Dan Manson saw for the vision of what cybersecurity education could become long before many people even knew what cybersecurity was.
Over the past 20 years, he’s helped expand cyber competitions across California while serving as a professor and chair of the Computer Information Systems department at Cal Poly Pomona. After seeing so much success in California, he’s ready to do the same thing in Nevada, where he now lives.
“California has gone so far down the road that they don’t need me,” Manson said. “There are other places that aren’t very far down that road where I can still have an impact.”
Manson joined the cybersecurity world in 2001 after hearing about a Department of Education grant aimed at improving campus cybersecurity. He thought that there might be an opportunity for faculty to become involved and — as he’s done many times throughout his career — invited himself to the meetings to learn more about it.
That grant lead to two $900,000 NSF Advanced Technical Education grants, one in 2003 and one in 2007. Those funds were aimed at workforce development and allowed Manson to begin building partnerships with other colleges that have only grown stronger over time.
In addition, Manson led the effort for Cal Poly Pomona to be designated a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education in 2005, 2008 and 2014.
After making strides to improve educational opportunities in cybersecurity, Manson still felt like something was needed to bridge the gap between the classroom and the working world. He traveled to the midwest to attend his first cyber competition in 2007 and took a video camera to interview some of the competitors. He didn’t have to do many interviews before he realized that he’d found the missing piece of the puzzle.
“A student said to me that he could learn more in these three days than in a year’s worth of classes,” Manson said. “What I realized later is that to be good in these competitions, you’ll practice for months and students could learn faster through competitions.”
Manson returned to California determined to replicate the success he’d seen in the Midwest. He started hosting the Western Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in 2008 and took a team from Cal Poly Pomona to nationals in 2009.
That team gained a lot of attention and demonstrated the need for cybersecurity professionals that still exists today.
“Boeing said they wanted to interview our team and offered every one of those students on the team a job,” Manson said. “Those early students were pioneers. College cybersecurity programs are much more developed now than they were then and it’s easier for students to go into it now.”
While Manson’s work brought him notoriety in the cybersecurity community, longtime colleague Ronald Pike said personal gain was never the goal.
“Dan’s selfless support of others in cybersecurity has included research to lay out a path to success for young cyber-students, the development of competitions to allow students to test and demonstrate their skills, the development of research projects to engage students in solving some of cybersecurity’s great challenges, grant and philanthropy work to bring in resources to make competitions and research in cybersecurity possible and endless energy to support students,” said Pike, an associate professor of Computer Information Systems at Cal Poly Pomona.
Manson began working with high school students in 2010 and, after seeing CyberPatriot in action, realized that cyber athletes could exist alongside any other sports team and the competitions could draw spectators just like a football or basketball game would.
To that end, he’s worked to expand cyber competitions beyond CyberPatriot to include capture the flag and other competitions designed to attract a diverse group of students and foster a sense of community just like any other sports team.
Unlike a lot of other sports teams, however, just about any cyber athlete can reach the major leagues by obtaining a well-paying job in California or anywhere in the U.S. or around the world.
“We can create cyber athletes who are just as passionate about what they do as any other athletes and who can go pro a lot easier than any other athlete,” Manson said. “When I see the kids play in competitions, I think they’re playing a sport.”
Although Manson will no longer be working directly in California as he begins his new challenge in Nevada, Pike said his efforts will continue to be felt for years to come.
“Our students go to the top corporate and government employers in the nation because of the programs that Dan put in place,” Pike said. “Also, students from middle school through colleges all around the nation benefit from programs and capabilities that exist because of Dan’s dedication to students in this field.”