Leveraging MBA Skills to Disrupt Cybersecurity Education

With high-profile security breaches at Target, Anthem, Sony and countless other companies, cybersecurity is a hot-button issue, and MBA@UNC student Jesse Clark is at the forefront of this growing industry. Clark started in GE’s IT leadership program out of college and now works as a program manager at GE’s IT security center in Richmond, Virginia.

During the past five years at GE, Clark has taken a program called GhostRed from a small volunteer-run project to a fully-staffed, award-winning program that reaches hundreds of students. Through a Jeopardy-style “capture the flag” competition, GhostRed tests the security skills of high school and college students and encourages more awareness of the field.

“Why not use some of the expertise in house to build an experience that would be on par with the Facebooks and the Twitters of the world that are running hack-a-thons and all of these really cool events to draw in the top talent?” Clark asks.

He hopes that GhostRed will help build interest in security careers amongst young people and “demystify technology, give them more hands-on experience with it and start to understand some of the basics.”

GhostRed competition challenges “range from trivia to actual penetration testing where you’re trying to exploit security flaws in live systems, to industrial control systems which are the systems that would act as a controller,” Clark says. Interestingly, he finds that high school students often have a more sophisticated understanding of security than college students. “It’s becoming more common to see students that are really, really advanced in these areas popping up earlier,” he says.

An entrepreneur at heart, Clark has helped recruit volunteers, build relationships and now serves as the face of the GhostRed program. Last year, he helped run a GhostRed event for eight colleges from the Southeast and built partnerships with a local math and science innovation center to connect with several high schools at once. His efforts seem to be paying off; GhostRed won two Richmond Technology Awards and has been showcased at the GE global conference. “It’s been a really, really cool path,” he says.

The internet of things (IoT, which encompasses things like smartwatches, Wi-Fi-enabled refrigerators and T-shirts that monitor heart rates) presents new challenges for IT professionals like Clark. As IoT grows, “the need for security and privacy becomes even more [dramatic] and we have to build this into all of the engineers that are building products today,” he says. “You can’t necessarily just have a security engineer and a software engineer; that software engineer has to be the marriage of both of those skill sets to start building protection into everything that we do. This GhostRed platform delivers both of those areas in one competition and it begins getting people thinking about both sides of the coin.”

Clark pursued his MBA to complement his technical background—he earned a computer science degree from UMass Amherst. “One of the biggest needs in IT is being able to connect what you work on with revenue generation or actual business value,” he says. “Having that business mindset in a technology-driven industry is very, very important and that was the fundamental driver to pursuing the MBA.”

Clark considered several other MBA programs before settling on MBA@UNC. “When I shadowed in classes in each of these schools, UNC stood out the most,” he says. “The energy in the class was there, the engagement with the students was there, and the expertise from the professor was there.”

The flexibility of a completely online program was also a huge draw for him. “I have training that I have to travel for, I might have prior commitments for vacation or personal reasons or whatever it might be and if I had gone to [an in-person program], I [wouldn’t] have the flexibility of calling in from wherever I happen to be at that time,” he says. “When you're working 60 hours a week and then you're doing your MBA, that extra flexibility really goes a long way.”

Clark is using his new MBA skills help improve his business. During the Marketing Strategy, Analysis, and Development course at MBA@UNC, he chose GhostRed as his final project. “[I] started doing a segmentation analysis, so that I could understand what the forces in competition look like in the market,” he explains. Clark also used his skills to compete in an internal startup competition at GE, and found that the New Ventures course prepared him to pitch to GE executives.

“We really treated the competition as an investor pitch. We built it such that we were showcasing what we believed our minimum viable product to be, highlighted what we felt the value propositions are, and who our potential customers are, and we ended with our ask, which was essentially the seed funding,” he says. “We didn't win that competition, but we at least got some visibility and more publicity from it, which was great.”

Clark is working on some projects that have yet to be announced but his passion for education remains evident in everything he does.

“I want to put an end to the idea that students who learn differently should fail particular subjects because of the way they learn. I think those days need to be in the past very quickly. We need to deliver a way of learning and experiencing new material such that it doesn't need to change based on the person that is learning,” Clark says. “In marketing they say don’t segment your product; build products that have attributes that apply to all of your customer segments, and I think education needs to start thinking the same way. It needs to be available to everyone. GhostRed is my platform of starting my journey down that path, but it’s going to be a lifelong process.”