NEWPORT, Ky. -- For Newport High School junior C.J. Dyas, the best part about being a Tech Defender has been accessing complex, highly secure "networking closets" like those at Northern Kentucky University.
“They’re these big rooms with wires everywhere and huge, huge computers. A lot of the staff at NKU have never even seen them,” said Dyas. “Anything that’s connected to the internet -- phones, computers, wireless access points -- all go back to those closets, which pretty much control everything on campus."
For Dyas, it’s about more than spy-like security clearance; he’s the type of learner who likes to take stuff apart and put it back together to see how it works. Dyas and his fellow Tech Defenders get the chance to do that and more as part of a 12-week afterschool program produced by the cybersecurity experts at Nexigen, who offer high-caliber curriculum in a range of tech disciplines.
Newport-based Nexigen is a growing company that serves approximately 1,000 regional clients. Its range of IT services includes training, programming, storage, design and cyber-defense solutions. The company is currently working to leverage student talent in protecting information.
“In the Tech Defenders program, we take guys from our office during paid time and they go to area high schools and teach different techniques,” said Nexigen chief technology officer Jon Salisbury. “We provide the equipment, have students compete in cyber defense games and at the end, we award scholarships to help them pursue degrees and careers in tech. Primarily, this is a way to give kids more options than we had growing up, because our high school experience wasn’t great in terms of tech."
Newport’s Tech Defenders team consists of 10 students who meet weekly to learn about hardware, software, networking and other tools to tackle modern cybersecurity challenges. Those challenges are great, according to Salisbury, who describes a situation in which cyber-hackers are getting smarter by the minute and outdated methods like firewalls and anti-malware are no match for the threat.
"The craziest thing I’ve learned about cyber defense is just how easy it is to breach in and steal information," said Dyas. "It’s incredibly easy if you know what you’re doing, so that’s pretty scary."
Students such as Dyas who have always shown an interest in computer networking are a natural fit for the Tech Defenders program. A media arts teacher at Newport High School suggested the program after noticing Dyas' high level of participation in class. Dyas says his interest was piqued from that first introduction, and now, as graduation nears, he’s beginning to see where his cyber-defense education might take him.
"I’ve been looking at NKU a lot, and at this point it’s my first choice for college," said Dyas. "After that, I would love to work for Nexigen or a company like that."
Nexigen is also actively engaging students at the college level; the company employs both of NKU’s cyber defense coaches, and the Tech Defenders program was inspired by their team model. Through those connections, Nexigen works extensively with NKU’s College of Information Security, which in 2014 was named a National Center for Academic Excellence by the National Security Agency and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
By harnessing student talent -- the existing scope of which Salisbury believes sets Northern Kentucky apart from similarly sized regions -- Nexigen is able to provide its suite of technology tools at a price point that is affordable and scalable for mid-sized companies.
"Those services would easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Salisbury. "But we are able to do a lot cost effectively through agreements with hungry kids from NKU. We set up a system that simulates real-world circumstances, so kids come out of the program two to three years ahead of other grads. That’s our secret recipe for success: practical application learning."
Another component for success, Salisbury said, is that Nexigen incentivizes professors "in an almost entrepreneurial way," rewarding them for introducing new and progressive courses in their curriculum.
"I don’t know of another program in the region that’s doing it this well," said Salisbury. "Nexigen might have been the first to recognize this value and run forward."
But, he admits, in something of a call to action for other cybersecurity providers in the region, “We can’t hire every single graduate.”
The company's focus on agility and cost-effectiveness is helping Nexigen take its cybersecurity model to the city level, where organizers are working with administrators to make Newport the Midwest’s first "smart city." That designation will involve strategic placement of smartLINK "nodes" with USB fast-charging outlets, emergency alert systems, outdoor LCD displays for wayfinding and other features that residents and law enforcement can use to stay connected anywhere in Newport.
Construction has begun on the first smartLINK node, which will be located in front of Newport on the Levee. The program will be available to the public in early December.