TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Hundreds of girls in Texas are taking part in a nationwide cybersecurity competition that starts Monday.
Girls Go CyberStart challenges high school-aged girls to solve cybersecurity puzzles, finding abnormalities in lines of code as an introduction to an industry that needs millions of workers to keep up with growing threats.
“What we hope is that it gets more people interested in this field and it grows the talent from an earlier age,” said Suzi Hilliard, statewide security services manager for the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR).
DIR promotes the competition across the state. Two years ago, the department made hiring and retaining cybersecurity professionals a strategic goal.
Only one in four cybersecurity workers is female, according to a study released in April 2019 by an industry trade group. That same group also found the global cybersecurity field is short about 4 million workers, including about half a million in North America.
“Every single industry has a cybersecurity field in it because everybody has to protect data,” said Paige Fowler, a Lake Travis High School junior and participant in this year’s CyberStart competition.
Friday, eight girls practiced in their cybersecurity classroom, searching for inconsistencies in code that point to vulnerabilities.
Senior Emily Padilla has been part of the competition the past two years, since the state became a part of it. “I had no idea what it was, but I was like, it’s for girls, sounds fun, maybe something good will come out of it.”
Padilla was already interested in computer science as a possible career path, but hadn’t really considered cybersecurity specifically. Now, after competing twice and winning a $500 scholarship from Girls Go last year, she’s ready to see what the industry holds for her future.
“I think the thrill of knowing that this is something that’s important in our society is just something that gets to me,” she said.
Nikki Hendricks wants to foster more reactions like hers. Hendricks teaches the inaugural cybersecurity classes at the school this year and wants to bring more girls into the field.
“We started off a couple years ago by redesigning our classrooms” with a grant from LTHS’ parent-teacher organization, “and we wanted to make it more girl-friendly,” she said.
Her classes don’t just focus on the technical side of things, she explained: “We really do focus a lot on what is out there and what…their next steps are.”
The competition starts Monday with preliminary rounds that run until the end of the month. It’s still possible for teachers to register teams through January, as long as the student participants finish the assessment round before February. At the end of the month, teams will be notified if they qualify for the game round that starts Feb. 10.