Julie Gonzalez was in high school when she realized that her interest in computers and her desire to help people were perfect for a career in cybersecurity.
Gonzalez graduated in early May with a degree in cybersecurity from the computer science and engineering department of the USF College of Engineering (CSE). A few weeks later, she started working as an identity and access management analyst at Raymond James in St. Petersburg.
Like other recent USF cybersecurity graduates, Gonzalez quickly found a good job in a field where Florida is investing heavily to meet the growing demand for highly skilled workers.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a budget last month that includes a $20.5 million increase in Legislature funding to Cyber Florida at USF. This includes $10 million in recurring funding for USF to hire new faculty and expand programs to help produce more cyber-workforce-ready graduates each year. The College of Engineering separately received $1.39 million from Cyber Florida to develop and improve the workforce in the Tampa Bay area.
The investments fill a huge need in an industry that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will grow 31% over the next few years, with average median salaries around $104,000 a year. The shortage of cybersecurity professionals is estimated at around 2.7 million worldwide and around 22,000 in Florida.
“It’s exciting to know that you can pivot in almost any direction and find a good job,” said William Silvert, a CSE cybersecurity student who hopes to graduate in December.
USF prepares cybersecurity graduates with classroom simulations and experiential learning opportunities and incorporates feedback from industry partners into its programs. Professors who have worked in cybersecurity stage exercises such as malware attacks in which students use real-world tools to find solutions.
Gonzalez has completed internships at Norwegian Cruise Lines, Northrop Grumman and Guidepoint Security and worked with professors specializing in math, business and industrial organizational psychology. “The interdisciplinary aspect of the program is really valuable and makes it interesting,” she said.
Various program options and partnerships
USF offers undergraduate degrees in cybersecurity at the College of Engineering and Muma College of Business.
The engineering program was launched in 2018 and now has more than 550 students, says program director Sriram Chellappan, professor of computer science and engineering.
Students benefit from the Computing Partners program, which includes industry partners such as Amazon Pay, CAE, OPSWAT, Johnson & Johnson, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Nielsen and Raymond James.
Muma’s Information Assurance and Cybersecurity Management (IACM) program was launched last fall under the guidance of information systems professor Giti Javidi. It provides flexibility for working students and military veterans transitioning to civilian life. A partnership with Sylint – a Sarasota-based cybersecurity and digital data forensics company – provides opportunities for internships, mentorship, training and program development.
Along with technical training, the IACM program emphasizes communication and team collaboration.
“The idea behind this is to bridge the gap between pure technology and commercial cybersecurity functions,” Javidi said. “Graduates are equipped with the knowledge and skills to serve on the front lines of support to governments and commercial organizations.”
Chellappan agrees that incorporating industry feedback is key to addressing workforce needs.
“We want to make sure students have the soft skills they’ll need on the job,” Chellappan said. “The focus is on learning how to manage the stress of monitoring a compromised system and the decision-making skills needed to detect cyberattacks and quickly mitigate their consequences.”
This approach is reflected in a unique badge program launched five years ago through a partnership between Muma and ReliaQuest, a Tampa-based global IT networking and security startup.
ReliaQuest Cybersecurity Labs at USF offers 50-60 students each semester six weeks of intensive training led by ReliaQuest engineers and analysts. Graduates receive a digital badge to display on their social media platforms and resumes. About 20% receive full-time job offers from ReliaQuest and 70% accept roles somewhere in the field. The program is free and open to all undergraduate and graduate students.
“We have not seen another program across the country that is co-designed, co-created and co-delivered between an R1 research institution and an industry partner,” said Matthew Mullarkey, professor of teaching at the Muma School of Information Systems and Management.
Mullarkey worked closely with ReliaQuest Founder and CEO Brian Murphy to secure a $1 million donation to establish ReliaQuest Labs and hopes to expand the program.
on the horizon
This fall, the College of Engineering will launch a master’s degree in cybersecurity. Program director Nasir Ghani, a professor of electrical engineering, said it was designed to prepare graduates for high-end programming jobs.
A joint initiative between the departments of Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and Engineering and Industrial and Management Systems, it focuses on software security, hardware security, machine learning and artificial intelligence security .
USF also offers master’s degrees in Cybercrime at the College of Behavioral Health and Community Sciences, Cybersecurity Intelligence and Information Security at the College of Arts and Sciences, and an IACM master’s degree at Muma.
Recurring public funds will allow USF to add faculty whose research could identify new areas of risk and improve the safety of public sector agencies, businesses, and industries in Florida and beyond.
This work aligns with the launch of the USF Global and National Security Institute (GNSI), which strengthens Florida’s leadership in addressing critical issues related to defense, economic and political security, health security and human and the safety of infrastructure and the environment.
GNSI Executive Director Kenneth F. “Frank” McKenzie, a retired Marine Corps general and former head of U.S. Central Command, also took over Cyber Florida from Mike McConnell in July.