All-girl Alabama cybersecurity skills squad a force to be reckoned with
This feature first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Writing profiles for Certification Magazine brings me into contact with many bright and hardworking young people. It is inspiring to learn of their accomplishments and, in a way, kind of humbling to compare the meager highlights of my youth to theirs.
Selecting an individual student to profile is always difficult; each one I meet is so very impressive. Unfortunately, space and time limitations mean we can’t profile each deserving student. (That’s the bummer part of my job.)
Fortunately, thanks to Center Point High School in Center Point, Ala., I get to profile four deserving students at one time, the members of Center Point’s award-winning cybersecurity team, SmurfAttack. It’s an appropriate name. In computer parlance, a smurf attack is a DDoS attack utilizing large numbers of message control packets to swamp a victim’s computer with electronic traffic. Like a smurf attack, these girls accomplish a lot together — but in a positive way.
The origin of the team’s name began almost 10 years ago when IT instructor Rick Shirley — Mr. Rick to his students — affectionately referred to several students who helped in the labs and classroom as smurfs. According to Mr. Rick, “the nickname just sort of stuck as my helper smurfs.”
Team SmurfAttack is comprised of four intelligent and charming young women, each with impressive IT skills and promising futures. Together they hold an impressive 17 IT certifications and they are working on more. All are involved in extracurricular activities and organizations, including as the president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer of the school’s computer club.
As good as each is individually, they are even better together. They have compiled an impressive record in a number of statewide and national tech contests. Victories include a second-place finish in the gold tier of the CyberPatriot National Youth Cyber Defense Competition and a recent trip through the Girls Go CyberStart National Championships where they placed first in Alabama and tied for 14th nationally. The competition was made up of 120 teams from all 50 states and is designed to encourage girls to enter the IT field.
After this issue of the magazine goes to press, but before it gets delivered, several team members will travel to Kentucky to participate in the finals of the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference. We’re going to venture a guess that their performance there will add to the already long list of honors they’ve accrued.
One thing the SmurfAttack ladies will not have to compete with is long-term student debt for college. As a group, they have won or been offered scholarships from various institutions totaling more than $1 million.
The Greek philosopher Diogenes said, “The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.” If Team SmurfAttack’s skills, knowledge and humility could be said to represent the character and commitment of students everywhere, then the foundation of our country would be rock solid. What follows is a mini-profile of each girl, in her own words.
Certifications: CompTIA A+, IT Fundamentals, TestOut PC Pro, Network Pro, Routing Pro, Switching Pro, ALHEI Guest Services Gold Certification in customer service. Working on Linux Pro and Security Pro.
Awards: “I won a gold medal at the Alabama SkillsUSA State Championships and a $2,000 scholarship. I also won 1st place in Networking at the JEFCOED Navigator’s Cup.”
Effective study habits: “Excessive domain reviews before every practice exam. I always try to get 90 percent or better on each exam. I put in extra study time outside of school. During summer, I studied from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., four days a week, and during the school year I stayed after school three times a week to study. It was hard. Sometimes I just didn’t want to study, but it was worth it in the end.”
Extracurricular: “President of the Computer Club, captain of the Cyber Security team, Student Council Parliamentarian, and a member of Zeta Nu Phi Sorority. I’m not sure when I sleep, probably just occasionally. It’s exhausting, but I really enjoy being busy and being with friends.”
Why Mr. Rick’s class: “Didn’t have a choice. I started the semester late and it was the last class available. Once I began working with computers, I quickly realized that I liked it.”
Educational and career goals: “I’m attending Tuskegee University in the fall and will study computer science. I’m considering a career in cybersecurity.”
Toughest aspect of becoming certified: “Keeping a dedicated schedule caused conflicts with other responsibilities. My social life suffered. While friends would go out to eat and see movies, I went to practice. I constantly had to prioritize all my extracurricular activities.”
Best part of being certified: “The satisfaction of knowing my hard work paid off. I’ve never worked this hard for anything. I felt so accomplished.”
Advice to other students: “Don’t get discouraged if you run into trouble. Just keep at it. The more you work for it, the easier it will be and the more satisfaction you’ll have in the end.”
Certifications: PC Pro, Network Pro, Switching Pro. Working on Routing Pro.
Favorite Cert: “I love PC Pro. Computer management was my favorite topic, so it was so easy and fun to earn. Switching Pro wasn’t bad to complete either.”
Effective study habits: “Just kept practicing. In class we had to average at least 80 percent on labs before moving on to a new section. That was Mr. Rick’s goal for us. I always tried to get 90 percent or better. Before each exam, I really worked hard on the domains and took every practice test. We had to get a 95 percent on the practice exam to sit for the real exam.”
Hobbies: “I enjoy reading teen dramas like Twilight and The Outsiders. I listen to Gospel and R&B music and music and love to cook with my mom. Breakfast foods are my favorite. My mom taught me to properly make pancakes.”
Why Mr. Rick’s class: “I didn’t want to take an art or theater class and thought, ‘Maybe I’ll give computers a try.’ The more involved I got in the class, the more I progressed. I said, ‘This is easy,’ and started to realize that maybe I could pass a certification test.”
Opinion of certifications: “Certifications are easy if you have the right materials to prepare for the exam. We used TestOut materials. They are hands-on; no just watching a video and taking a test. You had to really do something. The labs showed me I could do stuff on my own and helped me get a clear understanding of the subject.”
Significant accomplishment: “My ACT score. The exam was tough and I really did not study as hard as I should have. I didn’t have a calculator for the math portion; I thought the center would provide one. After the exam, I kept telling myself I didn’t do well. I was excited to find out that I did much better than expected.”
Extracurricular activities: “I was a member of my track and field team, as well as the debate team, but got too busy with school and my job at a donut shop. Track interfered with my job and Coach told me to choose. I said, ‘You’re not paying my school fees so, I guess I’ll go to work.’ I take pride in being independent and like to pay my own way.”
Educational and career goals: “I love kids and want to be a pediatrician. I’m majoring in biology at the University of Alabama and will minor in computer science. I was accepted the day of the Alabama/Auburn game — Alabama won! A different school offered me a bigger scholarship, but I turned it down. My mom was upset, she kept telling me to go where the money is, but my heart is with Alabama.”
Most challenging aspect of earning a cert: “Studying. I had the materials, but my attention span is horrible. I just can’t focus for long and never did set a consistent study schedule. Fortunately, my mom made sure I studied the materials every night. She would sit and watch me study.”
Best part of earning a cert: “The feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. When I saw my exam score, I was, ‘Wow, I just passed my cert exam.’ ”
Advice to other students about certs: “Study hard. It makes it much easier and it’ll pay off in the end.”
Certifications: PC Pro, Network Pro, Switching Pro. Working on Routing Pro and Security Pro.
Study habits: “I studied at least two-and-a-half to three hours daily. Lots of domain tests, practice exams, and I created quiz cards for review. I also practiced a lot with virtual machines.”
Awards and honors: “At the SkillsUSA State Competition, I won 2nd place in Internetworking.”
Extracurricular: “I’m a member of the school’s tech team, on the varsity cheer squad, and a School Ambassador — we get recommended by a school counselor and help around the school any way we can.”
Awesome achievement: “In cheering, I completed back handsprings without a spot and completely stuck the landing.”
Why Mr. Rick’s Class: “As a kid, I always liked computers and wanted to learn how to code and hack. It has been a fascination of mine, was a small hobby throughout middle school, and I wanted to learn more. I signed up in the 10th grade and have loved every bit of it.”
Thoughts about certifications: “It’s not easy to get certified. It takes dedication and skill; without that, you will fail. I’m trying to earn as many certs as possible, because they will separate me from other students and job applicants — I’ll have more hands-on experience.”
Most challenging aspect of earning a cert: “Staying focused was sometimes very difficult. To help me focus, I would listen to music, and once in the ‘zone’ I would get going and stay in there for a good hour. I just kept telling myself that this was for my future.”
Most enjoyable aspect of earning a cert: “Getting the certification was the most satisfying feeling. Realizing that all of the work I put into studying and preparing paid off in the end. I passed all my cert exams on the first try because I didn’t want to pay for a retake.”
Importance of support: “My parents always encouraged me to do my best. Before I could drive, they would transport me to practices. They didn’t understand what I had to do but did everything in their power to help me in whatever way they could. They also helped to make sure that I remembered to study.”
Plans for future certs: “I want to earn my Cisco CCNA Certification, Linux Pro, MTA Python, and Ethical Hacking Pro. I enjoy watching hackers. Being able to hack has always been a dream of mine.”
Advice to other students: “Study hard, keep going and don’t give up. Being certified is worth all the trouble.”
Certifications: TestOut PC Pro, Networking Pro, Switching Pro, Routing Pro. Working on Security Pro.
Study strategies: “We used TestOut materials and did a lot of our study in class. During school breaks, I would be at school doing labs repeatedly until I got a 90 percent or better; then I felt ready for the real exams. It worked; I passed each exam the first time I took them.”
Hobbies: “I like going to the movies and spending time with my friends. I love drawing; most times, it is of other people. My muse is my older sister; I get a lot of inspiration from her. She will buy a canvas and ask me to paint a picture for her. We are very close.”
Why Mr. Rick’s class: “I didn’t plan on taking his class. I never thought of myself as liking computers and did not know anything about them before the class. Once I started working with them, I found it interesting and fun.”
Best IT achievement: “The Routing Pro certification, because I worked so hard on it. I was not at all sure that I would pass the exam and when I did, it made me feel very accomplished.”
Educational and career goals: “I’m planning on attending Auburn University at Montgomery, then medical school at the University of Alabama. I have always been interested in women’s health and want to be an OB/ GYN.”
Thoughts on certification: “I thought it would be cool to have all this knowledge. Technology is a huge part of our present and future and I would like to be able to advance my knowledge of it as it grows. Tech is a big part of everyone’s life, and it’s helpful to know as much as you can.”
Favorite fictional character: “Jessica Jones, because she is fearless, bold and courageous — everything I aspire to be. Those characteristics really stick out to me.”
Craziest accomplishment: “Bungee jumping! I have a horrible fear of heights and will probably never do it again. Whenever I do anything involving heights, I feel great.”
Most challenging aspect of certification: “Daily practice, because some days you just feel like you want to give up. But, you push through it all because you know the outcome will be rewarding in the end.”
Most enjoyable aspect of earning a cert: “The sense of accomplishing something significant and knowing I worked hard for it.”
Advice to other students: “Study until you know every detail you need for the exam. Believe in yourself and never give up. If you don’t succeed the first time, keep trying because the feeling you get after receiving your certification makes all those long days of studying worth it.”