Sal Gutierrez was looking forward to taking a high school music class.
He didn’t know it, he enrolled in computer science by mistake. By the time he realized what he had done, it was too late to back down. Reluctantly, he joins the class.
“And I think that little mistake completely changed my life,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez learned several programming languages and became adept at coding in just one year. His new skills led him to leave his home country of El Salvador and pursue computer science studies at Cal Poly. Surprising himself, Gutierrez developed a passion for technology.
He also dreamed of helping others learn computer science, as his high school teacher once did for him.
Gutierrez’s dream is now a reality. He works as a senior educator at the California Cybersecurity Institute (CCI) and leads the Cyber to Schools program. It provides basic computer training to middle and high school students and recently launched the program in El Salvador.
“It kind of allowed me to live out this little dream that I want to help students in my home country and in my high school,” Gutierrez said.
CCI aims to equip students for careers in technology and improve California’s cybersecurity capabilities. The institute is just north of the Cal Poly campus on Camp San Luis Obispo, a California National Guard base. CCI’s mission includes fighting human trafficking, improving security for the United States Space Force, and preparing hundreds of students for careers in technology.
How the CCI was born
As cyberattacks increase in volume and sophistication, the world is short of more than 3 million cybersecurity professionals to combat online threats, according to the latest report from the World Economic Forum.
Ultimately, that’s what CCI is all about: to meet the pressing need for more cybersecurity professionals and help protect California from cyberattacks. CCI works with Cal Poly, government agencies and corporate partners to achieve this goal.
Originally accredited by the Academic Senate in 2015, the institute operates under the umbrella of Cal Poly affiliated centers. Bill Britton, chief information officer of Cal Poly, has served as the agency’s director since its opening.
“We’re all working as a collective to figure out how to increase the number of people who are aware of and working in cybersecurity,” Britton said.
In addition to teaching middle and high school students, CCI trains industry professionals and government employees to comply with California’s cybersecurity requirements by offering less expensive courses than other similar institutes.
CCI also conducts cybersecurity research on behalf of government agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the US Space Force, which directly involves Cal Poly students.
“We basically teach our students to defend the universe,” Britton said.
Two Cal Poly students led a project to transition sex trafficking prevention trainings to a digital format. Rather than having to visit CCI facilities for in-person trainings, participants can access real life sex trafficking scenarios virtually.
Students modeled crime scenes, such as illicit massage parlours, which first responders were able to digitally analyze and develop life-saving skills. After the digital version was created, training services are now available to thousands of people, instead of just 200 in-person participants, according to operations coordinator Danielle Borrelli.
“It really takes that learning-by-doing mentality and then using it to enhance the human experience,” Borrelli said.
Various corporations, non-profit organizations and government agencies support the institute. Britton describes the relationships as “public-private partnerships.”
Amazon Web Services, CISCO, Splunk, Boeing, PG&E and Verizon are among the industry giants partnering with CCI. Companies like these provide funding, equipment, training and other resources.
Connecting with the community: by students, for students
Another aspect of CCI is called Cyber to Schools, a Cal Poly student-run initiative that prepares K-12 students for careers in technology through non-traditional learning pathways. After completing the program, students can pursue careers in technology whether or not they have the resources to earn a college degree.
“It’s probably my favorite program because even if we don’t do anything else, we could change a life,” program manager Martin Minnich said.
The program primarily focuses on working with local and underserved communities. Cal Poly students serve as the program’s instructors.
Gutierrez designed the program from scratch. He works in classes with hundreds of students each year.
“It’s so rewarding at the very end of every meeting, knowing that you can impact their lives at least a little bit so they fall in love with IT,” Gutierrez said.
According to a CCI report in 2021, Cyber to Schools trained over 700 students through summer school programs in San Luis Obispo, Kansas City, and Cherokee Nation. The CCI has partnered with companies to place students directly on work placements alongside training.
Students can be given the credentials needed to work with tools from Amazon Web Services, Splunk, CISCO, NVIDIA, and Fortinet. Depending on their particular interests, they can choose to focus on the areas of data science, computing, cloud, cybersecurity, or machine learning.
After graduating from high school, they can immediately seek employment in related fields.
The CCI journey of Luis Plascencia from high school to college
Luis Plascencia, a junior computer science student, is a senior software developer at CCI. His involvement began as a high school student when he participated in the California Cyber Innovation Challenge.
The challenge is a playful scenario designed by CCI employees, where middle and high school students compete to solve a simulated cybercrime. CCI offers free training and resources to ensure students are equipped to complete their investigations prior to the event.
This year’s challenge is space-themed and will take place in October.
For the first-ever year, Plasencia serves as the technical lead to create the challenge.
Plasencia said his involvement with CCI has led him to multiple professional opportunities. Last summer, he landed an internship at the Department of Defense. He now looks forward to joining Microsoft as a cloud security engineering intern this summer.
“I think CCI really brings out that learning-by-doing aspect that has brought a ton of opportunities to change my life,” Plasencia said.
Plasencia also won Cal Poly’s Student Employee of the Year award for his work at CCI.
“It was a super surreal experience and yeah, I was really excited about it,” Plasencia said.
CCI plans to expand its presence and influence across California as a cybersecurity training center. When asked where CCI might be in five years, Minnich said he had high hopes for the institute.
“We will sit atop a $50 million endowment and be a premier cybersecurity training research center for the state of California, if not all west of the Mississippi,” Minnich said.
Britton said he also hopes more Cal Poly students will get involved in CCI and that computer science fields will be more accessible and appealing to everyone.
“If you want to find out how really cool cyber really is, go work it,” Britton said. “Go have fun because it’s a great place to work. We do cool stuff.
Like Minnich, Britton sees the ICC expanding in both reach and influence.
“I just see it growing and growing and growing,” Britton said.