picoCTF aims to close the cybersecurity talent gap

Ryan Noone

Feb 20, 2023

picoCTF logo

According to the Global Technology Governance report, cyber-attacks have increased by more than 230 percent since April 2020, and with more than 700,000 unfilled cybersecurity jobs in the U.S. alone, the need for talent is greater than ever.

Founded in 2013, Carnegie Mellon University CyLab Security and Privacy Institute’s picoCTF has been working to introduce cybersecurity to the future workforce through its annual online hacking competition. Geared toward college, high school, and middle school students, the competition offers a gamified way to practice and show off cyber skills.

Since its launch, picoCTF has grown exponentially, becoming the world’s largest student-focused hacking competition, with over 18,000 participants in 2022.

However, during that span, organizers realized the annual event alone wasn’t enough to achieve the mission of closing the talent gap. So in 2019, picoCTF expanded, implementing a year-round learning platform where anyone, not just students, can learn and develop cybersecurity skills for free.

“Adding cost to education creates barriers that already exist in our society,” says Hanan Hibshi, an assistant teaching professor at CMU’s Information Networking Institute (INI) and research advisor for picoCTF. “Schools are already facing shortages in offering computer science courses, let alone courses that introduce cybersecurity. Our goal with picoCTF is to provide resources to students no matter where they live and what school they attend.”

Today picoCTF offers learning guides and produces a monthly YouTube lecture series to help introduce cybersecurity principles, such as cryptography, web exploitation, forensics, binary exploitation, and reversing. The picoGym allows users to practice what they’ve learned, providing access to newly released challenges, as well as challenges from past picoCTF competitions.

“Whether you are a cyber security professional, competitive hacker, or new to CTFs, you will find interesting challenges in the picoGym that you can solve at your own pace,” says Program Director Megan Kearns.

With over 350,000 active users worldwide, the free platform is a gateway into the world of cybersecurity, enabling anyone with access to a computer and internet to start building their skills.

In addition, picoCTF offers programs and resources for teachers looking to incorporate cybersecurity education into their curriculum. CMU students serve as picoCTF ambassadors in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas, visiting classrooms to help onboard students to the picoCTF platform and review basic security engineering concepts, methods, and terminology.

teacher works with students in classroom

“After ten years of expanding access to cybersecurity, we understand the importance of sending experts into the community to help people overcome their initial hesitation,” says Kearns. “We hope other universities see the value of sending students into their communities to introduce picoCTF and similar programs.”

Furthering its community outreach effort, picoCTF and the National Security Agency (NSA) are teaming up to offer the first-ever picoCTF for GenCyber Teachers program. The camp, designed for 10th through 12th-grade high school teachers and district technology officers, will launch this summer, offering tips and resources for incorporating online Capture-The-Flag (CTF) problems and competitions into the classroom, aiming to foster interest in cybersecurity careers. 

“Part of the many reasons why we have marginalized and underrepresented groups in many fields is inequitable access to resources and lack of community support,” says Hibshi. By providing picoCTF as a free educational platform, we are trying to remove one barrier to participation that affects these groups. In addition, by joining picoCTF, participants are introduced to an online community of individuals with a shared interest in cybersecurity.”

picoCTF’s 10th annual hacking competition will take place from March 14th through March 28th. Students interested in participating can register now by signing up for a free account at picoctf.org.