Southeast Missouri State University student publication

Cyber security major lends skills to local high school, helps earn state title

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Cape Girardeau local and Southeast senior Connor McGarr utilized skills learned in Southeast’s cybersecurity program to help lead Cape Girardeau Central High School to a Cyber Patriot state title before entering that world as a professional.

After doing a co-op with Ameren for eight months and also earning the Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) certification, McGarr landed himself a job with Ernst & Young, one of the “Big Four” accounting firms worldwide.

There, he will be working as a penetration tester, effectively trying to hack into Ernst & Young’s network so they know what needs to be improved to maximize its security.

McGarr is prepared to take on this role, especially after coaching Cape Central’s Air Force JROTC Cyber Patriot team.

Cyber Patriot is similar to the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition but is between high school Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs. Cape Central’s AFJROTC participated in the competition for the first time this year.

Out of 14 JROTC teams in Missouri, Cape Central got first but missed out on the national semifinal by a few points because it is on total aggregate score, not just based on winning state.

This was Cape Central’s first year doing the Cyber Patriot challenge, following Southeast’s legacy in a way, as SEMO won the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition state competition in its inaugural year — and the six years following, as well.

McGarr, an alumnus of Notre Dame Regional High School, saw this as an opportunity to give back to the community, even with it being a high school rival. He said working with Cape Central has been rewarding, and the kids were great to work with.

“If I have a chance to help somebody, I’m going to do it,” McGarr said. “I believe in total, unadulterated knowledge sharing. All you have to show me is that you’re willing to put in an ounce of effort and I’ll go 10 miles for you.”

McGarr said the students at Cape Central showed they wanted to put in the effort. This also served as an opportunity for him to develop better skills at explaining what happens when a computer system gets hacked, something he will need to do in the near future.

“I personally enjoyed being able to go there. I felt like I had a purpose with them,” McGarr said. “To see that they actually appreciate not only the help but the knowledge that they were obtaining, it was a great feeling.”

This opportunity arose after Cape Central reached out to associate professor of computer science Vijay Anand for assistance in starting a Cyber Patriot team with AFJROTC. Anand approached both McGarr and freshman Jack Gavin and asked if they wanted to help at the high school.

McGarr said the team practiced three hours a week from September until the state competition in January.

Both McGarr and Gavin are on Southeast’s CCDC team, but Gavin did Cyber Patriot at Lee’s Summit High School in Kansas City, Missouri. The duo seemed perfect candidates for coaches since Gavin was experienced and McGarr was local.

One of McGarr’s favorite things about doing CCDC is being able to represent Southeast on a larger scale.

“People definitely know who SEMO is. We beat Missouri S&T every year, and being able to represent SEMO on a team where we travel, it’s an awesome feeling,” McGarr said. “[SEMO’s] cyber program is top-notch, and I have to say that. The ABET accreditation that we have, only three other schools have that, and two of them are the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy. Dr. Anand is the sole person that was really a driving force to get us that accreditation because of the content he put in those courses.”

McGarr likened Southeast’s CCDC team to the University of Kentucky’s basketball team — everyone knows they are going to do well every year. SEMO is the seven-time state champion and “is going to be hard to dethrone.”

There were a large number of things that landed McGarr the job with Ernst & Young, and the combination of the OSCP certification and Southeast’s Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology certification for its cybersecurity program “made it a no-brainer” to hire him.

With Ernst & Young, McGarr will need to explain very technical and cyber-specific things to CEOs and upper management people who will not have a wealth of knowledge in cybersecurity. He saw the opportunity to work with Cape Central’s AFJROTC team as a great way to practice for his new job.

McGarr said the team practiced three hours a week from September until the state competition in January.

“I had to re-go over the basics with them in a way that they can understand, and so it helped me out as well,” McGarr said. “Starting out with a bunch of 14-year-old, 15-year-old kids definitely brought me back to my roots.”

At his interview with Ernst & Young, they questioned the school McGarr came from since most of its employees come from Penn State and the University of Texas at Austin.

“I told them, ‘Just look us up, we have ABET accreditation in cybersecurity,’ and after that, they never asked me one more question about the school and I got the job offer right after that, not even joking,” McGarr said. “That ABET accreditation is huge, and Dr. Anand was really the driving force behind that. He’s an awesome confidant to be able to talk to and he has a lot of knowledge about things you wouldn’t believe.”

On March 15 and 16, the CCDC team traveled to Chicago to partake in the regional cyber defense competition, where they were unable to place inside the top four. McGarr noted incompetencies during critical parts of the competition that cost them in the end.

McGarr is set to graduate in May and will move to Houston to work for Ernst & Young as a penetration tester.

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