William Diaz loves computers as much as anyone else in the cybersecurity community, but he also understands the physical and mental benefits of getting up from behind the screen.
He is combining his passion for IT with his passion for health and wellness through his work with A World Fit for Kids, a Los-Angeles-based non-profit that’s provided after-school programming to underserved communities since 1993.
Diaz learned about the relationship between health and technology the hard way as he became involved in CyberPatriot and changed his college major from English to IT.
“The more Red Bull I drank, the less physical exercise I got,” Diaz said. “It really dawned on me: what is the point of getting all these skills if I’m going to be 35 with a chronic disease?”
That premise now serves as Diaz’s guiding principle at A World Fit for Kids, where he serves as the IT manager. He tries to incorporate healthy habits into all of his CyberPatriot coaching and make students aware that the actions they take today can have implications for the rest of their lives.
“Health and cyber don’t mix and they should because health has become such a big force in our world from the opioid epidemic to the suicide crisis,” Diaz said. “I’m making students aware of the implications of their technology use.”
Some of the healthy habits Diaz emphasizes include drinking water instead of soda or other sugary beverages and taking time to get up and move for a few minutes during each hour of a CyberPatriot competition.
Achieving those goals is sometimes easier said than done, especially in the pressure of a competition setting. However, he sees the work as an essential part of building good habits now that will stick with students once they enter the cybersecurity field.
“The more I see cyber taking off, the more I see health deteriorating,” he said. “If students don’t have role models for healthy behavior, they are never going to learn it.”
Outside of promoting a healthy lifestyle, Diaz is also developing self-paced CyberPatriot training designed for students who are not able to attend in-person training sessions. He’s using Moodle and GoToMeeting to deliver online training sessions that can be viewed in real-time and are recorded for later use.
Diaz said moving away from location-bound training is critical for bringing cyber competitions to underserved communities, where family schedules and obligations often lead to inconsistent attendance at scheduled training sessions and events.
“I can be at five schools virtually and have more impact that way than going to one school hoping that all the kids show up,” Diaz said.
Beyond the Bell Administrator Carey Peck said the resources Diaz is putting in place are invaluable as interest in CyberPatriot in the Los Angeles Unified School District continues to grow. Beyond the Bell currently has more than 170 registered CyberPatriot teams and it’s impossible to hold in-person coaching sessions for all of them.
Further, Peck said the self-paced modules Diaz is developing help to solidify students’ understanding of the concepts because they are responsible for solving problems and figuring things out on their own.
“The real hallmark of our winning teams has been self-education,” Peck said. “They get to dig in on their own and develop the level of skill they need to soar.”
Peck said Diaz exemplifies the success he wants to see from every Beyond the Bell student.
“William came to the plate with a few strikes against him, but found this means to elevate his life and his work and continue his education, and to serve others,” Peck said. “He is the epitome of what we would like to see in this program.”
Diaz’s passion for cybersecurity comes across loud and clear to his colleagues. Raul Gonzalez-Rios was on Diaz’s Cyber Patriot team and now works with him at A World Fit for Kids. He credits Diaz with pushing his love of IT farther than he thought was possible.
“I thought I knew everything about computers, but he proved to me that there was always more to learn, and has helped forge the path I took towards my cybersecurity career and CIT degree,” Gonzalez-Rios said. “William's initiative to enhance his skills and knowledge is inspiring to all students and coaches around him.”
Moving forward, he hopes to continue coaching CyberPatriot, but instilling in his students the idea that winning is not everything. This is a hard message for most teens to hear, he says, but one that is critical for moving the needle on solving California’s cybersecurity workforce crisis.
“I’m always telling kids that competition is great and all but at the end of the day it’s the skills that matter,” Diaz said.