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Scout tech competitions for new talent

Jul 21, 20164 mins
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

What the enterprise and the participants win in the ITA Tech Challenge

If you are young and love to hack, there are opportunities abounding for you to showcase your talents. This fall the ITA Tech Challenge, a programming and coding skills competition for students at targeted Midwest universities, hosts its 7th annual competition.

More than twenty Midwestern universities put forth their most innovative and highly skilled tech students, and the winner who is honored as the Ultimate Challenge Coder will receive a $5,000 prize.

The rewards, though, extend far beyond what that money can buy, which is why Trustwave and other corporate sponsors are eager to support the event.

Steve Kelley, chief marketing officer at Trustwave said that the skills gap impacts everyone in cybersecurity. Those companies that can’t find highly qualified candidates are turning to managed security service providers. That’s great for MSSPs, but they too are in need of both experienced and talented candidates in order to provide the highest quality services to their customers.

To solve the skills gap problem, Trustwave–in addition to having partnered with LifeJourney which connects high school aged students with mentors who are leaders in the security industry–recently partnered with the Illinois Technology Association (ITA) for the upcoming 2016 Tech Challenge.  

“ITA is a great event for us. It’s an opportunity to participate and engage with students at the university level so that we can look for talent prior to their entering the formal work force,” Kelley said.

Niko Carpenter, software engineer at Trustwave is one candidate that they discovered. Carpenter currently works in PCI compliance on a compliance application for merchants and their sponsor banks. “There is a self-assessment questionnaire to ensure they are compliant with industry standards. The application my team works on is basically a wizard and a full service to guide them through the questionnaire. Then we report that data to the sponsor banks,” Carpenter said.

A graduate of Northern Illinois University, Carpenter earned a BA in computer science and computer network security. He learned about the ITA Tech Challenge through a memo at school, and he was lured in by the possibility of winning the grand prize.

Filling out an application doesn’t necessarily mean you are accepted into the challenge, though. There is a pseudo quiz given to a group of students at each participating university. The top performing students from each school are then accepted into the competition where they endure four hours of coding challenges.

The quickest and best performers are then eligible to compete in the ultimate challenge for the grand prize. Though he didn’t win, Carpenter said, “The actual benefit of participating is that it gives students the chance to get their resume out there, and the sponsor companies know that they are worthy of looking into. The companies can see your score results so that they understand your competence.”

For students who do most of their learning in the classroom, the ITA Tech Challenge offers them a glimpse into what real world experience might feel like. “It made me see what pressure you’d be put under. In school, most of what we do is ‘here’s the task, here’s exactly what you need to do it’. At ITA, it was more like,’build this, you have 4 hours to do it,'” Carpenter said.

Beyond the thrill of competition, the event is an important networking opportunity for students and enterprises alike. Kelley said, “Yes, by being there we are building our brand and making our name known, but we are also have the opportunity to proactively identify and select some of the most talented candidates.”

What has proven to be most fruitful for Trustwave in these partnerships, said Kelley, “Is that we’ve found at the university level, you can find talent. Of course we like to bring in folks who have experience, but you can build experience. Without talent, the experience isn’t really that valuable.”

Pairing the more experienced leaders in the industry with new talent in order to help them grow is one tactic that other enterprises can use to combat the skills shortage.


Kacy Zurkus is a freelance writer for CSO and has contributed to several other publications including The Parallax, and K12 Tech Decisions. She covers a variety of security and risk topics as well as technology in education, privacy and dating. She has also self-published a memoir, Finding My Way Home: A Memoir about Life, Love, and Family under the pseudonym "C.K. O'Neil."

Zurkus has nearly 20 years experience as a high school teacher on English and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University (2011). She earned a Master's in Education from University of Massachusetts (1999) and a BA in English from Regis College (1996). Recently, The University of Southern California invited Zurkus to give a guest lecture on social engineering.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Kacy Zurkus and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.

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