Sean McNally doesn’t mind being busy. These days, he practically has two full-time jobs — one as a math teacher at Elk Grove High School and the other as a CyberPatriot coach and coordinator.
McNally has become a leader in the cybersecurity education community, continually working to empower his students with the same level of drive and dedication he’s shown over the course of his career.
He was named the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot Teacher of the Year for California in 2014 and 2015 and continues to look for new ways to further the CyberPatriot program throughout the state.
Raised by a single mother, McNally credits the Boy Scouts with teaching him the value of leadership. He rose through the ranks and earned the rank of Eagle Scout, scouting’s highest honor, by the time he turned 18. He also developed a love of math as a child and uses that in his work as a teacher.
“Scouting taught me that if you make up your mind ahead of time to do the right thing, then 80% of all your decisions are already made for you. The remaining 20% of your decisions will depend on your experience,” he said. “Not everyone relates to math like I do. It is my responsibility to bring enthusiasm into the classroom and show them they can have fun with math.”
McNally’s enthusiasm and interest in math made him a natural fit for the CyberPatriot program. He first learned about the program when he played softball with an Air Force Association liaison that told him all about CyberPatriot.
After a chance meeting at his 20th high school reunion in 2011, he met James Vahanian, an information security analyst at Wells Fargo, who would go on to help him mentor his first team of nine students at Elk Grove High School. Vahanian’s background helped to supplement instruction in firewall configuration, intrusion detection, and penetration testing.
McNally did not have any cybersecurity training or experience when he started as a coach in 2011, but that didn’t stop him from pushing forward. He drew from materials provided by the Air Force Association and looked to Vahanian for technical assistance.
He encourages any teacher who is interested in CyberPatriot to consider becoming a coach, regardless of their technical experience.
“A coach’s job is to supervise while students learn from online resources,” McNally said. “You don’t need to know cybersecurity at all.”
A Setback Turned Opportunity
Shortly after McNally’s CyberPatriot team — the first one in Northern California — was up and running, it hit a setback that might have caused other coaches to throw in the towel.
Two students who gravitated towards the CyberPatriot program in the fall of 2011 had installed their own games onto the computers in a computer lab the previous spring. This was against school policy and caused the CyberPatriot team, that these students were now a member of, to lose access to the computer lab for an entire school year.
McNally was upset that the school’s administration would suggest that his CyberPatriot program would be responsible for such behavior.
“If I was any other teacher, the program would have been dead in that moment,” McNally said.
Rather than sitting back and losing an entire year of competition, McNally found other locations that would host his CyberPatriot team. He partnered with two hotels in the area that allowed him free use of their conference rooms. The hotels even used their connections to local restaurants to have the six-hour competitions catered.
Not only did those connections get McNally and his team through a tough situation, they also helped spread the word about CyberPatriot in the community.
“Everything was free because people saw value in the program and wanted to support us,” McNally said. “We made this program continue no matter what obstacles were thrown our way.”
This period also saw a transition of CyberPatriot mentors from James Vahanian to cybersecurity engineers from AeroJet, a company GenCorp owned.
Those engineers pushed McNally’s students to learn even more about CyberPatriot and learn more outside the classroom, which made the program even stronger.
Community College Connection
McNally’s team went back into the classroom 2012 and continued building a successful program over the next few years. In 2014, he caught the attention of Steve Linthicum, Deputy Sector Navigator for Information Communication Technologies and Digital Media (ICT/DM) in the Orange County Region.
Linthicum was looking for people to help spread interest in the CyberPatriot program throughout the state as part of an effort to build a cybersecurity pathway from K-12 to college to industry. He was so impressed by what McNally was doing in northern California that he made him Greater Sacramento Region CyberPatriot Middle/High School Coordinator.
“Sean has been a valued resource and deserves most of the credit for making the program grow across the Region,” Linthicum said.
In that role, he visited schools throughout the region and helped teachers come on board as CyberPatriot coaches. He also represented the Sacramento region at ICT/DM meetings and events.
“My primary mission was to help other teachers not have to suffer through obstacles like I did in becoming a CyberPatriot coach,” McNally said. “I showed them the ropes, so to speak, on how to set up for competitions and provide rigorous training materials for the students to be self-taught, unless a mentor was found to implement the training.”
Teacher of the Year
As he became more involved in the CyberPatriot community, McNally’s peers encouraged him to apply for the Teacher of the Year awards that the Air Force Association gives to teachers who are making an impact in Aerospace or STEM disciplines.
In 2014, he was named the Claude Farinha Gold Rush Chapter #116 Teacher of the Year for secondary education. His application was then passed along to compete for Teacher of the Year in Northern California Area 1. He won that award and was invited to a banquet where the statewide Teacher of the Year would be chosen from three regional finalists.
As he sat in the banquet hall, McNally thought he would need to wait in suspense through the entire thing to find out whether or not he’d won. As it turns out, he received some good news early in the evening when he opened the event’s program.
“In that program was printed, ‘Sean McNally-Area 1 and State Teacher of the Year.’ I was surprised and grateful to learn that I had won,” McNally said.
Sean also won AFA State Teacher of the year again in 2015 and was on track to win again in 2016, but no one was selected that year.
Winning State Teacher of the Year made McNally eligible to apply for National Teacher of the Year, an award that’s given to one of the statewide winners each year. He didn’t win that award, but his application was so strong that he received the National Air Force Association’s Medal of Merit for his efforts in STEM education and his advocacy of the National Youth Cyber Education Program.
With awards under his belt and a successful team at his high school, McNally has already achieved a lot in the Air Force Association’s National Youth Cyber Education Program.
He hopes to continue building on his outreach efforts as a California Cyberhub adviser. He’s also started the CyberPatriot Lecture series to provide regional training sessions for teams in need of a mentor.
IT professionals record lectures on topics like using Cisco Packet Tracker and finding vulnerabilities in Windows. Those lectures were held in person and recorded for distribution on YouTube. McNally now live streams his CyberPatriot Lecture series across the state using Nepris.com.
No matter what comes his way, McNally will remain dedicated to doing whatever he can to advance cybersecurity education in California.
“I enjoy being part of a team of individuals who want to grow this program so that students can begin a pathway to a high wage-earning career someday,” McNally said. “My enthusiasm that comes out when I speak is well received by students; I have found a niche for myself and I like bringing a program to kids who enjoy it.”.