If you ask anyone in California’s cybersecurity education community who has made an impact on students and the industry as a whole, “Coach Paul” is likely to be one of the first answers.  

Not only does Paul Johnson coach some of the best cyber teams in the world, but he is also a tireless advocate for the positive impact cybersecurity education can have on students from all walks of life. He’s seen his students embrace cyber as a pathway to high-paying, intellectually-rewarding jobs that are helping to keep the world safe from cyber threats. 

Johnson was recently named CyberPatriot XI Mentor of the Year and has built the CyberAegis juggernaut in just five years. His teams consistently take home top honors CyberPatriot, the California Mayors Cyber Cup, and other cyber competitions at both the middle and high school levels. 

“We live in an amazing age now where you can sit down at a computer, and with no experience, an hour later you can have your own Android app that you programmed running on your smartphone,” Johnson said. “Working with very sharp, high-achieving, competitive students and successfully competing at the national level is extremely gratifying.” 

By day, Johnson is a Senior Staff Cyber Systems Engineer at Northrop Grumman in San Diego. The Northrop Grumman Foundation is the presenting sponsor of CyberPatriotJohnson’s son was interested in cybersecurity, so he decided to jump in. 

His first information session at Del Norte High School had three students, but the program quickly grew to more than 100 students in a student-led team structure known as CyberAegis. Students serve as mentors to each other, which allows them to grow as leaders and learn soft skills to complement what they are learning about technology. 

As the program grew, Johnson saw an opportunity to expand beyond the confines of one school or school district to build something with an even greater reach. 

“I formed a non-profit corporation, CyberAegis Team, Inc. to more easily procure equipment such as servers and networking equipment to provide students hands-on experience,” Johnson said. “Our website was entirely designed and implemented by my students.” 

Johnson also places a focus on bringing women into cybersecurity. About 40 percent of the CyberAegis teams are women, which is higher than the overall competition makeup. An all-female team from Oak Valley Middle School competed in the CyberPatriot XI National Finals earlier this year.  

In addition, seven CyberAegis members received the National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT) Aspirations in Computing Award last year. Johnson encourages women to lead recruitment events and speak publicly about their success in cybersecurity to help increase diversity in the field. 

“Females are given fewer opportunities than their male colleagues,” said CyberAegis team member Lilly Hu. “If more young women become involved with IT and cybersecurity, we can change such stereotypes. Having more women would encourage support for one another.” 

The model of professionalism Johnson fosters pays off in the form of internships and full-time jobs. 

 “My students are routinely sought out by companies such as Northrop Grumman for internships as they’ve found that my students can immediately start making significant contributions on day one,” Johnson said. 

Beyond professional success, CyberAegis students also praise Johnson’s supportive personalityIn fact, the father of one CyberAegis team member commuted from San Diego to Atlanta after his job was transferred just so the student could continue being part of the team. 

“Coach Paul has been a tireless advocate for his teams and is a model coach in the state on how to manage and nurture multiple teams allowing them to advance and flourish,” said Scott Young, president of SynED, which hosts the California Cyber Guild.  

For more information about Johnson and CyberAegis, visit cyberaegis.tech/. 

What started as a need to fulfill a STEM requirement has grown into one of California’s signature cybersecurity education programs, thanks in part to Carey Peck’s hard work and dedication to the program and its students.

Peck is a consultant to Dr. Sandra Cano, who manages the CyberPatriot program at Beyond the Bell, a program in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) that offers educational programming before and after school at more than 1,000 locations throughout the district.

The district was looking for a way to meet its STEM requirement in a scalable way. CyberPatriot was suggested to the late Harry Talbot, who founded the district’s program and was looking for help running it. Under Talbot’s leadership, LAUSD earned two CyberPatriot National Championships and became the first Center of Excellence and the first to register 100 CyberPatriot teams.

Aside from the ability to scale, Peck said CyberPatriot fits with Beyond the Bell’s mission of career-oriented education for students from underserved communities throughout Los Angeles. The program has captured the attention of vendors such as Northrop Grumman and SpaceX.

“Bringing students into the fold and getting then career ready is a key element of the program,” Peck said. “We have a natural strength as a large system, and a tech program such as this is naturally interesting to our vendors. Cisco and Microsoft have been strong sponsors.”

With a program as large as Beyond the Bell, it’s easy to get bogged down in administrative details and making sure everything runs smoothly. Peck said he draws inspiration from the countless success stories he’s witnessed over the past decade.

Students who barely had any access to a computer thrived in the program and found that cybersecurity gave their lives meaning and direction they would not have had otherwise.

“This program has lifted up young men and women who had never lifted their eyes and vision to see a broader world and those are the stories that inspire me along the way,” Peck said. “A young man who was in trouble with the police and who now doing advanced graduate work at Cal Tech in AI; a young woman who had never left the City of Los Angeles who did so the first time on the plane that took her to Washington DC for the CyberPatriot finals.”

CyberPatriot was almost immediately accepted across LAUSD and has served as a team-building tool that teaches soft skills in addition to technical expertise.

“I have always been interested in, team building and motivation, and a major focus of ours is how to sustain the success we have had in our program, which has found tremendous student acceptance.

Liz Fraumann, director of the California Cyberhub, described Peck as the “quiet strength” behind LAUSD’s cyber success.

“Having known Carey for years, you can just feel the passion he has for the kids and what he does. California would do well to clone Carey and have someone like him in all communities to help guide and shape the students for the future that is within their grasp,” Fraumann said. “Anyone who really knows Carey is happy to count him as a friend and colleague.”

Not only has Peck seen students’ lives transformed over the past decade, but he’s also seen the cybersecurity field itself grow and evolve. The number of CyberPatriot teams has increased dramatically, and today’s teams are working on projects that the first cohorts would not have been able to imagine.

“In CyberPatriot III, students had to deal with only one image until the semi-finals, and that additional image was a Linux,” he said. “Now, round 1 has two images and they are more difficult by an order of magnitude, and there are Cisco packet tracer exercises also thrown in.

Peck said the future of cybersecurity education will only get brighter from here.

“We are at the very start of this enormous trend,” Peck said. “To put online and safely maintain the universal connectivity our new society requires will demand more and more thinking and professional management. All that will be reflected in the training we do, and in the future plans of our graduates.”


Over the past three years, Ed Garcia has learned right along with his students at Moorpark College when it comes to cybersecurity. Like a lot of IT professionals, he didn’t spend much time thinking about cyber threats until talk of hacking and cybercrime picked up in the media.

Garcia used his drive and connections to quickly launch both an associate degree in cybersecurity and a cyber club at Moorpark College. Both are off to a strong start and poised to continue growing.

“Three years ago, I sensed that cybersecurity was an area that needed more attention,” Garcia said. “I started building courses in the community college system, which is a very long process, so I wanted to get started right away.”

Garcia joined the Computer Network Systems Engineering (CNSE) department at Moorpark College in 2001. Before becoming an instructor, he spent 20 years at Southern California Edison, where he did everything from programming to networking. He also discovered his passion for teaching while working with at-risk students through a company outreach program.

In 2017, he was named a Ventura County Innovates Pathfinder by the Ventura County Office of Education. The ward celebrates talented leaders in education, business and community service who have made significant contributions in building pathways to employment for Ventura County students.

Garcia has never formally worked in cybersecurity, so he looked CompTIA and other industry resources, as well as models in place at other community colleges throughout California. Moorpark College now has the only cybersecurity degree in Ventura County, complete with a state-of-the-art classroom.

Last fall, the college also launched a cyber club to give students even more hands-on experience to complement what they are learning in the classroom. The club helped Garcia host the California Mayors Cyber Cup at Moorpark College and will begin entering its own cyber competitions in the upcoming school year. Read more

California Cyberhub Advisor Henry Danielson’s introduction to cybersecurity came in the form of a headache at his day job. He was the Director of Technology at the Coast Unified School District and found himself dealing with an attack on the district’s WordPress site, followed by a phishing attack on employee email accounts.

Rather than sit back and let those situations get the best of him, Danielson took a proactive approach in remedying them. He changed the SQL security on the WordPress site to make it more secure and worked Gmail’s team to prevent the phishing attack from happening again.

These experiences showed him the value of cybersecurity education as he saw the potential it could have for his students. Danielson has also run multiple phishing campaigns in his district to help employees become more stealth in their cybersecurity posture.

“As a CTO, you are obligated and challenged with protecting the organization and the employees from cyber attacks, social engineering, and threats,” Danielson said. “I find that combination of challenges and problem-solving skills fascinating.”

Danielson also has a passion for education. He holds a bachelor’s degree in child development and a master’s degree in education technology. He saw CyberPatriot and teaching Cybersecurity as a way to combine all of these interests while making a positive impact on his students.

Under his direction, the Coast Union High School cyber team won first place in the 2019 California Mayors Cyber Cup for the South Central Coast Region. The team will compete in the California Cyber Innovation Challenge in June.

“The kids blow me away with their intuition and passion for learning new subject matter and becoming subject matter experts in a specific discipline like Linux or cracking passwords,” Danielson said. “I know we have changed students’ directions for their career paths and developed their passion for information technology.”

Ayen Johnson, CyberPatriot Coach at the Coast Unified School District, met Danielson eight years ago and has worked with him over the past five years to develop a cybersecurity curriculum at the school.

Johnson said he sees Danielson’s dedication to cyber education in everything that he does.

“Henry works hard at making sure our students are exposed to as many opportunities as possible,” Johnson said. “He is a cyber hero because he works tirelessly to ensure their success and receive the recognition they deserve.”

Danielson earned the industry standard, Certified Systems Security Officer (CISSO) in January 2019. Danielson also obtained a Cyber Teacher certificate from the Computer Science Teachers Association in 2016 and has worked with organizations including the Grizzly Youth Academy, California Cyber Institute and the GenCyber Teacher Training Program at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

He’s also an adjunct instructor at Cal Poly and a CTO mentor at the California Educational Technology Professionals Association and the Cyber-Security Awareness Coordinator South Central Coast Regional Information and Communication Technologies & Digital Media.

He helped more than 100 Girl Scouts earn cybersecurity badges through a program organized by the Girl Scouts of California and the California Cyber Training Complex (CCTC).

“The programs offered by the CCTC are important for girls along the central coast as parents look for resources to help keep their daughters informed and safe online,” said Jody Skenderian, CEO of Girl Scouts of California’s Central Coast.

Looking ahead to the next school, Danielson hopes to build the middle school cyber teams at Coast Unified. He’s also been teaching and coaching long enough that he’s beginning to see his former students find success in the cybersecurity field.

“I had one student this year that got into Cal Poly for computer science,” Danielson said. “He started in middle school and ended up becoming captain of the team. He’s a first-generation college student, and I know we changed his life for the better.”

That student, Luis Plascencia, said Danielson was always there for him as a mentor in his cyber endeavors.

“Henry has led me through a path of learning that has evolved my abilities for my future involvement in Cyber Security and Computer Science,” Plascencia said. “I am beyond thankful for everything this course has taught me and will come back to pay it forward to those that prepared me for my future.”

When Anna Carlin started working in IT in the 1980s, there were more women in the field than she saw 20 years later as an IT instructor.

Over the years, Carlin has used her experience in education and industry to help students understand the value that working in IT and cybersecurity can bring and inspire the next generation of ethical leaders.

Carlin worked in cybersecurity before there was a formal term for the field. She evolved from looking at the risk associated with computer systems at all levels to making presentations to the board of directors on the security over computer systems.

Along the way, she was asked to help teach some classes at Cal Poly Pomona. She was hesitant at first but knew that her professional experience would be valuable in the classroom.

“I never thought of going into academia,” Carlin said. “But I quickly found that I loved the interaction with students and sharing what I wish I knew when I was in their shoes.  In addition, understanding how what you are learning is applied in business is valuable.”

Carlin taught at Cal Poly Pomona for 20 years before moving to Fullerton College in 2016. Her goal as an educator is to help students build the bridge to what comes next after college. She also encourages lifelong learning and membership in professional organizations such as ISACA.  She is a board member and chairs the Academic Relations Committee for the Los Angeles chapter.

Carlin promotes the networking opportunities afforded by professional associations but also encourages security professionals to share their expertise with the future workforce by visiting the classroom, judging student-based competitions, advising colleges on curriculum, and mentoring.

Building professional connections and career paths early is the key to filling cybersecurity vacancies, she said. Some students might instantly know that cybersecurity is the career they want, but many discover it gradually.

“When there’s a shortage of people, you need to plant all the seeds you can,” she said. “You can’t sit around waiting for the right time when the lightbulb goes off.”

Carlin has mentored countless women throughout her career, including Tobi West, a cybersecurity professor at Coastline Community College and founder of the CyberTech Girls program. Carlin met West when she was a graduate student at Cal Poly Pomona and said the two hit it off almost immediately.

They now work together on CyberTech Girls, where West said Carlin serves as a role model for what a successful IT career can look like.

“Anna has been an inspiration for CyberTech Girls as an original supporter of the vision for the program,” West said. “Since the start of CyberTech Girls, she has provided workshop ideas and local event support as mentor and workshop trainer.”

Carlin sees the movement to promote stable, high-paying cybersecurity jobs to young women as an extension of the women’s empowerment movement she grew up with in the 1970s.

“The majority of single-income homes in America are made up of women who make their own decisions in life that are not dependent upon someone else’s paycheck,” Carlin said. “Cybersecurity is a high-paying field. We need to reach women early to give them a sense of what it’s all about and help them see a career path for themselves.”

Though she was hesitant about teaching at first, Carlin’s expertise has proven to be invaluable in the classroom. Carlin and West frequently collaborate on a presentation called “Cyber Up! Your Resume!” that helps students accentuate cybersecurity experience on job applications.

“Anna is a wonderful teacher both inside and outside of the classroom,” West said. “We have co-presented on several occasions to help students and those entering the field develop their resumes and their skills to prepare for cybersecurity careers.”

Carlin knows that women in IT may have different motivations than their male counterparts. She understands these motivations and emphasizes how careers in cybersecurity can satisfy them.

“Women want to see the value of the work they do,” Carlin said. “They’re not in it just for the money. They want to get up and go to work that doesn’t seem like work, and see the positive impact of their work.”

Jay Gehringer spent 27 years as a high school band director before making the transition into cybersecurity education. He knows firsthand the value that comes from being well-rounded and having expertise in multiple areas.

As a cyber coach and mentor at North Hollywood High School, he passes that lesson onto his students as they prepare for college and the working world. Cybersecurity impacts every part of the economy, and cybersecurity professionals need to be experts in technology and their industry.

“If you want someone to do cybersecurity for your oil refinery, you want them to be a petroleum engineer, but you also want them to be interested in their cybersecurity,” Gehringer said. “You need content knowledge in whatever area you’re working in, not just knowledge about cybersecurity.”

Gehringer encourages his students to consider double majors in college and reiterates that they don’t have to give up their passion for another field just because they are interested in cybersecurity.

His own career path mirrors some of these same ideas. He majored in music but took programming courses during college. He continued to learn about computers as a side project while he was a band director and eventually made the transition into teaching technology full-time.

Gehringer heard about CyberPatriot through a school district press release and thought he might be able to help out. He began coaching in 2011.His experience shows that anyone can become a cyber coach, regardless of their background or experience.

“99 percent of what I know about teaching cybersecurity, I didn’t know when I started,” Gehringer said. “I took Cisco courses, did a lot of research online, talked to kids who had figured things out and got some help from other instructors along the way.”

Gehringer’s students are three-time CyberPatriot National Champions, winning in the Open Division in 2014, 2017, and 2018.  As a coach, he’s careful not to overemphasize the success and helps his students keep their performance in perspective.

“Kids naturally like to do things well and at a high level,” Gehringer said. “With the support I’m able to give my students, they’re instantly one of the better teams in the country. I’m always reminding them that, while winning is important, it’s not the only reason to participate in these competitions.”

North Hollywood High School’s CyberPatriot teams are run as part of the Beyond the Bell after-school program. Gehringer said this approach helps him reach students who might not have room in the school day for cybersecurity education.

“It gives me access to kids who are taking a very heavy academic schedule,” Gehringer said. “Kids who are interested in cyber generally are not doing sports or performing arts. When mom was trying to get them to go out and play, they wanted to sit inside on the computer. CyberPatriot gives them an opportunity to work as part of a team.”

As his teams continue to achieve success, Gehringer uses that notoriety to spread the word about the potential cybersecurity offers as a career path. Once parents understand what it is, he says, they instantly see what he’s known for years.

“I like cybersecurity as a career because it’s not a job that’s going to get exported overseas or taken over by a robot,” Gehringer said. “A lot of parents are stuck on their kids being a doctor or lawyer, but that changes pretty quickly when you start talking about their kids coming out of college with multiple job offers before they graduate.”

Gehringer’s students will defend their national title at the CyberPatriot XI National Championship in Baltimore April 8-10.

Starting a cyber team involves hard work and dedication under normal circumstances. New coaches need to make arrangements with their schools, recruit students, and begin building community partnerships.

Now imagine trying to do all of those things while your community is recovering from devastating wildfires.

That’s the situation computer science teacher Edwin Kang found himself in last fall, but he did not let it stop him from creating several new teams at Ukiah High School.

The Ukiah area was impacted by the Mendocino Complex Fire in August 2018, and then again by the Camp Fire in October 2018.

“There was still smoke around when we came back to school the first week … it really lowered morale and made it hard to get back into the swing of things,” Kang said.

Over time though, Kang began to revive his existing robotics teams and see the potential to expand into cyber competitions. Ukiah High School is excited to compete in the California Mayors Cyber Cup for the first time later this month.

To help with his new teams, Kang is turning to a seemingly unlikely source.

“I’m getting the football coach to help me with a second team,” Kang said. “He has very little technical background, but he but knows how to coach and wants to work with kids as much as he can.”

Originally from Los Angeles, Kang has worked at Ukiah High School since 2014. Before that, he taught computer science at nearby Potter Valley High School. He became interested in cybersecurity after the Mendocino County Office of Education asked him to teach a course on “hacking the news” following the 2016 presidential election.

His passion had always been robotics, but he quickly saw the demand for quality cybersecurity education and learned about the resources available through the California Cyberhub to make it happen.

“Cyber education needs to be developed in middle school high school, and even a basic understanding in elementary school,” Kang said. “It’s becoming more and more relevant every day for all of us, and it’s becoming easier than ever to learn through things like the IT fundamentals program.”

Kang spends summers teaching at SMASH Academy, a STEM-intensive residential college prep program for students from underserved communities. SMASH Academy has locations across the country; Kang teaches at UC Berkeley.

“I live with them for five weeks in the summer and travel with them throughout the Bay Area,” Kang said.  “At the end of the summer, students leave with a portfolio they can use for scholarships, internships, and jobs.”

Kang remains passionate about robots and continues to advise Ukiah High School’s robotics team, which visited Google’s headquarters earlier this year. Moving forward, he sees opportunities for collaboration between robotics and cyber competitions.

“I am deeply passionate about fostering the next generation of responsible and ethical digital citizens,” Kang said. “Everything we’re doing in STEM, cyber, and robotics is part of that.”

Skip Brewer is the Computer Security Manager at the Elk Grove Unified School District, a position he took after several years in the IT industry. Given that experience, he was a little skeptical about cyber competitions when one of his teachers approached him about using a school computer lab to start a team.

“The first year I refused because I didn’t want kids on my network hacking,” Brewer said.

After seeing CyberPatriot in action, however, Brewer quickly realized that CyberPatriot was exactly the opposite of his original notion. He quickly signed on to help the district’s teams as a mentor and watched the program double in size.

Not only does Brewer serve as a coach and a mentor, but he also actively recruits other IT professionals to give back by becoming involved with cyber competitions in their areas.

Both coaches and mentors play integral roles in cyber competitions. Coaches serve as team leaders and provide both logistical and emotional support to the students. They do not need to have technical experience — that’s where mentors come in.

Mentors provide technical expertise about specifics aspects of the cyber competition, such as configuring accounts or securing systems. In other words, they worry about the technical details so coaches don’t have to.

Brewer said serving as a team’s sole mentor can be a substantial time commitment and require a broader set of expertise than one person typically has.

“I’ve been encouraging coaches to find multiple mentors who might come in once a month or once every few months,” Brewer said. “No one person is going to have all the expertise you need, and it opens up the pool of candidates to those who might not be available on a weekly basis.”

Brewer recently spoke about cyber competitions at the Educational Technology Professional Association conference, where he tried to dispel the myth that cyber competitions are all about hacking. Despite the success of CyberPatriot and other programs,

“I talked to people all week who have any involvement in technology and encouraged them to reach out and assist their schools who have cyber teams or want to start them,” Brewer said. “There’s still a misconception out there about what the program is. It’s not teaching kids how to hack; it’s quite the opposite.”

Brewer is also involved with efforts to make cyber competitions a full-fledged sport at the Elk Grove Unified School District. He believes that giving esports the same recognition as traditional sports will help build enthusiasm and increase participation.

Cindy Lascola, co-coordinator of the Design and Technology Academy (DATA) at Monterey Trail High School, met Brewer 20 years ago when he began visiting her classes to talk with students about how to stay safe online. He also serves as an adviser to 11th-grade DATA students and received DATA’s Partner of the Year Award.

Brewer approached Lascola about participating in CyberPatriot, and she quickly found that it would be a good fit for DATA students who were interested in engineering, computer science, architecture, and related fields.

“Skip is a wonderful mentor, speaker, coach and inspirational leader to our students,” Lascola said. “DATA Cyber is a model program thanks to Skip’s the coaching and leadership.”

He’s fortunate to have the support of Elk Grove’s administration, which allows him to spend one afternoon per week working with the CyberPatriot students. He put in his own time, too, but the dedicated time during the week makes being a mentor and a coach much easier to schedule.

“I really encourage leaders in other districts to make the investment with the kids,” Brewer said.  “Helping kids learn this stuff and compete is making an investment in their education and their futures.”


Ticket Into Tech shows that IT and cybersecurity are for everyone

Michael Specchierla’s career began as a teacher and librarian more than 20 years ago. As computers and the Internet made their way into schools in the mid-1990s, he quickly saw the potential they could have and, although he didn’t know exactly how everything worked, jumped at the opportunity to figure it out with his students and colleagues.

Specchierla still applies that mindset today as the Director of Career and Technical Education for the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education. In that role, he’s responsible for creating programs that give students the skills they need to meet the demand for IT and cybersecurity jobs in the region.

Along the way, Specchierla has always stressed the importance of innovation and hands-on learning. The desire to learn and motivate others goes much farther than degrees or technical experience when it comes to introducing students to new concepts like IT and cybersecurity.

“We took a classic 1960s library and brought a computer lab into it,” he said. “We learned pretty quickly how to set up routers and servers and get the bandwidth moving. I taught a library assistant how to do basic troubleshooting so they would know when to escalate.”

Specchierla oversees the SLO Partners program, which connects business and education to promote real-world learning through apprenticeships and create pathways from the classroom to IT jobs in less than two years.

Throughout his career, Specchierla has seen that technology changes quickly and it is impossible for teachers to stay on top of everything. Letting go of the notion that teachers need to have the answer to every question is essential for success in IT and cybersecurity, as he’s experienced in his own teaching.

“The subject matter and content will keep on changing, and you need to be willing to learn it alongside people,” he said. “I took comfort in the fact that I didn’t know all of the answers, but I knew more about how to solve problems and figure things out quickly so I could help them find the answers they needed.”

Specchierla’s experience in the K-12 world demonstrated that anyone could enter the technology field, no matter what level of familiarity with technology they had. This philosophy lies at the heart of SLO Partners Ticket Into Tech Program, which provides training and apprenticeships to people from all backgrounds who have the desire to learn.

Ticket Into Tech provides a mix of online and classroom learning, along with a yearlong apprenticeship, to give participants the skills they need to obtain stable, high-paying jobs as software developers, software testing technicians, IT technicians, and other technology-related positions.

“We brought in people who had minimal experience with tech and never thought they could do it,” he said. “Our apprenticeship program allows them to start doing the work and getting the confidence that comes with it. Employes are going to see that they’re a good bet.”

And, thanks to the efforts by Specchierla and his team, employers are already starting to see the benefits that Ticket Into Tech provides. The immersive approach Specchierla piloted in his classrooms and libraries is paying off for businesses throughout the San Luis Obispo region.

“Bootcamp-style training programs are so effective for technology. They essentially throw all the information at you so you can see what sticks and what piques your interest,” said Dan Blike, Lead Software Engineer at IQMS. “A lot of people don’t know what they like about tech until they experience it. It’s also hard to see why the theory and curriculum matters until you start building something, so it provides that much-needed context.”

Specchierla said Ticket Into Tech’s success shows the power that can come when industry and education work together.

“If you use your employer partners correctly, they’ll give you those real-world problems and that’s what you need to bring into the classroom,” he said.

Clever Ducks, an IT consulting firm in San Luis Obispo, has hosted several Ticket Into Tech apprentices, who gained hands-on experience from the company’s more seasoned employees. Co-founder Amy Kardel sees the apprenticeship program as a critical part of building and sustaining a cybersecurity workforce.

“When we think about cybersecurity we think often of only the point of the spear cyber warrior types, but cybersecurity requires a whole army of skilled tech workforce to set things up correctly in the IT environment and maintain them,” Kardel said. “Apprenticeships let us train this essential workforce efficiently and meet the needs of the job market while giving people a great start in a growing career field.”

Moving forward, Specchierla hopes Ticket Into Tech’s success will help break the stereotype that people need to have technical backgrounds to succeed in the technology industry or mentor others looking to do so. This applies to teachers, coaches, and anyone else looking to take on a mentoring role in IT or cybersecurity.

It might seem counterintuitive or even a little scary to think about, but as Specchierla’s career has shown, it definitely pays off in the end.

“Early on in my teaching career, one of my mentor teachers said that the teacher shouldn’t be the hardest person working in the room or the one doing all the work,” Specchierla said. “High schools and community colleges need to create environments that allow the learning to be supported and amplified and allow students to gain confidence in the process.”


After more than two decades of working in the private sector, Sara Gopalan saw firsthand the gap between what students were learning and what was needed to be successful in the cybersecurity field.

She decided to take matters into her own hands and become a teacher herself. In just a few years, she has become an integral part of the cybersecurity education community in the Inland Empire region.

Gopalan is a Career Technical Education (CTE) Teacher at Temecula Valley High School (TVHS), where she specializes in Information and Communications Technologies pathway. 

Her mother was a teacher in India and, while she didn’t initially see herself following in those footsteps, she’s glad that she did.

Gopalan started small by volunteering to teach a free course on computer fundamentals at her local library. She also became involved with CoderDojo, a worldwide network of volunteers who teach programming to children ages 7-17, and joined the CTE Advisory Committee at Temecula Valley Unified School District.

That work eventually led to an offer to become a CTE teacher. While Gopalan had decades of professional experience, she did not have teaching credentials. She found a program that allowed her to obtain them in six months and she quickly hit the ground building a three-course IT/cybersecurity pathway based on Cisco’s Network Academy curriculum.

In an effort to bridge the gap she saw between industry and education, Gopalan integrates guest speakers and soft skills like interviewing and teamwork into her classes.

“Because my course is part of career technical education, I need to connect it to what they’ll see in the workplace,” she said. “If they have to hire someone in the workplace, what are the skills they are looking for?”

Gopalan’s passion has positioned TVHS as a leader in the region and one that’s poised to become a statewide presence.

“Sara is a go-getter. She is incredibly resourceful and thorough in her work,” said Kim Randall, CTE Department Chair at TVHS. “She has brought her industry expertise to the classroom at TVHS, and we are so fortunate to have her working with students in this ICT pathway.”

In addition to launching a new pathway, Gopalan also helped build a CyberPatriot presence at her school. She recalls meeting with California Cyberhub Community Manager Donna Woods and wanting to emulate the success she’s created at Moreno Valley High School. 

“The students I saw were so engaged the whole time, and I was so impressed by how much they had prepared ahead of time,” Gopalan said. “They had binders of notes and highlights on every page.”

Gopalan worked with Susanne Mata, ICT-DM Deputy Sector Navigator in the Inland Empire/Desert Region,  to obtain funding for what are now five CyberPatriot teams in the Temecula Valley Unified School District.

Karen Walker coaches one of those teams at Chaparral High School. She said Gopalan’s leadership and guidance made her transition into coaching very smooth.

“Sara has helped me immensely with CyberPatriot,” Walker said. “She has done most of the work researching what we needed to do and how to do it.  She also has usually been the one to fill out all the necessary paperwork for our district, both to get our teams funded and to get our buses to competitions.”

Gopalan said she’s learned a lot from Cyberhub community members like Irvin Lemus. She hopes that the Inland Empire will be able to achieve the success Lemus and his colleagues have in the Bay Area. She also hopes to collaborate with middle schools to establish strong feeder courses in ICT pathway in the Temecula Valley Unified School District.

 “It is amazing to see how much the awareness about Cybersecurity has grown in the past two years,” she said. “We’ve gained great momentum, and I want to pass it on to middle schools so students will be prepared to try these classes and activities when they get to high school.”