THOUSAND OAKS, Calif — Today, SynED®, a national non-profit organization that identifies emerging best practices for effective articulation between employers, job seekers, and education providers, announced that Casey W. O’Brien was selected as its national CyberHero for December.
O’Brien is the Executive Director and Principal Investigator at the National CyberWatch Center, a consortium of higher education institutions, businesses and government agencies that collaborate to advance information security education and expand the nation’s cybersecurity workforce. The center is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and includes organizations from across the United States.
His bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in psychology and he worked as a statistician/research assistant at John Hopkins University when a system hack there in the late 1990s changed his career trajectory.
“I became obsessed with how they got in and what they got,” O’Brien said. “At that point, I know that’s what I wanted to do … figure out how people break systems so we can make them more secure.”
O’Brien was part of the team that founded the center as a research project funded by the NSF in 2004. Throughout his career, he’s had roles in both industry and education and quickly saw the gap between the two widening as technology changed. Working with a grant writer at Prince George’s Community College, he had the opportunity to apply for NSF funding and the rest is history.
“Faculty would get together informally to talk about what we were teaching and what books we were using,” O’Brien said. “We saw an opportunity to get some degrees and certificates in place and get faculty started and that continued with successive funding. Our footprint started to grow organically and it’s been going gangbusters ever since.”
Today, the National CyberWatch Center’s members include universities, community colleges, and technical schools across the United States and around the world, as well as corporations, students, and individuals interested in promoting cybersecurity education. The center hosts the annual Community College Cyber Summit, provides model curricula for degree and certificate programs, and recognizes excellence through the Innovations in Cybersecurity Education awards.
O’Brien and his team at the National CyberWatch Center work with colleges and universities to figure out how they can work together to share resources and learn from each other to create a better student experience — conversations that are not always easy for schools that want to do things their own way.
“There’s still a ton of duplication of efforts, but we’ve built a good reputation and high-quality brand by showing people the power of working together and recognizing people across the country who are doing good work,” O’Brien said.
Rodney Petersen, director of the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the U.S. Department of Commerce, said O’Brien’s leadership helped to expand the scope of what’s possible in cybersecurity education.
“Casey’s abilities span the spectrum from visionary to educator. In his role as Executive Director of the National CyberWatch Center he has helped to inspire many faculty, academic administrators, and federal funding agencies to embrace the vision of a future where systematic and impactful cybersecurity education supports the life-long learning needs of students and employees and the workforce needs of employers,“ Petersen said. “As a skilled educator, he brings cybersecurity topics to life by exposing learners to hands-on experiences in the classroom, work-based learning opportunities, and cybersecurity competitions.”
Corby Hovis, a program director in NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education, has worked closely with O’Brien since he became director of the National CyberWatch Center. Hovis said O’Brien has the vision to advance the center’s goals and the ability to bring the right people together to make that vision a reality — particularly when it comes to ensuring that community colleges have a seat at the table.
“Because of the huge demand for workers in the field, it is important to recognize that a wide spectrum of skills are needed and that many jobs can be filled by people who earn only a two-year degree or a certificate,” Hovis said. “Casey’s leadership has raised the visibility of community colleges and career and technical education as sources for talent that can fill significant gaps in the cybersecurity workforce.”
Moving forward, O’Brien said the center would continue its efforts to fill the great demand for skilled cybersecurity workers by convening subject matter experts and expanding access to cybersecurity education throughout higher education. Another area of focus is providing better training for incumbent workers through upskilling and bringing industry and education together to partner on workforce development programs.
“We can identify where there are incumbent IT workers who lend themselves to an upskilling model and customize a learning plan for them that doesn’t waste time on things they already know,” O’Brien said. “We think of it as a ‘skill up to scale up’ model and that we can deliver through a learning platform.”
In the end, he knows that there are many pathways to cybersecurity education, something he often likens to the beltways that are prevalent in and around Washington, D.C.
“It’s a big circle with lots of entries and exits, whether that’s K-12 to industry or a bachelor’s degree to community college,” O’Brien said. “It’s important to have a lot of different options and opportunities to gain real-world experience.”
SynED’s Cyber-Guild® CyberHero series, which highlights cyber heroes who quietly go above and beyond in helping to secure our nation and communities, is a monthly column published nationally. SynED is a non-profit organization that acts as a catalyst to help colleges and other higher education partners equip students with the skills they need to enrich their lives through education, knowledge, and skill acquisition, giving them rich career opportunities. SynED also maintains a community for CTE professionals at Cyber-Guild.org.
About the National CyberWatch Center
The National CyberWatch Center is a leader in cybersecurity education and workforce development. The organization advocates for community colleges and universities in cybersecurity education and workforce development, builds programs of impact, coordinates collaborative cybersecurity education, workforce development, and research programs, and promotes educational and workforce development models of impact.
About the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
NIST promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. NIST is a nonregulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. To learn more about NIST, visit www.nist.gov.
About the National Science Foundation
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…” NSF supports research and people to create knowledge that transforms the future to drive the U.S. economy, enhance the nation’s security, and advance knowledge to sustain global leadership.