National Cyber Director Coker Remarks at the Community College of Baltimore County, Essex

January 11, 2024

Good morning! Dave Luber, thank you for your kind words. 

Let me begin by thanking our incredible hosts here at the Community College of Baltimore County. Thank you to Dr. Sandra Kurtinitis for your leadership and dedication to your students and this community. 

And thank you Baltimore County Executive John “Johnny O” Olszewski, Jr. for being a champion of Baltimore. 

Hearing from the three of you this morning showcases the kind of partnership that is key to building our nation’s next generation cyber workforce.

I’d also like to recognize: Maryland Secretary of Labor Portia Wu and Representatives from several Congressional Offices, notably: U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen and Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger. 

Thank you all for coming. Our community and the nation are stronger because of your leadership.

I’m so pleased to be here. As some of you may know, I live in Baltimore and I understand how important CCBC and the many other academic institutions are to this community – to include our state and our nation. 

Now that traffic has returned post-holiday season, you’ll forgive me if I admit how pleased I was to avoid morning rush hour on the BW Parkway for at least one day this week. And to be among fellow Ravens fans!

I have a real fondness for Charm City. 

In 2019, when I was serving as the Executive Director at NSA, I had the chance to talk to a group of fifth graders at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore City. 

I showed them how to decrypt a message. I watched their eyes light up when I asked, “has anyone here written a secret note before? Has anyone gotten caught?” That captured their attention! I didn’t get them in trouble with their teacher, I promise. 

But I did get to show them how to code and decode messages. More importantly, I was able to see that these students – who are the future of our field– are capable, engaged and excited. And hopefully I could inspire them a bit.

I’ve had the honor of serving as the National Cyber Director since December. It is a tremendous honor and a humbling responsibility to be working with the Biden-Harris Administration and for the American people. 

Our office’s mission is to advance national security, economic prosperity, and technological innovation through cybersecurity policy leadership and it’s my job to serve as the principal advisor on cybersecurity policy and strategy to the President. 

I have come to think about our work with a focus on three principles: 

First, people – the individuals who work in and use cyberspace. The digital world works because people built it, use it, and need it! The success of our cyber community is reliant on our ability to find, develop and train people;

Second, partners – who help us fulfill our mission. Our partners are across the federal government, in the private sector, in academia and in civil society to include our allies. To be clear, no one entity can succeed alone;

And third, the public – meaning every single American. They rely on the digital world to conduct almost every element of their daily lives. We owe it to them to ensure the ecosystem is safe and reliable, and make sure they understand how to protect themselves.

Cybersecurity isn’t some far away digital fight. There’s a lot at stake for our national security, for our economic security, and for every community in this nation. 

Here in the Baltimore area, we know first-hand what damage a cyber event can bring.

In May of 2019, our community made national news when cyber criminals infected the City of Baltimore’s computer systems with ransomware, creating temporary havoc for public servants and residents alike. 

By the time the city’s services were fully restored several weeks later, Baltimore’s story had become a warning to local governments all across the nation. In fact, the lessons we learned in Baltimore became instructive to governments and businesses of all sizes. 

Thanks to the incredible round-the-clock efforts of city officials, services were restored. 

This was also one of many events that helped this Administration consider how we can and should help as we came into office.

Too much of the cyber burden is falling on schools, hospitals, towns, cities and states to defend themselves against sophisticated groups of hackers.  

Last year, President Biden released the National Cybersecurity Strategy, a comprehensive blueprint for action to secure the full benefits of a safe and secure digital ecosystem for all Americans. 

It’s a bold document with many lines of efforts and objectives but at its heart it’s about shifting the burden of securing cyberspace to those most capable to bear it. Shift the burden away from hospitals, schools, or local governments – like Baltimore – and instead we must ask more of the most capable and best positioned actors, such as the federal government and the technology providers. 

The National Cybersecurity Strategy also challenges us to build a cyber workforce ready to meet the demands of this decisive decade – to focus on people. 

As part of that effort, we’ve been engaging with communities across the country to spur development of ecosystems of workers, educators, employers, and others. We work together to expand access and increase diverse participation in cyber education and training. 

Last year, we had more than half a million vacant cyber jobs nationwide – 31,000 of which are in Maryland and more than half of those – 16,000 – are here in the Baltimore region. 

Our first challenge is making sure we have more people trained for these careers – careers that are positioned to grow in importance well into the future. 

To secure our nation’s cyberspace, we need to make cyber jobs more available and attainable for groups that traditionally haven’t been recruited. 

There are a lot of ways that people talk about diversity in the workforce, but here’s my take. To achieve the best mission outcomes, we need the best possible team. 

We need more people seeing themselves in our community. We need more people being trained in technical fields. We need more ways for them to join our ranks. 

Whether that be a Veteran who is transitioning to civilian life and is looking to get some additional technical training so they can continue protecting the American people;

Or a mother returning to the workforce after raising her young kids. She may want a job that plays to her natural strengths of problem solving and allows her to often work remotely;

Or a community college student who joins an organization you admire through an apprenticeship and finds a professional home and career that gives a deep sense of purpose. 

The only way we can defend the digital systems that lay the foundation for our modern way of life is to be sure that every American and people from every community have a pathway into a cyber-based career. 

I want to applaud the approach being undertaken here at CCBC. This is a place that welcomes, fosters, and empowers all students. More than 50% of your students are people of color, 60% are women, which helps accentuate the value of diversity. I had the opportunity to meet several members from the Women In Technology club this morning in addition to several student Veterans.

President Biden is fond of saying: “I’ve never been more optimistic about our country’s future than I am today.” I share this sentiment because of all of you – your passion and commitment – is our nation’s greatest asset. 

And I will do all that I can as National Cyber Director to ensure that you have every advantage in your path to a career in cyber.

From my own experience, I can tell you how impactful it can be to show up and encourage someone who might not otherwise see someone like themself in a career-field like ours. 

In my case, it was a Navy recruiter who visited my high school in Kansas. He had an outsized impact on my decision to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and – ultimately – to commit my life to serving the American people. It was in the Navy where I recognized the importance of what is now known as cyberspace – back then, we didn’t call it “cybersecurity.” I’ve been proud to work at the intersection of technology and national security ever since.

Following a short-lived retirement from 40 years of government service, I spent a few years in the private sector supporting organizations as they prepared for and responded to evolving cyber threats. I enjoyed that time as well. And I came to appreciate the need for stronger partnerships and collaboration between the public and private sectors. 

I’ll tell you — when I was asked to come back to government service, I was ready. That inspiration from so many years ago remains.

One of the energizing things about my new role is working with great people. I was reminded of that when I met one of my new colleagues at ONCD. Her name is Ayan Islam, and she’s here with us today.

A Somali native, born and raised in Kuwait, Ayan is a member of our ONCD team working to expand the cyber workforce, improve its diversity, and remove barriers to entry. Ayan came to the United States to attend American University where she studied business administration. 

But it was during her time in law school – which she attended at night while working full-time for the DC government – that she soon realized that she was truly excited about protecting the American people from the threats emerging in our increasingly digital world. In fact, her friends and family told her, “Ayan, your face lights up when you talk about technology.” 

She was discovering her path and determining how to break in. But it was hard for her to know where to start and difficult to understand where she could learn about a career in cyber. 

Fortunately, a law school counselor told her about a job fair that Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi organized. The job fair connected his constituents and those in the DC area who wanted to work in technical fields with government agencies. They were always telling him they needed more talent. Ayan attended the job fair and ultimately took a job in the cyber division at the Department of Homeland Security.

Today, I am proud to call Ayan a colleague at the White House as a member of our ONCD team. We are all benefiting from her expertise and perspective and I, personally, am so glad she found a path to our office. 

Ayan got her start in cyber at a career fair and I am so excited for the students here today – who can stop by the career fair, immediately following this program. 

Ensuring we have enough cyber professionals to secure our digital ecosystem requires long-term, sustained efforts from both the public and private sectors. 

Our office is setting ambitious goals for ourselves and our partners to help achieve real outcomes over this next year, which align with the President’s vision for America. 

We have started by making sure that the federal government is leading by example and that we have the cyber talent we need to protect the systems that underpin all of our work and the systems that support the American people. 

We are aggressively seeking to fill vacant cyber positions across the federal government. 

This year, you will see a series of cyber hiring sprints to fill vacancies across the federal enterprise and bring more folks from diverse backgrounds into federal cyber jobs. 

I’m excited that this effort will be conducted alongside several departments and agencies across the federal government. 

We must also work to enable our industry partners to fill cyber vacancies on federal contracts. My office is working with the Office of Management and Budget to reduce unnecessary barriers, like requiring four-year degrees, which are leaving out untold numbers of talented professionals. This could include some of you at CCBC. 

So we’re tackling how the federal government can hire cyber talent quickly, bring in diverse talent, and remove barriers to working in cyber on federal contracts. 

We are also encouraging the private sector, academia, and nonprofits to join us in unleashing America’s cyber talent. 

Over the course of the last year, more than 70 organizations have committed to reducing barriers many Americans may have encountered, by providing training, scholarships, internships, apprenticeships, and pledging to create and hire into new cyber jobs. 

In fact today, I’m pleased to announce some new commitments, many of which come from organizations here, that will directly benefit the Baltimore community: 

Locally-based companies Dragos, Evolve Cyber, Edwards Performance Solutions, Katzcy [CATS eye] Play Cyber, National Cyber Group and Teamworx Security as well as national companies like Peraton and GDIT are all looking to hire, train and secure today’s connected systems through skills-based hiring and gaming. 

Local nonprofits including the Gula Tech Foundation and Technology Advancement Center are expanding access to apprenticeships and vital operational technology training. 

National nonprofits CompTIA, and the National Cybersecurity Alliance are training students as young as middle school, and conducting outreach to secure the small and medium businesses so at risk in the Baltimore region and beyond.

If you are looking for a new educational opportunity, Capital Technology University just launched a new Masters and Doctor of Cyber Education. And the College of Information and Cyberspace at the National Defense University expanded their tuition-free Cyber Workforce Programs to senior non-commissioned officers. 

Finally, our federal partner, the Department of Transportation, is expanding access to the federal government through a fourfold increase of paid internship programs and NIST/ NICE is looking to identify over 200 cybersecurity career ambassadors this year alone.

The Baltimore region is a really exciting place to be right now. 

Between the Cybersecurity Association of Maryland, the Maryland Technology Development Corporation, the Maryland Cybersecurity Council, the Fort Meade Alliance, the Maryland Tech Council, and many more, there is an impressive local network that is fostering the type of collaboration that is key to a thriving local cybersecurity ecosystem. 

This hasn’t been lost on those of us working in Washington. 

Last May, as part of the historic Investing in America agenda, the Biden-Harris Administration named Baltimore as one of five Workforce Hubs in the nation to meet the demand for labor driven by the administration’s historic investments.

Last October, President Biden announced Baltimore as one of 31 Designated Tech Hubs with a mission to accelerate the commercialization of predictive healthcare. 

And over the last year, the federal government invested nearly $2.6 billion in Maryland including nearly $56 million to Baltimore County through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

Much of this funding has gone to vital digital projects: $6.5 million to the state of Maryland from the new State and Local Government Cybersecurity Grant Program from the Department of Homeland Security. 

And $15 million was granted to Baltimore Gas and Electric Company to install fiber optic cable to connect underserved Baltimore residents to high-speed internet.  

As I said before, great things are happening in Baltimore.

I’m so pleased to be in a community that embraces and empowers people, one that cares deeply about the public, and one that is committed to partnership. 

I know from personal experience what a fantastic community we have. The collaborative sprit is powerful. Baltimore is stronger for it. America is safer for it. 

To my fellow government partners: Let’s redouble our efforts to work together and lead by example with good hiring practices. 

To the employers: Thank you for the partnership you’ve demonstrated today, and the partnership I know will continue. Spread the word among your peers. Keep fostering cybersecurity talent. And keep sharing with us your challenges and successes in hiring. 

To the professors, staff and faculty: Thank you for all that you do to train and equip the next generation of cyber professionals. We need your expertise and continued dedication. And on behalf of everyone who can remember their favorite teacher at a moment’s notice, we are grateful for you. 

And finally, to the students:  Thank you for your interest in emerging technology and your commitment to a profession that will help keep us all safer. Study hard. Make sure that when you find an open door, you don’t allow it to slam shut behind you. Keep that door open for the next person. And don’t ever forget that you are helping this community and our great nation. 

Thank you again for the opportunity to be here today. Keep up the great work.

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