Great Falls College cybersecurity students get real-world experience with state internship
GREAT FALLS, Mont. – Steve Robinett, the computer technology program director at Great Falls College MSU, doesn't mince words when describing the first-of-its kind internship two of his cybersecurity students are receiving through the Montana Department of Administration.
"We struck gold with this," Robinett said, as students Megin Bowshier and Dan Betcher are wrapping up a seven-week internship with the state as part of a program designed to help fill the huge need of cybersecurity workers across Montana and the nation.
Two more Great Falls College students are set to begin the program in a couple weeks.
Betcher and Bowshier agree with Robinett's assessment.
"The amount of tools they are showing us how to use and the information on how it operates and what they are looking for," said Betcher, a first-year student in the cybersecurity program, "goes well beyond the scope of the classroom."
And Bowshier, a second-year student, has been impressed as well.
"It's great actually," she said. "I'm definitely getting my hands on programs that I have never even touched in classes. For (the state's) first time, they are so informational. They have PowerPoints, schedules, homework. You would not think this was their first time doing this."
The two work for the state for about 18 hours a week, with six-hour shifts on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The state has two teams – the policy and risk management team and the incident response and technical security team. Bowshier and Betcher split their time with the two teams so they get a broader experience, explained Andy Hanks, the chief information security officer for the state of Montana.
The primary goals of this internship are to provide the students with hands-on experience and training to better prepare them for getting jobs and to expose them to multiple areas of cybersecurity so they can identify the specialty they want to pursue, Hanks said.
Robinett, who worked for defense contractors in the Beltway for 25-plus years, explained the college started its program after seeing the workforce shortage.
"We developed the cybersecurity program in direct response to what we saw as an industry need," he said. "There's a huge demand for these people. Of course, these are high-paying, in-demand jobs. Graduates are going to have a lot of flexibility on where they work and how they work."
Betcher, a 36-year-old married father of three girls, was looking for a career change after working in a nonprofit as a group-home manager when he started taking classes at Great Falls College and came across the cybersecurity program. The college has one of only two programs in the state designated as a Center of Academic Excellence by Homeland Security and the National Security Agency.
"The education I have received so far has been great," Betcher said. "The instructors who are teaching the courses online or in person are very helpful and very thorough. They are very knowledgeable in the areas they are teaching, and you can tell that by the way they present the information to you. And Steve (Robinett), who is the director and set up the internship, he is just amazing. He has so much experience and knowledge, it's just crazy."
"It's beyond helpful," Betcher said. "It's preparing me for beyond college because I'm already looking at what kind of job I want to explore once I have my degree."
He is more drawn to the work of the incident response team, which is further divided into a red team and a blue team.
"The red team is more offensive, hunting for vulnerabilities, and the blue team is more defensive, reacting to alerts for malware, searching for anything like that that has touched the system," he said.
Betcher said the state's cybersecurity team has been wonderful at explaining really technical information.
"They don't expect me or Megin to know what they are talking about," he said. "I mean they know we have gone through school, but they know we haven't had real-world experience in the tools they are using, so whatever question we have, they answer and they are more than willing to help us learn and further our education."
Bowshier said the incredibly high competency of the state's cybersecurity team was initially intimidating but soon that feeling was erased with how down-to-earth they all were.
"Everybody on both teams has such extensive experience, so it's a little daunting and I'm a little intimidated," she said. "For both me and Dan, we don't have that lengthy technical experience, but they take us under their wing since we're new to it. They are all great. I have no complaints about any of the people."
Robinett can't speak highly enough of the experience the students are receiving.
"They are giving the experience and reality that can't really be effectively duplicated," he explained. "So, the graduates who go through this will have a real leg up when they enter the job market. What they are doing is above and beyond what I have experienced with internships. They really created their own curriculum within the internship."
He said the state is using a nationally recognized framework for the internship "that is literally a checklist of technical areas they are giving students experience in," and he compared it to nurses who take national boards so potential employers can be confident they have mastered certain skills.
Bowshier, a 27-year-old who is from Dietrich, a small town near Twin Falls, Idaho, came to Great Falls College and the cybersecurity program when her husband was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
"Since my husband is military, I need a job that will travel, and cybersecurity is great for that," Bowshier said. "I'm able to get a job on base if I get the proper clearance, and the job market is great, the pay is great. I feel I can get a job anywhere."
When Bowshier graduates in a couple months, she plans to pursue more cybersecurity certifications to make herself more marketable.
"Certifications are a huge thing in cybersecurity," she said. "A lot of companies give those a little more weight than if I were to get a bachelor's in cybersecurity."
As another part of the internship, Bowshier and Betcher are working with human resources partner Chris Bacon to put together their resumes, cover letters and going through mock interviews. Bacon is in charge of hiring cybersecurity professionals for the state.
"We get an inside look at what he looks for in a hire for cybersecurity," Bowshier said. "What looks good to him, probably will look good at places where I will apply."
Betcher explains it simply as "invaluable."
While the experience has been amazing for the students, Hanks sees it as a huge win for the state as well.
"Employers can benefit from participating in an internship program. We get in the habit of getting institutionalized with the way we do things, and we develop processes that we repeat for years without further thought," he said.
"Interns look at what we do from a different perspective and are able to provide us with new ways of thinking that may lead to more mature processes. Additionally, the interns in these cohorts will help us refine our internship program. After these two internship cohorts, we'll publish a blueprint for the cybersecurity internship program that other state agencies can model."
Hanks has been on the job for about three years and said that developing a pipeline of cybersecurity talent for both state government and for the Montana business community has been a top priority, so he was able to get funding for internships and apprenticeships from the 2019 Legislature into the state budget going forward.
"Cybersecurity workers are critical to all organizations; they contribute to their employer's financial security just as much as they do their employer's data security," he said. "Security breaches can cost a lot of money to recover from, but the loss of trust and diminished reputation can harm an organization just as much as the financial costs. Governments have additional concerns for state and national security, and election security."
"This opportunity showcases the value of two-year colleges in the state to create skilled employees and be active in both workforce and economic development," said Dr. Susan J. Wolff, CEO/dean of Great Falls College. "We invite all agencies and employers to provide a similar experience for students in all our programs. It is a win-win for employers and the soon-to-be graduates seeking employment. We are grateful to Mr. Hanks and all of the employees on the state's cybersecurity team."
Nationally, Hanks said there is a shortage of about 500,000 cybersecurity workers.
"There's a high demand, low supply of cybersecurity workers," he said. "One of our strategic cybersecurity initiatives in Montana is to develop an in-state cybersecurity workforce talent pipeline of diverse and skilled cybersecurity workers to ensure Montana's government and industry have access to the cybersecurity talent they need to protect their data. It is a great time to pursue a career in cybersecurity and we are very excited to partner with Great Fall College to launch this important program."
Dr. Leanne Frost, the executive director of instruction at Great Falls College, is excited about the program.
"These are just the kinds of hands-on opportunities that open the doors for graduates of our programs," she said. "It is so exciting to see our students making a difference and getting workplace experience, whether it's in our health care, accounting, trades or computer technology programs."
So far, all signs point to two thumbs up from Bowshier and Betcher.
"I'm so grateful for the experience, for Steve and Andy, and Joe Frohlich (who heads up the policy and risk management team) and James Zito (who is in charge of the incident response and technical security team) and their team members who are all amazing," Betcher said. "I don't know if I could have had the confidence to apply for a job after graduating without the internship."