When it comes to the new Florida Center for Cybersecurity at USF, managing director Sri Sridharan isn’t afraid to aim high.
“If someone has a question a couple of years from now in Billings, Montana, and says, ‘I have a question on cybersecurity,’ the answer should be, ‘Hey, go to those guys at University of South Florida, they’ll have the answer for you,’” Sridharan said.
Beginning this fall, the center will offer a master’s degree in cybersecurity through a program that goes well beyond typical information technology (IT) offerings.
“It touches psychology and forensics and law and policy and compliance, et cetera, so the students graduating from that master’s program will have a very good knowledge in all aspects of cybersecurity,” Sridharan said.
Students will be able to specialize in digital forensics, cyber intelligence, information assurance or cybersecurity fundamentals. The center will also offer graduate certification in those four fields.
Sridharan said that recent data breaches that exposed the financial information of hundreds of thousands of people have shown there’s a real need for specialists in the field.
“What Target and Neiman Marcus and others have done is suddenly open the eyes of the chief executives of all corporations – medium, small, large – and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got consumer data, we better start protecting it and to protect it, we better hire a cybersecurity professional who knows what the heck he or she is doing,’” Sridharan said.
And as Dr. Peter Warren Singer recently pointed out, cybersecurity is one of the fastest growing - and financially rewarding - industries today.
“There’s a huge amount of opportunity in it, both in terms of individuals - it’s not just that there’s this one million new jobs out there - but also the fact that a majority of them pay over a hundred thousand dollars per year,” Singer said.
The Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institute was the debut speaker in the USF/SunTrust Foundation Lecture Series, presenting ideas from his book Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know.
“We need to change it from being viewed as, I jokingly call it an “it crowd” for the IT folks, it’s for all of us out here," Singer said. "The second part is that we need to change our mentality from this one of fear and ignorance to resilience. We're going to be using the Internet and we're going to be facing cyber threats, we need to stop being so scared and start looking at them as something to be managed."
In addition to education, Sridharan said the Center will focus on research, with USF faculty from a variety of disciplines (Colleges of Business, Arts and Sciences, Behavioral and Community Sciences, Dept. of Computer Science & Engineering, and the School of Information) trying to pick up some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in private, public and governmental grants available.
“We have got some fantastic faculty at USF – close to 80 of them that have directly dealt with cybersecurity and they’ve got deep experience, knowledge and know-how in that area. We should be able to go after these grants and get a lot of those grants for USF,” Sridharan said.
The former CEO of Tampa IT company Ultramatics and executive with IBM Global Network also praised USF leadership for getting behind the cybersecurity efforts.
“One of the things I always used to tell my sales people was, ‘Make sure that there’s commitment from the top executives of the companies you’re calling on to buy your product or service,’ because if that commitment isn’t there, they can spend all the time they want, they’re never going to get that deal," Sridharan said.
"What I’ve found here from the day I met with President Judy Genshaft and Provost Ralph Wilcox was that they were 100 percent committed to make this a success. That’s the kind of commitment that will make any program successful.”
The Center is already gaining attention from techies - the website NerdScholar recently named USF as the ‘best program on the rise.’
It's also catching the interest of businesses. Sridharan says he's spoken to over 100 companies over the last six months, with many already either seeking USF cybersecurity interns or the opportunity to send their current IT employees back to school.
The center will provide those companies, as well as the Department of Defense, with outreach services, including customized training. In return, those groups will fill educators in on the very latest going on in the field.
“As an academic institution, that kind of a relationship that we build which gives us the feedback in terms of what’s happening in the market is critical to what we teach,” Sridharan said.
Companies are taking notice in other ways too. At Singer's presentation, the SunTrust Foundation announced a $1 million dollar gift to fund the ongoing lecture series.
"One of the corner stones of our giving has always been around education and trying to develop our communities in conjunction with trying to grow jobs," said Alan Brinkman, CEO of SunTrust Bank Tampa Bay. "The series that we’ve endowed, I think, is going to bring more awareness, and as Peter Singer has said it is just going to be a huge industry possibly for Tampa Bay. We want to grab that space."
As for Sridharan’s grand vision of success, Peter Warren Singer said there's a need for a city or region to step up and become the "go to" destination for cybersecurity - a new Silicon Valley if you will - but it’s going to take a lot of hard work and cooperation.
“That's going to be decided by the mix of government action, local business action, university down to local education levels. Can this be a place that has, not just the ingredients to be a business innovation hub, but how do you execute across the next ten, twenty years? And that remains to be seen,” Singer said.
The cooperation part is already underway - while the Florida Center for Cybersecurity would be hosted at USF’s Tampa campus, it would work in collaboration with 11 other state institutions.
Government action may soon come as well. The Center's total operating budget request is $16.1 million, which Kim Wilmath, the Center's Asst. Dir. of Higher Education Policy Analysis, says will be broken down into phases. State legislators are expected to consider the center’s request for a little over $7 million in phase one funding during the current session.
Jane Holl Lute is the next speaker in the lecture series, May 12 at 1 p.m. at the USF Patel Center for Global Solutions. Lute is president and chief executive officer of the Council on Cybersecurity, an independent, global organization committed to an open and secure Internet. She most recently served as Deputy Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security.