, said the partnership and the training labs have been invaluable to USF students.
“ReliaQuest is an exceptional example of a company in our community willing to invest in students to grow cybersecurity skillsets through an innovative partnered approach to hands-on education,” he said. “The gift has made innovation in cybersecurity education and research possible over the past five years and we look forward to our continued partnering in the future.”
Clinton Daniel, an associate professor of instruction in the School of Information Systems and Management, said students who participated in the program gained “real-world” experience with incredible technical and intellectual support, because they were mentored by practicing cybersecurity professionals with the latest technology.
“Overall, this program experience has been amazing. The program has changed the lives of so many USF students by offering opportunities for employment within a very competitive and prosperous cybersecurity workforce,” Daniel said.
The ReliaQuest partnership also generated two funded research projects — one in the use of AI for cyber threat detection and the other in innovations in cybersecurity learning and pedagogy.