Chair’s Message | Making Experiential Student Learning a SCP Cornerstone

Aug. 6, 2021

Dear Cybersecurity and Privacy community,

I want to continue the conversation I started in last week’s letter about the school’s investment in cybersecurity students. We know that our students are invested in Georgia Tech, but I want that to be a two-way street: we are invested in their success too.

That investment takes many forms, beginning with some of the things I talked about last week, including investing in a culture that promotes developing the skills that we know are highly correlated with long-term success. Those turn out to be different from the technical, cognitive, and analytical skills that must be mastered to win hackathons or ace difficult final exams. Sometimes called T-shaped skills, these are learned traits like determination, ethical judgment, curiosity, entrepreneurship, and self-efficacy that employers say are the hardest to test for during job interviews but which time and time again are associated with career-long advancement, growth and even wealth creation.

Why T-shaped? If you think of cognitive skills like coding as the vertical stroke of the letter T, these other skills are the horizontal bar at the top. They cut across many different technical skill sets and help determine the mindsets and attitudes that employers value most. One of my industrial colleagues once described things this way: “We know we can get great problem-solvers from top-notch programs, but it’s really hard to find people that know which problems to solve.”

Some people call the skills in the horizontal bar of the T the soft skills. I never liked that term. There is nothing soft about them. For one thing, learning them is hard. They are what educational psychologists call malleable. They can be formed and shaped, but they are most easily learned when you are young and become progressively more difficult to learn the older you get. By the time you get to college and beyond, the trial-and-error process of learning from failure may be the only path. Knowing how to form and lead a high-performing team, for example, is not something that you can learn from a lecture. That’s why employers consistently value experience, even when they are recruiting new college graduates.

One recent graduate from the OMS Cyber program (1K+ students strong) shared with me and others the difficulty of landing his first job in the industry. He went through some 50 applications before landing his first cybersecurity job. I was keen on understanding his journey.

He already held an advanced degree in a hard science and had sailed through a demanding Georgia Tech degree program, so his vertical skills were strong. And he had no lack of determination and belief in his ability to succeed (self-efficacy), but of course those were not on his official transcript. What he found was that his lack of professional experience outside his coursework was a barrier to getting the call-back. In fact, he never got a call-back unless someone within the company recommended him. As he put it: “Even though I was applying for entry-level jobs, the reason I was given for not being selected was that I had no directly relevant experience.” He never did get an offer for an entry-level position. He was instead offered (and accepted) a position as lead cybersecurity engineer in a prestigious lab, several levels above entry level.

I’ll have more to say about this story in coming weeks, but for today I want to point to the plans we are making to build these learning experiences into the fabric of SCP. First, experiential learning and peer networking will be a hallmark of cybersecurity at Georgia Tech. In-person students have a leg up on the online students because of internships and networks of colleagues to provide those crucial introductions and recommendations. Building those experiences into online programs is more difficult and takes some investment, but we know it is possible and are committed to doing it.  

The VIP (Vertically Integrated Projects) courses are one way of going about it. A VIP section consists of teams of graduate and undergraduate students that persist over several years. VIP is an award-winning idea that was conceived by Georgia Tech professor Ed Coyle and is now deployed globally. It is as close as you can get to industrial experience, and it focuses on those T-shaped skills. I have supervised VIP sections and can tell you from actual experience that employers recruit VIP students aggressively (almost independent of discipline). Making VIP available to online students is not only possible but also something we are committed to doing with the help of mentors and coaches who augment traditional academic faculty members.

Second, we have incorporated the Center for Deliberate Innovation (CDI) into SCP. This is an award-winning approach to learning the mindsets and traits that lead to innovation. Led by former Associate Dean Merrick Furst, the novelty of CDI’s approach lies in its ability to create a deliberate culture that makes it possible for innovators to expose mistakes and blind spots while establishing safeguards that can be observed and repeated with less risk. Making CDI’s teams of mentors and coaches available to all students (traditional and online) will take some work, but it is a unique approach to providing the relevant experience that was mentioned above.

We are being intentional in our efforts. I have enlisted the school leadership to help us understand how to plug into existing peer networks as well as identify some “diamonds in the rough” who are willing to step forward to increase student engagement.

A look at the week ahead and beyond:

  • On Monday, a select group of students will have the opportunity to be part of a roundtable discussion with R.K. Sehgal, Georgia’s Commissioner of Industry, Trade, and Tourism after the dot-com bust of the early 2000s. He was a brash, entertaining CEO of a $1 billion engineering company before I met him, and I came to appreciate his ability to “move mountains” in the public sector while I was the college’s dean. This is just another example of an opportunity we can offer students to energize them for the possibilities in the current digital economy.  
  • Wednesday is the start of the USENIX Security conference, one of the top-tier research venues in our field. Georgia Tech sits firmly in the top 5 of the organizations contributing to the technical program based on the number of papers (we have a baker’s dozen). You can explore our researchers’ work within the context of the whole program here
  • Research is an important component in the school. There are currently more than a dozen labs where students can explore different cybersecurity and privacy disciplines. As you prepare for the semester, see what current research might be available and suited to your interests. 
  • Finally, the College of Computing’s virtual UROC Job Fair (Undergraduate Research Opportunities in Computing) is Tuesday, Aug. 17, and the 3-Minute Madness for graduate students is Thursday, Aug. 19. Many SCP faculty will preview their work at 3MM, a pitch-style event.

As always, please feel free to reach out and engage with the school and share your cyber-related interests.


Richard  DeMillo 
Charlotte B. and Roger C. Warren Chair of Computing  
Chair, School of Cybersecurity and Privacy    

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