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 David Cumbow was selected as its national Cyber Hero for March 2021.
Cumbow is a systems engineering manager at Palo Alto Networks, a leading global cybersecurity firm. He is also an adviser to SynED’s Cyber-Guild®, a community for cybersecurity and CTE professionals and board member of the Aaron Barnett Foundation, an organization founded after the passing of his former mentor.
He began his career working in IT at the Moreno Valley Unified School District, where he developed his own love of computers as a student just a few years before. Cumbow’s position at the school district and close proximity in age to the students made him an ideal choice to talk with the school’s CyberPatriot teams and work experience students.
Once he got in front of the students, however, Cumbow quickly realized that he would be much more successful connecting cybersecurity to other career fields that students were more likely to know, like law enforcement or the medical field.
“Aaron [Barnett] thought it was important to put someone young in front of them and show them the personal side of what drives a passion for cybersecurity,” Cumbow said. “Early on, there was a lot of realization that not everyone is excited about the same things I am, and I started to tweak my presentation to be more relevant to IT in fields students were interested in.”
Cumbow and Barnett also worked together to create a Student Technology Advisory Committee within the district, which allowed them to make technology decisions based on input from the people who would actually be using those devices and services. The committee’s recommendations helped inform Chromebook purchases and changes to Internet firewalls based on grade level rather than a blanket policy for the entire district.
David Thurston, chief technology officer at the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools, was the Network Manager at Moreno Valley and started working with Cumbow nearly 20 years ago. Though Cumbow was just out of high school himself, Thurston could already see the potential for his career in technology.
“It was great watching him grow his skillset as he progressed from a student worker into a field tech, then ultimately ended up in my former position as network manager,” Thurston said. “David is a life-long learner in the field of cybersecurity and is always willing to share his considerable knowledge and skill with others, and specifically young engineers and techs working in the K-12 and public sector so that they can grow to be cybersecurity leaders.”
Eventually, Cumbow found himself at a professional fork in the road. He could either advance within the K-12 IT field to become a CTO or move into the private sector. He’d worked closely with Palo Alto Networks and joined the company to help solve the problems he’d been working on at the school district on a larger scale.
Elton Fontaine, senior director of systems engineering at Palo Alto Networks, said Cumbow quickly established himself as one of the company’s top engineers. His leadership has helped expand the company’s work in the public sector.
“David has done more than anyone in Palo Alto Networks to execute on a vision of making every day more secure than the day before as students increasingly rely on technology to facilitate their learning,” Fontaine said. “He truly has a passion for customers in this space and proactively owns and drives initiatives internally that allow us to better focus on and secure these customers.”
Maggie Bunten, director of technology for the Chino Valley Unified School District, is one of those customers and praised Cumbow’s passion for cybersecurity education and how K-12 education can help establish successful career pathways for students. Bunten said Cumbow has also been instrumental in helping the district navigate the transition to remote learning over the past year.
“He is able to empathize with the needs of K-12, as well as the budget and staffing restraints that most organizations face,” Bunten said. “He is also a big advocate for engaging students and providing opportunities for districts to work with organizations that can provide low-cost or no-cost cybersecurity curriculum to our schools. He is an all-around kind, caring, brilliant mind who cares about the K-12 space.”
Seeing the bigger picture in his role at Palo Alto Networks helped Cumbow realize the extent of the cybersecurity deficiency in the United States.
“There are aspects of the industry that we’re not even talking about [in classrooms] like AI, machine learning and identity and access management,” Cumbow said. “We talk about this big shortfall in talent, but no one talks about what within cybersecurity are we missing and what’s coming down the pike.”
However, Cumbow is confident that those conversations will accelerate as cybersecurity becomes more front and center in the national conversation. Much like the presentations he gave to Moreno Valley’s students, he sees the best opportunity for progress by connecting cybersecurity with other things people are interested in, like medical informatics or risk assessment.
“People need to get comfortable with cybersecurity in general and understand the implications of not securing data versus securing our data,” Cumbow said. “Once that starts happening, the skills gap will close as people understand that cybersecurity is not just about staring at logs all day.”
In fact, Cumbow sees a world in the not-too-distant future where machine learning and other technologies can take over those more mundane tasks and free up cybersecurity workers to tackle bigger, more intellectually-engaging problems and questions.
Cumbow is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Cybersecurity Operations and Leadership at the University of San Diego and hopes to start teaching at the college level upon completing the program.
“If you’re passionate about what you do, and turn around and share the skills with those around you, it will help all of us be successful in building a better curriculum,” he said. “It’s not a competition; the more we all share, the better off we’ll become.”