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Living our Mission Blog Series: Connecting the Dots – Academic Virtual Labs, Microsoft Ignite, and Battle Room Design from Circadence’s Matt Surprenant

By Ray Bardus • Posted about 2 years ago


After serving in the Coast Guard and learning IT, Matt Surprenant applied his technical abilities to the academic community, building out cyber ranges for students to practice their tradecraft in virtual environments. Managing virtual labs for 250-500 students wasn’t an easy job by any means, but it certainly gave him invaluable insight into how learning occurs to best train today’s cyber enthusiasts (tomorrow’s frontline defenders).

“At Champlain I grew from a student at the Helpdesk, to deploying software in physical labs, to managing virtual labs. After spending a decade at Champlain College, enjoying the collegiate atmosphere working and learning, I transitioned from creating virtual computing environments at Champlain to virtual ranges at Circadence.” 

For more than 11 years at Champlain, Matt performed many cyber roles (help desk technician, imaging applications analyst, and academic service administrator) that informed his understanding of opportunities for innovation, and what is needed to train the next generation of cyber professionals. He was able to take that experience and apply it at Circadence for enterprises looking to embrace modern ways to train their own cyber teams and harden security strategies.

Creating Space for Productive Cyber Learning

For the past three years, Matt has been responsible for constructing Battle Rooms within Project Ares. Battle Rooms are the training simulation environments where users learn the tools, tactics, and procedures of cybersecurity before entering the next “level” of activities in Project Ares called Missions. Battle Rooms allow users to train and hone their skills before entering a simulated scenario environment with multiple components, narrative backstory, and where deeper application of skill comes into play.

Currently, Matt manages the logistics for Battle Room development, guiding his team on project priorities week-by-week and acting as a liaison for the Content / Cyber Curriculum Team. Alongside the Curriculum team, he works to determine what the training outcomes are in each of the Battle Rooms. On the technical side of Project Ares, Matt ensures that the automation of environments and the logistics are working correctly. He enjoys developing content that guides a player along a cyber learning pathway, so they learn multiple skills from performing reconnaissance to enumerating networks. The Battle Rooms are particularly fun for him to build out because he sees them as “small spaces that teach specific concepts” and help inform a cyber work role a player might want to learn more about.

Since Project Ares’ debut, customers have greatly informed the kinds of Battle Rooms Circadence develops. After all, it is about the customer having the ability to train according to their specific cyber needs, so this strategy works out well for team members like Matt.

“I’ve really enjoyed developing the CTF (Capture the Flag) content for our customers. The customer gave us a walkthrough of their expectations, showed us some pre-made content, and shared ideas of how to configure the different pieces of technology. We [the BR team] worked up a functional configuration and validated playthrough based on our understanding of the customer’s expectations. It was incredible to see how successful the team could be playing to each other’s strengths in order to meet a customer’s request. The icing on the cake was that the content was very well received by the customer.”

Observations from Microsoft Ignite

Matt was able to lend his cyber expertise at the Microsoft Ignite “Into the Breach”  cyber defense experience in November 2019. Five custom-built Battle Rooms in Project Ares were used in a competition-style activity among event registrants. The battle rooms provided a gamified learning approach to teach cyber professionals about Microsoft Security Tools.

“I was really excited to see how well the content in the Battle Rooms blended into the background as the purpose of the event was really to introduce registrants to Microsoft Security tools using a gamified environment.”

Matt noticed registrants were curious to understand how to use these cyber tools in their own profession. The capability for Project Ares to deliver this educational experience to end-users, Matt reflects, was a huge benefit to see how learning unfolded.

Advice for the Next Generation of Cyber Professionals

“Trust but verify.” Those are the simple words Matt says he would tell any aspiring young professional interested in entering the field of cybersecurity.

“It seems like a simple statement, but I’ve found many security professionals don’t necessarily practice what they preach. Develop personal habits that help you professionally. A simple one is to constantly validate or fact-find when you’re told something. Ask questions! Does that update process actually work as you think it should? Should that application actually make web requests? Develop an inquisitive nature that will allow you to bolster claims with factual findings.”

For Matt, that inquisitive mindset occurred in high school when he found system administration was an interesting discipline.

“I started a high school club where one day a week we would “re-image” a writing computer lab with images that had games pre-installed and have a “LAN (local area network) party”. Club members (mostly my friends) would get together and play video games on the freshly reconfigured computers for a couple of hours. At the end of the event, we would reset the lab back to a writing lab. Sometimes there were minor hiccups that users (other students) would run into afterward. I enjoyed helping those users fix the issue, but I also enjoyed identifying how we could make it better next time we re-imaged the lab. That’s kind of what information/cybersecurity is for me – identifying weaknesses in configuration, policy, or procedure and making a change to mitigate that weakness.”

It is that kind of curious approach to building cyber learning into our products that helps Circadence deliver state-of-the-art learning tools today. We are incredibly proud to have Matt as part of the Circadence family!

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