Best-of-the-best federal cyber experts to test mettle in finals of President’s Cup Cybersecurity Competition

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Over 1,000 federal employees and more than 200 teams of feds competed over the last three months in the President’s Cup Cybersecurity Competition.

Starting Dec. 10 at the Homeland Security Department offices in Arlington, Virginia, the best of the best will test their mettle to solve some of the most challenging cybersecurity puzzles.

Harry Mourtos, an information security IT specialist at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at DHS, said the final round of the President’s Cup Challenge may be dominated by the Defense Department, but the first-ever contest showed just how skilled federal cyber experts are across the board.

He said the individuals came from 21 different departments and the teams came from 17 different agencies.

“In the final round, we are looking at all of the teams and individuals are coming from the DoD, but from varying offices and parts therein,” Mourtos said in an interview with Federal News Network. “We have a team coming up from Georgia. We have someone coming for the final rounds from Hawaii. And we have various federal civilian entities from across DoD as well as the uniformed services.”

While more than 50% of the teams and individuals came from DoD for the competition, Mourtos said the range of agencies showed the skill level and interest and engagement across the government.

DHS launched the President’s Cup Cybersecurity Competition in September, daring individuals and teams across the military and civilian workforces to compete in a three-part challenge. President Donald Trump signed a cyber workforce executive order in May calling on DHS to develop a way for federal employees to test their skills. The President’s Cup includes three rounds. Contestants—both individuals and teams—took part in the first two rounds remotely by answering Jeopardy-like questions that required them to solve the challenge in a virtual environment.

Mourtos said the individual finals will take place Dec. 10 and the team finals on Dec. 11 and 12, with the last day being live streamed on CISA’s website.

“The format will be similar to what they saw in the qualifying rounds for the individuals. They will be facing a series of challenges that will task them with performing cybersecurity job role functions from across all facets of the cybersecurity framework. They will be competing for points and the individual with the highest point total at the end of the round will be the winner,” he said. “The team competition will be structured similarly. The challenges will all be unique and structured for more of a team collaborative-based solution. What we are most excited about is the last day we have an escape room scenario that we’ve created. We’ve created a virtual environment for the teams where they will have to use their cybersecurity skillsets, knowledge and collaborative skills to get out of the virtual room.”

The winners of the President’s Cup Challenge will get, of course, bragging rights, and Mourtos said DHS still is finalizing what other prizes the team and individual will receive.

“We’ve learned a lot as we’ve gone through this over the last few months. We’ve been continually impressed skills, talent, expertise and creative thinking of our competitors. They have really blown us away with some of their skillsets and how they approached some of the challenges,” Mourtos said. “We have taken some internal lessons learned as far as challenge development and implementing them. That is one of the benefits of building the challenges successively. We have been able to take feedback from the teams in round one and implement it into round two. We have been able to iteratively incorporate them into the rounds as we go.”

Mourtos said once the President’s Cup competition is complete, DHS will put the challenges on GitHub so non-federal employees also can give them a try, as well as prepare federal employees and teams for the 2020 President’s Cup Cybersecurity Competition.

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