Cybersecurity Fair Organizer’s Journey Fueled by Early Love of Tech
- Major: Computer Information Systems
- Class Of: 2016
“ I took it apart and reassembled it before playing any games ”
For video gamers, the excitement of becoming a first-time console owner leaves a lasting impression. What Christopher Laasch (’16, computer information systems) did after receiving his first system was a precursor to how his future would unfold.
“I took it apart and reassembled it before playing any games,” Cal Poly Pomona’s lead systems security analyst says.
While most of his contemporaries were witnessing Reggie Jackson morph into “Mr. October” in the 80’s, learning about IBM’s now out-of-date $20 million Cray Y-MP supercomputer was more Laasch’s style. That early spark deepened Laash’s interest in computers and evolved into a professional career. Now once a year, he goes through great lengths to share his passion with the entire campus by organizing the university’s annual Cybersecurity and Awareness Fair.
The origins of the fair can be traced back to a 2004 grant Cal Poly Pomona received designed to raise awareness of and increase access to information systems at Hispanic-serving institutions. Laasch volunteered for the planning committee while working with Student Health Services (SHS). The Laasch-SHS link hit pay dirt when the annual health fair coincided with the Department of Homeland Security’s National Cyber Security Awareness Month observed in October. His supervisors greenlit Laasch’s’s decision to piggyback on the event and add a cybersecurity component.
“We were given six weeks to put together a program,” he says. “It was the first true Cybersecurity and Awareness Fair at Cal Poly Pomona. With the help of SHS, we were able to provide eight security presentations and about 10 exhibit tables from industry leaders for students.”
Joining Laasch to comprise the core of the planning team were computer information systems Professor Dan Manson and David Lyon, a Cal Poly Pomona systems analyst. Manson and Lyon served as grant managers, but only two years into the venture, the grant was completed. Nobody was prepared to give up on the event, and it has been kept alive financially since 2006 through university support and corporate sponsors.
The fair is unique with partnerships between faculty, staff, and students from departments across campus that includes information technology, computer information systems and computer science. It is always experimenting with ways to increase its reach, The 2017 theme was Alice in Cyber land and in 2016 the Bronco Student Center was transformed into Carnivale de Mystère. Regardless of the hook, the actual events have been as diverse as the attendees. One year it was marketed heavily to senior citizens with activities geared toward basic internet literacy; 2013’s focus was career opportunities for women in informational technology security.
Tech companies like IBM and CrowdStrike arrive ready to hire work-ready talent. Novices and seasoned administrators team up on activities such as learning how to pick locks. Anna Carlin and Mohammad Husain have created the research poster contest, and 2018 will bring the first scholarship opportunity.
If you ask Laasch his motivation for returning each year to plan a new event, the response will likely include the importance of educating students about safe internet practices. It’s expected given he spends 40-plus hours a week protecting the same students from the dangers lurking online.
“In a busy week, our office can deal with a malware outbreak, targeted phishing attack, or forensic investigation,” Laasch says. “My personal favorite is working with our student assistants to learn together as a team.”
The 2017 Cybersecurity and Awareness Fair was especially sweet for Laasch because it was the first time he was able to experience the event as not only an organizer, but also as an alumnus.
The journey to earning a bachelor’s in computer information systems is one Laasch began in 1987 when he first enrolled at CPP as an undeclared freshman. After a few quarters Laasch took a break to help run a family-owned business. Technology was still a major interest for him, so, he chipped away at an associate’s degree in computer graphics at a local community college. Then the family had to close the business.
Closing the business tough, but it forced Laasch to alter his career path and return to a familiar place. Shortly after, he was hired as a systems administrator for the International Center. Once on campus, the desire to pursue a bachelor’s resurfaced until an injury and family demands thwarted his comeback attempt.
The third time was the charm for Laasch as he once again became a Bronco. By day he was a systems administrator and at night he was in class with a new determination and outlook to provide a foundation for long-term success.
“Having worked in small business, the fundamental accounting equation had a different meaning from having to close a business due to bankruptcy,” Laasch says. “I viewed security courses from a perspective of when CPP did not have border firewalls back in the days of Windows NT. The audit and forensic courses complemented my transition into lead of the information security office.”