Careers in Cybersecurity Featured at PEARC21 – If you’re bored, something’s wrong!

By Elizabeth Leake

August 5, 2021

The PEARC21 (Practice & Experience in Advanced Research Computing) Student Program featured a Cybersecurity Careers Panel. Five experts shared lessons learned from more than 100 years of combined experience. While it was difficult to identify trends among panelist career trajectories, each has a history of involvement with charitable causes dedicated to cybersecurity workforce development, and all expressed an urgent need to fill the pipeline.

Full panelist biographies are available on the PEARC21 panel description page.

How does one prepare for a cybersecurity career?

Among panelists, only Principal Research Scientist Jim Basney (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign/National Science Foundation Trusted CI; UIUC/NSF) holds a terminal degree; a PhD in computer science (CS).

After graduating from West Point, Chief Executive Officer Bryson Bort (GRIMM/SCYTHE/ICS Village) earned three grad degrees, including Electrical Engineering (EE) and CS, Telecom Management and a Master’s in Business Administration.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Section Chief Philip Frigm (FBI Cyber Technical Analysis and Operations Division) acquired six certifications and licenses along the way, in addition to undergraduate history, and Information Science graduate degrees.

While Basney, Bort and Elham Tabassi (National Institute of Standards and Technology/NIST) pursued technical baccalaureate degrees, Frigm and Anita Nikolich (UIUC/NSF) were undergrad history majors. They eventually pursued CS grad degrees, but that path hadn’t occurred to them as undergrads.

Tabassi was academically inspired early in life by an aunt who studied at the Sharif University of Technology in Iran. “So, naturally, that’s the school I wanted to attend, and I graduated with a degree in electrical engineering (EE),” she said. After immigrating to the US, she earned a graduate EE degree from Santa Clara University in California and is currently pursuing a CS PhD at Michigan State University. She said that while CS and math are important to NIST, above all, they need problem solvers. She recommends that students keep an open mind; chase things that satisfy their thirst for knowledge, “and always question why.”

Nikolich and Tabassi expressed an early adoration for mathematics, but Frigm confessed, “Math was never my friend.” He originally wanted to be an astronaut, and enrolled in the Penn State Aerospace Engineering program. But Calc-2 was a ‘weed out’ course which prevented him from achieving that goal. When he was within view of graduation, employment prospects for history majors were bleak. An adviser recommended that he consider an Oxford PhD, but that required pre-payment, and it took an average of eight years to finish. “An IT graduate degree from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) made more sense,” he said. Employment at the RIT help desk led to work as an IT manager for WXXI public radio. Upon arriving at WXXI, they had been recently hacked. For his capstone project, he wrote a set of security policies for WXXI, using NIST frameworks.

Long and winding roads…

“When you’re young, you think your career path will be straight, but it rarely is,” said Nikolich. Upon leaving the Marines, she worked for an Internet Service Provider in the 90s, “when the internet was young.” That’s where she learned how to secure really BIG websites. She then supported enterprise security for a global company with 72,000 employees. “That was a great place to develop skills, but the work could be stressful,” she said. Nikolich describes her “superpower” as being able to connect the dots, which is useful in her role as UIUC Director of Research Innovation where she focuses on multidisciplinary applications for artificial intelligence (AI).

Tabassi joined NIST in 1999, and specialized in biometrics evaluation and standards. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it,” she said, echoing Lord Kelvin’s famous quote. She was the principal architect of NIST Fingerprint Image Quality, which is now a widely-adopted international standard. Her work at NIST began with speaker recognition in 1999. Since then, she has been working on various computer vision and machine learning research projects with applications in biometrics. Currently Chief of Staff in the NIST Information Technology Laboratory (ITL), Tabassi leads the agency’s Trustworthy AI program. From their website, “ITL is one of six NIST labs that promote US innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.”

Basney’s early work involved HTCondor development; the framework that underpins federated high throughput computing, and the Open Science Grid. His first professional appointment was with NCSA where, 20 years later, he continues to support NSF CI security. He has contributed to the NSF TeraGrid, XSEDE and Trusted CI projects; MyProxy credential management service; CILogon federated identity service; and SciTokens which enable capability-based access to scientific data.

Bort never had a long-term plan. With each opportunity that came his way, he was excited about learning something new; at the same time, experienced anxiety from not knowing what he was doing. “I grew and learned with each job,” he said.

“I didn’t set out to become an entrepreneur,” said Bort. “As an Army captain, I was injured in the war, and took the first job that was offered upon discharge, which had nothing to do with computers. But I was eventually recruited back into the tech space,” he added. Bort believes that no matter how awesome a job is, at some point, “the golden cage rusts.” As CEO, he feels that it is important to grow and replace yourself; to train the person who takes your job.

In 2013, Bort formed GRIMM with some of the “best hackers in the world.” Three years later, a fortune 50 company asked them to build a unique software app—a modular, post-access malware framework. In the customer’s request, Bort recognized a market failure. So, he founded SCYTHE, and asked the client for permission to commercialize the intellectual property so that a market void could be filled. SCYTHE provides services for small and mid-sized businesses that can’t afford their own security teams. Bort then handed the GRIMM reins over so he could focus 100 percent on SCYTHE. A short time later, he co-founded ICS Village with Tom VanNorman (GRIMM), a 501.c.3 nonprofit organization that, “equips industry experts and policymakers with tools to better defend critical infrastructure.”

Frigm applied for the FBI training academy in December 2002 and was accepted a little over two years later. After training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, he was assigned to the Newark, New Jersey field office where he initially investigated Italian organized crime. In 2006, he was appointed to the cyber squad and contributed to its nascent National Security program investigating nation-state intrusion activity. He was then promoted to management, and ultimately to his current role.

Frigm said that the FBI likely accepted him because of his grad degree, but attributes his success in a rewarding career to a liberal arts undergraduate education. “It shaped critical thinking, analysis and communication skills,” he said. He must often explain complex technical content in terms that a wide range of stakeholders can understand. “Some are highly technical, but senior management may not be, and they advocate on my section’s behalf,” he said.

“How’d I get from history to the FBI?” Frigm smiled, “It’s a natural step, and everybody should take it.” His advice to students, “Just pick one of your lifelong fascinations—something that you’re good at—and stick with it.”

Bort and Frigm professed an early fascination with electronics. Young Bort took stuff apart to see how it worked often enough that when something broke at home, he was blamed. At age 11, Frigm reprogrammed the Texas Instruments Ti4a calculators in the Sears & Roebuck store so that the display featured his name (a Basic command).

Nikolich described chapters of her career being well-suited for, “adrenaline junkies.” In retrospect, inherent intellectual curiosity with a dose of intestinal fortitude may have helped to prepare Nikolich for U.S. Marine Corps cryptography work, Tabassi to immigrate to another country, Frigm for white-knuckle investigations, and Bort to enlist in the Army (during a period of conflict; not to mention having enough gumption to found three businesses within four years). But what keeps an occasional thrill-seeker up at night? Bort said, “My employees; people who count on me to make payroll.”

Threat landscape; everything old is new again.

Panel rules of engagement established that we could not discuss details of ongoing investigations. That said, each described the type of incidents their teams are battling.

Basney described the range of threats the NSF Trustworthy CI team mitigates, including intellectual property theft, and efforts to steal journal subscriptions from academic institutions. High-performance computing (HPC) systems can be hijacked for cryptocurrency mining, or launching attacks against others. But, he added, “Every day in the life of a cybersecurity specialist doesn’t involve incident response; we spend most of our time helping scientists to ensure that our security controls effectively support their research.”

Bort, wearing his company’s unicorn-themed hoodie, explained why he is often in the news. In 2020-21, when the media addressed the SolarWinds breach, Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack, or the Florida Water Hack, Bort was often the expert called to explain what happened, how the issue was being mitigated and by whom. “They probably call me because of my background in offensive security,’ he said. “We have taught the methods used in the Florida water hack in our workshops for years!” That’s where someone took control of a municipal water system (within 30 miles of where the Super Bowl was scheduled to occur) and increased the amount of sodium hydroxide from 100 parts per million, to a toxic 11,100 ppm. An operator saw it happen, and quickly restored the settings. It was a wake-up call for all who safeguard the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Frigm added that while ransomware is in the news, it certainly isn’t new. “Bad actors have been holding computers and data for ransom since the 90s!” Time-tested strategies are employed when controls are weak, and targets are rich. Intellectual property associated with COVID-19 research elevated the value of medical research data; public announcements of COVID research grant awards drew unwanted attention. Comparitech reported 600 U.S. hospitals and clinics were victims of ransomware in 2020 at a cost of nearly $21 billion.

“We don’t have enough folks to answer the call in the burgeoning space of computer security; diversity of voice and experience are important. Different voices, opinions and ideas are needed. The more diversity we have, the better our security will be.” –  Bryson Bort (GRIMM, SCYTHE, ICM).

About the panel author and moderator

HPCwire Contributing Editor Elizabeth Leake is a consultant, correspondent and advocate who serves the global HPC and data science communities. In 2012, she founded STEM-Trek, a grassroots nonprofit organization that supports workforce development opportunities for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) scholars from underserved regions and underrepresented groups.

As a program director, Leake has mentored hundreds of early-career professionals who are breaking cultural barriers in an effort to accelerate scientific and engineering discoveries. Her programs have specific themes that resonate with multinational stakeholders, such as food security data science, blockchain for social good, cybersecurity/risk mitigation, and more. As a conference blogger and communicator, her work drew recognition when STEM-Trek received the 2016 and 2017 HPCwire Editors’ Choice, and 2020 Readers’ Choice Awards for Workforce Diversity Leadership.

 Leake was co-chair of the PEARC21 Student Program, and will return in that capacity when PEARC22 lands in Boston, Massachusetts, July 10-14, 2022.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

White House Scientific Integrity Report Addresses AI and ML Ethics

January 26, 2022

Earlier this month, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Scientific Integrity Task Force released a report titled “Protecting the Integrity of Government Science.” While broad-based and over Read more…

IBM Quantum Debuts Classical Entanglement Forging to Expand Simulation Capabilities

January 26, 2022

IBM last week reported a new technique – entanglement forging – that uses both quantum and classical computing resources to double the size of select simulation problems that can be solved on current quantum computer Read more…

Lenovo Launches Its TruScale HPC as a Service Offering

January 26, 2022

Lenovo today announced TruScale High Performance Computing as a Service (HPCaaS), which it says will offer a “cloud-like experience” to HPC organizations of all sizes. The new HPC-as-a-Service is part of the TruScale Read more…

Ceremorphic Touts Its HPC/AI Silicon Technology as It Exits Stealth

January 25, 2022

In a market still filling with fledging silicon chips, Ceremorphic, Inc. has exited stealth and is telling the world about what it calls its patented new ThreadArch multi-thread processor technology that is intended to h Read more…

Quantum Watch: Neutral Atoms Draw Growing Attention as Promising Qubit Technology

January 25, 2022

Currently, there are many qubit technologies vying for sway in quantum computing. So far, superconducting (IBM, Google) and trapped ion (IonQ, Quantinuum) have dominated the conversation. Microsoft’s proposed topologic Read more…

AWS Solution Channel

Register for the AWS “Speeds n’ Feeds” event on Feb. 9th

Since the debut of the first ‘Beowulf’ cluster in 1994, HPC has been a race between technologists squeezing as much performance as possible from hardware, and scale economics driving mass-production prices to affordable levels. Read more…

Meta’s Massive New AI Supercomputer Will Be ‘World’s Fastest’

January 24, 2022

Fresh off its rebrand last October, Meta (née Facebook) is putting muscle behind its vision of a metaversal future with a massive new AI supercomputer called the AI Research SuperCluster (RSC). Meta says that RSC will b Read more…

Lenovo Launches Its TruScale HPC as a Service Offering

January 26, 2022

Lenovo today announced TruScale High Performance Computing as a Service (HPCaaS), which it says will offer a “cloud-like experience” to HPC organizations of Read more…

Ceremorphic Touts Its HPC/AI Silicon Technology as It Exits Stealth

January 25, 2022

In a market still filling with fledging silicon chips, Ceremorphic, Inc. has exited stealth and is telling the world about what it calls its patented new Thread Read more…

Quantum Watch: Neutral Atoms Draw Growing Attention as Promising Qubit Technology

January 25, 2022

Currently, there are many qubit technologies vying for sway in quantum computing. So far, superconducting (IBM, Google) and trapped ion (IonQ, Quantinuum) have Read more…

Meta’s Massive New AI Supercomputer Will Be ‘World’s Fastest’

January 24, 2022

Fresh off its rebrand last October, Meta (née Facebook) is putting muscle behind its vision of a metaversal future with a massive new AI supercomputer called t Read more…

IBM Watson Health Finally Sold by IBM After 11 Months of Rumors

January 21, 2022

IBM has sold its underachieving IBM Watson Health unit for an undisclosed price tag to a global investment firm after almost a year’s worth of rumors that sai Read more…

Supercomputer Analysis Shows the Atmospheric Reach of the Tonga Eruption

January 21, 2022

On Saturday, an enormous eruption on the volcanic islands of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Haʻapai shook the Pacific Ocean. The explosion, which could be heard six tho Read more…

NSB Issues US State of Science and Engineering 2022 Report

January 20, 2022

This week the National Science Board released its biannual U.S. State of Science and Engineering 2022 report, as required by the NSF Act. Broadly, the report presents a near-term view of S&E based mostly on 2019 data. To a large extent, this year’s edition echoes trends from the last few reports. The U.S. is still a world leader in R&D spending and S&E education... Read more…

Multiverse Targets ‘Quantum Computing for the Masses’

January 19, 2022

The race to deliver quantum computing solutions that shield users from the underlying complexity of quantum computing is heating up quickly. One example is Multiverse Computing, a European company, which today launched the second financial services product in its Singularity product group. The new offering, Fair Price, “delivers a higher accuracy in fair price calculations for financial... Read more…

IonQ Is First Quantum Startup to Go Public; Will It be First to Deliver Profits?

November 3, 2021

On October 1 of this year, IonQ became the first pure-play quantum computing start-up to go public. At this writing, the stock (NYSE: IONQ) was around $15 and its market capitalization was roughly $2.89 billion. Co-founder and chief scientist Chris Monroe says it was fun to have a few of the company’s roughly 100 employees travel to New York to ring the opening bell of the New York Stock... Read more…

US Closes in on Exascale: Frontier Installation Is Underway

September 29, 2021

At the Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee (ASCAC) meeting, held by Zoom this week (Sept. 29-30), it was revealed that the Frontier supercomputer is currently being installed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The staff at the Oak Ridge Leadership... Read more…

AMD Launches Milan-X CPU with 3D V-Cache and Multichip Instinct MI200 GPU

November 8, 2021

At a virtual event this morning, AMD CEO Lisa Su unveiled the company’s latest and much-anticipated server products: the new Milan-X CPU, which leverages AMD’s new 3D V-Cache technology; and its new Instinct MI200 GPU, which provides up to 220 compute units across two Infinity Fabric-connected dies, delivering an astounding 47.9 peak double-precision teraflops. “We're in a high-performance computing megacycle, driven by the growing need to deploy additional compute performance... Read more…

Intel Reorgs HPC Group, Creates Two ‘Super Compute’ Groups

October 15, 2021

Following on changes made in June that moved Intel’s HPC unit out of the Data Platform Group and into the newly created Accelerated Computing Systems and Graphics (AXG) business unit, led by Raja Koduri, Intel is making further updates to the HPC group and announcing... Read more…

Nvidia Buys HPC Cluster Management Company Bright Computing

January 10, 2022

Graphics chip powerhouse Nvidia today announced that it has acquired HPC cluster management company Bright Computing for an undisclosed sum. Unlike Nvidia’s bid to purchase semiconductor IP company Arm, which has been stymied by regulatory challenges, the Bright deal is a straightforward acquisition that aims to expand... Read more…

D-Wave Embraces Gate-Based Quantum Computing; Charts Path Forward

October 21, 2021

Earlier this month D-Wave Systems, the quantum computing pioneer that has long championed quantum annealing-based quantum computing (and sometimes taken heat fo Read more…

Killer Instinct: AMD’s Multi-Chip MI200 GPU Readies for a Major Global Debut

October 21, 2021

AMD’s next-generation supercomputer GPU is on its way – and by all appearances, it’s about to make a name for itself. The AMD Radeon Instinct MI200 GPU (a successor to the MI100) will, over the next year, begin to power three massive systems on three continents: the United States’ exascale Frontier system; the European Union’s pre-exascale LUMI system; and Australia’s petascale Setonix system. Read more…

Three Chinese Exascale Systems Detailed at SC21: Two Operational and One Delayed

November 24, 2021

Details about two previously rumored Chinese exascale systems came to light during last week’s SC21 proceedings. Asked about these systems during the Top500 media briefing on Monday, Nov. 15, list author and co-founder Jack Dongarra indicated he was aware of some very impressive results, but withheld comment when asked directly if he had... Read more…

Leading Solution Providers


Lessons from LLVM: An SC21 Fireside Chat with Chris Lattner

December 27, 2021

Today, the LLVM compiler infrastructure world is essentially inescapable in HPC. But back in the 2000 timeframe, LLVM (low level virtual machine) was just getting its start as a new way of thinking about how to overcome shortcomings in the Java Virtual Machine. At the time, Chris Lattner was a graduate student of... Read more…

2021 Gordon Bell Prize Goes to Exascale-Powered Quantum Supremacy Challenge

November 18, 2021

Today at the hybrid virtual/in-person SC21 conference, the organizers announced the winners of the 2021 ACM Gordon Bell Prize: a team of Chinese researchers leveraging the new exascale Sunway system to simulate quantum circuits. The Gordon Bell Prize, which comes with an award of $10,000 courtesy of HPC pioneer Gordon Bell, is awarded annually... Read more…

Meta’s Massive New AI Supercomputer Will Be ‘World’s Fastest’

January 24, 2022

Fresh off its rebrand last October, Meta (née Facebook) is putting muscle behind its vision of a metaversal future with a massive new AI supercomputer called t Read more…

Nvidia Defends Arm Acquisition Deal: a ‘Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity’

January 13, 2022

GPU-maker Nvidia is continuing to try to keep its proposed acquisition of British chip IP vendor Arm Ltd. alive, despite continuing concerns from several governments around the world. In its latest action, Nvidia filed a 29-page response to the U.K. government to point out a list of potential benefits of the proposed $40 billion deal. Read more…

Julia Update: Adoption Keeps Climbing; Is It a Python Challenger?

January 13, 2021

The rapid adoption of Julia, the open source, high level programing language with roots at MIT, shows no sign of slowing according to data from I Read more…

Top500: No Exascale, Fugaku Still Reigns, Polaris Debuts at #12

November 15, 2021

No exascale for you* -- at least, not within the High-Performance Linpack (HPL) territory of the latest Top500 list, issued today from the 33rd annual Supercomputing Conference (SC21), held in-person in St. Louis, Mo., and virtually, from Nov. 14–19. "We were hoping to have the first exascale system on this list but that didn’t happen," said Top500 co-author... Read more…

TACC Unveils Lonestar6 Supercomputer

November 1, 2021

The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) is unveiling its latest supercomputer: Lonestar6, a three peak petaflops Dell system aimed at supporting researchers Read more…

10nm, 7nm, 5nm…. Should the Chip Nanometer Metric Be Replaced?

June 1, 2020

The biggest cool factor in server chips is the nanometer. AMD beating Intel to a CPU built on a 7nm process node* – with 5nm and 3nm on the way – has been i Read more…

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow