As he spoke to a class of computer science students Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., recalled a conversation he had at a National Security Agency facility to emphasize the reason for this tour of Columbus State University's cybersecurity program.
The representatives of the 3rd Congressional District were briefed about a special squad doing top-secret work there, and he asked the 41-year-old colonel in charge for the average age of its eight members.
Westmoreland responded, "Really? We've got this exclusive group that's doing these things for the NSA, and the average age is 25? That's amazing.
"So this is a young person's game right now,"
he told the 30 sophomores in the data structures class taught by Columbus State University assistant professor of computer science Alfredo Perez. "You're right on that cutting edge of being able to get in this and really make a difference. So I want to encourage you to do it. It will be good for our kids and our grandkids. I appreciate what you'll do. Study hard."
Westmoreland is chairman of the NSA and Cybersecurity Subcommittee on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. From that vantage point, he is increasingly aware of the threat to the nation's computer networks and infrastructure -- and the need for more and better experts in the cybersecurity field.
"Unfortunately, there are more jobs than we have people to sit behind a computer," he said. "That's the reason I wanted to come today, to encourage you to continue on and hopefully get into this cybersecurity program, because there are so many opportunities."
More than 100 graduate students have received a cybersecurity certificate from CSU since 2010, said Wayne Summers, chairman of the university's TSYS School of Computer Science. Starting this summer, the school will add cybersecurity to its undergraduate program, giving students an alternative to the currents tracks: systems programming, applied computing and game programming.
Summers expects at least 100 of CSU's 450 computer science majors will choose the cybersecurity track. It has attracted an additional 10-15 students to CSU since the program was announced, he estimated.
In October, the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security designated CSU as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education (CAE-CD) for advancements made in the defense of the nation's information infrastructure. More than 100 institutions in the country have this designation now, but CSU and Kennesaw State University are the only ones in the state. Georgia Tech is among the 58 institutions designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Research.
In July, CSU announced a $5 million gift from TSYS, the Columbus-based credit card and payment processor, which includes $2.5 million to establish the TSYS Cybersecurity Center for Financial Services, plus another $2 million for an endowment to provide scholarships to cybersecurity students. The remaining $500,000 is targeted for other CSU programs, including the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum, athletics, general scholarships and academic competitions in math and science.
Westmoreland noted about 1 million cyberattacks per day are launched against TSYS.
"How do you defend against that? What do you do when somebody gets inside that perimeter? The same thing goes for our country," he said.
For example, he asked the class, "Can you imagine what it would be like if we didn't have electricity or water for two weeks?"
One student answered, "Total chaos, I'm sure."
"That's exactly what it would be," Westmoreland said, "public chaos."
And CSU is in the vanguard of producing cyberwarriors to help prevent such chaos.
"I hope you'll continue on with this because there's going to be a great need in this country for people that understand this sophistication," Westmoreland told the students, "and you're the generation to do it."
CSU president Chris Markwood said Westmoreland's visit was "a real opportunity for us to connect what we're doing, and the community's support of it through the cybersecurity initiative, with what he and his committee have identified as a major national issue."
Westmoreland, 65, announced earlier this month he won't seek re-election this year. He will have served 12 years in Congress when his sixth term expires, following 12 years in the Georgia General Assembly.
After his classroom visit, the Ledger-Enquirer asked Westmoreland whether the talk of his possible candidacy for governor in 2018 will result in him running for the state's top office.
"I don't know what I'm going to be doing tomorrow," he said. "Life has all kinds of twists and turns, and you never know, especially in this business. Your political life can change in a very short period of time. I love Georgia. I'm coming back to Georgia. So we'll see what happens."
Asked whether considering a run for governor is one of his reasons to retire from Congress, he said, "No, not really. My decision to do that was being at home for the holidays, being with my wife, my kids, my grandkids."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter @MarkRiceLE.