More than 100 middle and high school girls recently huddled over laptops at Cal Poly Pomona’s Bronco Student Center, typing furiously. Animated turtles scuttled across screens, leaving square shapes in their wakes.
“Does anybody know what a ‘for loop’ is?” Microsoft Technology Evangelist Christine Matheney asked the crowd. She quickly explained that it’s a programming command that will make the turtles run their path as many times as the girls want. Soon, turtles zoomed around in colorful, calculated spirals as the girls coded their own versions of the popular smartphone game “Flappy Bird.”
This was the first of what educators hope will become an annual CyberGirlz Summit hosted by Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Business Administration’s Center for Information Assurance in partnership with Beyond the Bell, a Los Angeles Unified School District enrichment program.
Throughout the day, students practiced coding and then competed in a virtual game of Capture the Flag led by Michael McGrew, a security engineer at Facebook. The Flying Unicorns, Eleven Heaven and Team 5 took the top three places and were rewarded with a special Facebook coin that read, “Protect the Graph.”
“This got me super competitive. I was so pumped and energized!” said Eleven Heaven’s Jenny Huang, 17.
The summit is one initiative to help young women of diverse backgrounds hack their way into careers in cyber security.
According to federal data, more than three-quarters of people in the field are white, and fewer than 40% are women.
“I teach in a field where there’s a lot of demand, but not supply. I know there’s talent that can meet that demand, but we’re not reaching that talent,” said Dan Manson, Cal Poly’s department chair for Computer Information Systems. “If we’re not careful, I think it reverts to a male geek stereotype, but there’s no need for it to be that way, and our field is poorer for it.”
For Manson, the solution is getting girls interested when they’re young so that by the time they get to college they’re ready to dive in.
“The willingness to think outside the box increases when you work with diverse teams,” he said.
It worked for Shirin Salemnia, one of 13 panelists who talked to the girls about their experiences across different professions. She remembers playing Nintendo and Atari games when she was a kid.
“I feel like those games were awesome, but what happened was gaming went a little dark, and there was nothing relevant for girls,” Salemnia said.
She's turned that around by founding and becoming chief executive of her own company, PlayWerks, an interactive media company.
Alvaro Cortes, executive director of Beyond the Bell, said he hoped that when students saw other women in roles they’re passionate about, they’d feel not only welcome, but driven to pursue those opportunities.
“It’s getting our kids to feel comfortable in their own shoes, in their own skin. That’s important for our kids, that’s what’s important for us,” Cortes said.
This is also a priority for Betsy Bevilacqua, a security risk manager at Facebook.
“When I first started out, I really had a hard time finding people who looked just like me who were doing this type of work,” said Bevilacqua, who was inspired to get into the field when her own cyber security had been compromised. “Now that I’m at the point in my career where I have 10 years of experience, it’s time for me to give back. I’m passionate about getting young girls, especially African Americans, excited about cyber security.”
An innate interest helps too. Some birds are flopping instead of flapping on screen, and some turtles have gone off-roading as the girls work through the bugs of their apps. They say they're up to the challenge.
“It’s fun to mess around with stuff and create things,” said 14-year-old Elizabeth Madrid.