MELBOURNE, FLA. — Though his role is guide and teacher, U.S. Cyber Games head coach TJ O’Connor expects to learn plenty from his young team. That’s good news for his students at Florida Tech.
O’Connor, a cybersecurity researcher and assistant professor who leads Florida Tech’s cybersecurity program, was named head coach this summer for the inaugural U.S. Cyber Games. After competitions, a combine and a draft that took the number of cyber hopefuls from 700 down to a team of 20 with five alternates, the group is preparing for the International Cybersecurity Challenge June 14-17 in Athens, Greece.
Between now and then, O’Connor and his team of assistant coaches and technical mentors will work with these 18- to 26-year-old team members as they practice, develop and refine the techniques, skills and approaches they will use in Athens.
The modest O’Connor, who spent more than two decades in the military before shifting to academia, describes himself as a “junior faculty member.” That notion belies the impact he has already made at Florida Tech, including the development of a six-course concentration in cybersecurity within the computer science degree program; the leadership of the school’s competitive cybersecurity team FITSEC, among the best teams in the country; and multiple research breakthroughs in identifying critical security flaws in popular Internet of Things devices such as cameras and smart speakers.
“This is my second career, so I’m a little bit older, but I’m still a very junior faculty member. I am learning every day how to become better at this,” O’Connor said. “And so I do look at the U.S. Cyber Games as an opportunity to grow my own self, grow in the ways in which I teach, and learn from my fellow coaches and from the athletes themselves.”
Though he is an active learner, O’Connor also embraces the role of mentor.
“Havingthe opportunity to mentor the next generation is something really special. It’s why I’m in my role here at Florida Tech, and it’s why I chose to volunteer to be a part of the Cyber Games and compete for this position,” he said. “I’ve had a wealth of mentors along my career and opportunities both in the military and academia. And this is a unique opportunity to give back to that next generation that’s so critical and important.”
Cyber competitions are fertile ground for learning and discovery. O’Connor recalled assigning a problem to a Cyber Games team member to solve and putting certain restrictions in place meant to produce a solution in one certain way. Then the young man proceeded to solve the problem with a totally unexpected approach.
“And I went, ‘This is like the true beauty of cyber security competitions,’” O’Connor said. “We can teach things in a classroom. We can pull knowledge that’s critical. But when we invent new ways of approaching problems – competitions force us into that because of their unique nature. And that was really cool to see. I learned a lot from that experience.”
That is not to say O’Connor isn’t focused on the power and potential of the classroom. In fact, he believes his role as the architect behind Florida Tech’s cybersecurity concentration helped land him the head coaching job, and it certainly has been useful in working with the team.
“Having built that curriculum here at Florida Tech, I truly believe we have some of the best cyber-based education in the nation. I used that same curriculum and ideas and concepts from it, and often examples that I use from class, to help coach the U.S. Cyber Games team,” he said.
In the end, O’Connor said, it is about learning, whether one is a student, a team member or the top coach.
“I would be a liar if I was saying I’m not constantly learning from my students and learning from the athletes in the games,” he said. “I am absorbing as much knowledge as I can at every given point in life. And so I think I learn from my students as much as they learn from me.”