A DISA Army warrant officer and four teammates were awarded top accolades at the first government-wide President’s Cup Cybersecurity Competition hosted by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Benjamin Koontz, technical advisor for DISA’s Cyber Operations Directorate, along with Army Maj. Josh Rykowski, Army Cyber Command; Chief Warrant Officer 4 Phillip Smith, 781st Military Intelligence Battalion; Army Sergeant 1st Class Zachary McElory, and Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Cundari from Army Cyber Protection Brigade, took first place in the competition.
More than 1,000 individuals and over 200 teams of federal employees and military members competed in the competition, which began in September and was comprised of three rounds, with the final taking place Dec. 11-13. Contestants — both individuals and teams — took part in the first two rounds remotely by solving Jeopardy-style cyber challenges in a virtual environment.
“It started with about 200 teams in the beginning,” said Koontz. “That was reduced to 50 teams in the second round, and then five teams, including ours — competed in the two-day final in Alexandria.”
The final event consisted of a capture-the-flag style series of challenges, where points were awarded based on different categories of cybersecurity skills including forensics, exploitation, reverse engineering and data analytics.
“A lot of times during the challenges, our team would divide and conquer,” said Koontz. “We all have great overall skills, and have competed together in the past, but sometimes a team member was really strong in something, and able to complete the challenge in, say, 20 minutes versus the other team members’ two hours. We complement each other really well, and that’s a huge factor in our winning.”
The competition, established by President Donald J. Trump in May 2019, was open to all government agencies. Individual competitors in the challenge came from 21 different agencies, while teams represented 17 different agencies.
All of the teams competing in the final challenge were from the Department of Defense.
“All of the teams coming from the Department of Defense say a lot about how much we’ve invested in cyber,” said Koontz. “The DoD in general is passionate about cyber. A huge part of that is cybersecurity, and at DISA, it’s part of our job every day.”
That dedication to combatting adversaries in cyberspace is vital to national security, said CISA Director Christopher Krebs during the event.
“The United States depends on a strong cybersecurity workforce, but for years the available talent has not kept up with demand … The President’s Cup Cybersecurity Challenge is just one of the ways we’re working to build the nation’s cybersecurity workforce — by identifying, highlighting and rewarding the top talent in government.”
Competition provides cyber warriors the opportunity to hone their skills and embrace new technology designed specifically for the warfighter, said Koontz.
“The President’s Cup and similar cyber challenges require problem solving and critical thinking skills, which are very important in today’s changing cybersecurity environment,” he said. “The challenge may require you to learn tools you’ve never used to solve a simulated problem, but that tool may help you solve a real problem when it really matters.”
The desire to problem solve with new tools is just part of the reason Koontz is an asset to the DISA team, said Col. Melissa Miles, chief of Defensive Cyber Operations at the agency.
“[Koontz] is a tremendous asset to our team and DISA overall, and we are very thankful for all the things he is doing to contribute to our ability to operate and defend the [Defense Information Systems Network]. He has a bright future ahead, and we look for more great things to come his way.”
DISA Director and JFHQ-DODIN Commander, Navy Vice Adm. Nancy A. Norton said the skills these specialists bring to the table illustrate why those who work for the government are so vital.
“This competition and the experts involved illustrate the highest level of professionalism,” said Norton. “This display of hard work is indicative of our entire team’s goal to be the trusted provider who connects and protects the warfighter in cyberspace. Teams like these are leading innovation and bringing lethality for the warfighter in defense of our nation.”