Ignore the fear and jump right into it were some sentiments of participants in the Women in Cyber event held online on November 12, before the 2020 Cyber Skills Challenge.

About 100 women from across Defence took part in the event, with mentors drawn from Australian Signals Directorate, the Australian Cyber Security Centre and the services.

Some, like Joint Cyber Unit’s Flying Officer Sophee Southall, had no technical experience but took the opportunity to learn more about what their colleagues did. 

“The cyber eco-system is incredibly diverse – from human hackers with a love of psychology to STEM enthusiasts and project managers,” Flying Officer Southall said.

“I was a bit terrified to be involved, but I wanted exposure to the technical side of cyber security so I could better understand the skills and processes involved.

“It was a challenging experience, but that’s exciting because it means you’re growing and learning something new.”

With experienced mentors like Navy Information Warfare Branch’s Chief Petty Officer Kathleen Price available through a dedicated Discord server, Flying Officer Southall said help was always on hand. 

Although Chief Petty Offier Price works on the policy and procedure side of the cyber house, even she had the opportunity to learn from the technical mentors. 

“It was really open – the mentors, depending on where their passions lay, were able to jump in and help out,” Chief Petty Officer Price said.

“The mentors were helping each other out as well. We had our own channel so if we encountered something we couldn’t figure out, we’d just ask in there. 

Before you know it, you’re not half bad and a valuable asset to your team. You just need to start and get in there.

“From what I saw coming back, the week was really well received, but it was also good for Defence because we could show people the range of cyber-specific roles.”

The event started with self-paced study and exercises, before participants completed practise questions and then finished with a capture-the-flag challenge.

Predictably Australian Signals Directorate participants took the two top spots in the challenge, but an unexpected contender came third.

Studying software engineering, 9 Regiment’s Gunner Annie Yang only signed up after she saw it advertised on ForceNet, figuring it was a way to find out which cyber she liked.

“Even with my background, it was pretty difficult. I managed the scripting and Linux questions pretty well because I do both in my degree, but the cryptography, steganography and forensics were hard because I’d never experienced them,” Gunner Yang said.

“The mentors were very helpful, I solved a lot of problems because of them.

“It definitely piqued my interest though – I found the challenge fun and I’ll be looking at opportunities to do it again and get my foot into cyber.”

Between a plethora of free training online and cyber boot camp courses run by universities, Flying Officer Southall said the best way to start was to jump right in.

“Take baby steps – focus on small goals so it’s less daunting,” she said. 

“Before you know it, you’re not half bad and a valuable asset to your team. You just need to start and get in there.”