University of South Florida


Cybersecurity students sit with their laptops open

USF students advance their cybersecurity skills through the Computer Science and Engineering program.

Innovative cybersecurity programs poised for major expansion

Julie Gonzalez was in high school when she realized that her interest in computer science and desire to help people were perfect for a career in cybersecurity.

Gonzalez graduated in early May with a degree in cybersecurity from the USF College of Engineering Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) department. A few weeks later, she began working as an identity and access management analyst with Raymond James in St. Petersburg.

Like other recent USF cybersecurity grads, Gonzalez quickly found a good job in a field where Florida is investing heavily to meet soaring demand for highly qualified workers.

Gov. Ron DeSantis last month signed a budget that includes a $20.5 million increase in funding from the legislature to Cyber Florida at USF. Included in that is $10 million in recurring funds for USF to hire new faculty and expand programs to help produce more cyber-workforce-ready graduates each year. The College of Engineering separately received $1.39 million from Cyber Florida to expand and enhance the workforce in the Tampa Bay region.

The investments address an enormous need in an industry the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will grow by 31 percent over the next few years, with average median wages around $104,000 annually. The shortage of cybersecurity professionals is estimated to be around 2.7 million globally and about 22,000 in Florida.

“It’s exciting to know you can pivot in almost any direction and find a good job,” said senior William Silvert, a CSE cybersecurity student who expects to graduate in December.

Julie Gonzalez

Julie Gonzalez

USF prepares cybersecurity graduates with classroom simulations and experiential learning opportunities and builds feedback from industry partners into its programs. Faculty who have worked in the cybersecurity field stage exercises such as malware attacks in which students use real-world tools to find solutions.

Gonzalez completed internships with Norwegian Cruise Lines, Northrop Grumman and Guidepoint Security and worked with faculty with expertise in math, business and industrial organizational psychology. “The interdisciplinary aspect of the program is really valuable and keeps it interesting,” she said.

Diverse program options and partnerships

USF offers undergraduate cybersecurity degrees in the College of Engineering and the Muma College of Business.

Engineering’s program launched in 2018 and now includes more than 550 students, says program director Sriram Chellappan, a professor of computer science and engineering.

Sriram Chellappan

Sriram Chellappan, professor of computer science and engineering

Students benefit from the Computing Partners Program, which includes industry partners such as Amazon Pay, CAE, OPSWAT, Johnson & Johnson, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Nielsen and Raymond James.

The Muma College of Business Information Assurance and Cybersecurity Management program launched last fall under the direction of professor of information systems Giti Javidi. It provides flexibility for working students and military veterans transitioning to civilian life. A partnership with Sylint — a Sarasota-based cybersecurity and digital data forensics firm — provides internships, mentoring, training and curriculum development opportunities.

Along with technical training, the Information Assurance and Cybersecurity Management program emphasizes communication and collaboration in a team setting.

“The thinking behind this is to fill the gap between pure technology and cybersecurity business functions,” Javidi said. “Graduates are equipped with the knowledge and skills to serve on the front line of support for governments and business organizations.”

Chellappan agrees that incorporating industry feedback is vital to meeting workforce needs.

“We want to make sure students have the soft skills they will need on the job,” Chellappan said. “There is an emphasis on learning how to manage the stress of monitoring a compromised system and the decision-making skills required to detect cyber-attacks and rapidly mitigate consequences.”

That approach is reflected in a unique badging program begun five years ago through a partnership between the Muma College of Business and ReliaQuest, a global computer network and security startup based in Tampa.

ReliaQuest Cybersecurity Labs at USF provides 50-60 students each semester with six weeks of intensive training led by ReliaQuest engineers and analysts. Graduates receive a digital badge to display on their social media platforms and résumés. About 20 percent receive full-time job offers from ReliaQuest, and 70 percent accept roles somewhere in the field. The program is free and open to all undergraduate and graduate students.

“We haven’t seen another program across the country that is co-designed, co-created and co-delivered between an R1 research institution and an industry partner,” said Matthew Mullarkey, professor of instruction in the Muma School of Information Systems and Management.

Mullarkey worked closely with ReliaQuest founder and CEO Brian Murphy to secure a $1 million gift to create ReliaQuest Labs and hopes to grow the program.

On the horizon

This fall, the College of Engineering will launch a cybersecurity master’s degree. Program director Nasir Ghani, a professor of electrical engineering, said it’s designed to prepare graduates for higher-end programming jobs.

A joint initiative among the electrical engineering, computer science and engineering and industrial and management systems departments, it focuses on software security, hardware security, machine learning and artificial intelligence security.

USF also offers master’s degrees in cybercrime in the College of Behavioral Health and Community Sciences, cybersecurity intelligence and information security in the College of Arts and Sciences and a master's in information assurance and cybersecurity management.

The recurring state funds will enable USF to add faculty whose research could identify new areas of risk and improve security for public sector agencies, businesses and industries in Florida and beyond.

That work aligns with the launch of the USF Global and National Security Institute, which strengthens Florida’s leadership in addressing critical issues involving defense, economic and political security, health and human security and infrastructure and environmental security.

GNSI executive director Kenneth F. “Frank” McKenzie, a retired Marine Corps general and former chief of U.S. Central Command, also took over leadership of Cyber Florida from Mike McConnell in July.

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