California Cybersecurity Institute | Courtesy

Sal Gutierrez looked forward to taking a music class in high school.

Little did he know, he registered for computer science by mistake. By the time he realized what he’d done, it was too late to opt-out. Reluctantly, he joined the class.

“And I think that little mistake changed my life completely,” Gutierrez said. 

Gutierrez learned several programming languages and became apt at coding in just one year. His new skills led him to leave his home country, El Salvador, and pursue computer science at Cal Poly. Surprising even himself, Gutierrez developed a passion for technology.

He also dreamt of helping others learn about computer science, as his high school elective teacher once did for him. 

Gutierrez’s dream is now a reality. He works as the lead educator at the California Cybersecurity Institute (CCI) and runs the Cyber to Schools program. He provides foundational computer science training to middle and high school students and recently launched the program back in El Salvador.

“It kind of let me kind of live that little dream that I want to help students in my home country and at my high school,” Gutierrez said.

CCI aims to equip students for careers in technology and improve California’s cybersecurity capabilities. The institute sits just north of Cal Poly’s campus on Camp San Luis Obispo, a California National Guard base. CCI’s mission includes fighting human trafficking, improving the security of the United States Space Force and preparing hundreds of students for careers in technology. 

How the CCI came to be

As cyberattacks increase in volume and sophistication, the world lacks over 3 million cybersecurity professionals to combat online threats, according to the latest report by the World Economic Forum

Ultimately, this is the point of CCI: to address the pressing need for more cybersecurity professionals and help protect California from cyberattacks. CCI works with Cal Poly, government agencies and corporate partners to accomplish this goal.

Initially chartered by the Academic Senate in 2015, the institute operates under the umbrella of Cal Poly-affiliated centers. Bill Britton, Cal Poly Chief Information Officer, has served as the agency’s director since it first opened.

“We’re all working as a collective to figure out how to increase the number of people who are cognizant and working in cybersecurity,” Britton said.

Aside from teaching middle and high school students, CCI trains industry professionals and government employees to comply with California’s cybersecurity requirements through offering less expensive courses than other similar institutes.

CCI also conducts cybersecurity research on behalf of government agencies, like the Department of Defense and the U.S. Space Force, that directly involves Cal Poly students.

“We basically are teaching 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 needing to visit the CCI facilities for in-person trainings, attendees can access real-world sex trafficking scenarios in a virtual way. 

The students modeled crime scenes, like illicit massage parlors, that first responders could parse through digitally and develop life-saving skills. After creating the digitized version, the training services are now available to thousands of people, instead of just 200 in-person attendees, according to Operations Coordinator Danielle Borrelli.

“It really takes that learn-by-doing mentality and then uses it to improve the human experience,” Borrelli said.

Various corporations, nonprofits 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 some of the industry giants that partner 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 via non-traditional learning pathways. After completing the program, students can pursue careers in technology, regardless of whether they have the resources to obtain a college degree.

“That’s probably my favorite program because even if we do nothing else, we might change one life,” Program Manager Martin Minnich said,

The program focuses mainly on working with local and underserved communities. Cal Poly students serve as the program instructors.

Gutierrez designed the curriculum from scratch. He works in classrooms 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 that they fall in love with computer science,” Gutierrez said.

According to a CCI report in 2021, Cyber to Schools trained over 700 students at summer school programs in San Luis Obispo, Kansas City and Cherokee Nation. The CCI partnered with companies to place students directly into internships alongside the training. 

Students can receive the necessary credentials to work with tools from Amazon Web Services, Splunk, CISCO, NVIDIA and Fortinet. Based on their particular interests, they can opt to focus on data science, IT, cloud, cybersecurity or machine learning fields.

Upon high school graduation, they can immediately seek employment in related fields.

Luis Plascencia’s CCI journey from high school to college

Luis Plascencia, a junior computer science major, is a lead 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 gamified scenario designed by CCI employees, where middle and high school students compete to solve a simulated cybercrime. The CCI offers free training and resources to ensure students are equipped to tackle their investigations ahead of the event.

Teams at last year’s CCI challenge used 3D evidence sites to participate in a satellite hacking competition. California Cybersecurity Institute | Courtesy.

This year’s challenge is space-themed and will take place in October.

For the first year ever, Plasencia serves as the technical lead for creating the challenge.

Plasencia said his involvement at CCI 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 the CCI really brings out that Learn by Doing aspect that has brought a ton of opportunities for changing 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 hub. When asked where the CCI might be in five years, Minnich said he has high hopes for the institute.

“We’ll be sitting on top of a $50 million endowment and will be a lead cybersecurity training research center for the state of California, if not everything west of the Mississippi,” Minnich said.

Britton said he also hopes more Cal Poly students will get involved with CCI and that computer science fields will be more accessible and appealing to everyone.

“If you want to find out how cool cyber really is, go work there,” Britton said. “Go have fun because it’s a fun place to work. We’re doing cool stuff.”

Like Minnich, Britton sees the CCI expanding in both reach and influence. 

“I just see this growing, growing and growing,” Britton said.