16th Air Force Airmen share cyber expertise with 130 middle-school students

  • Published
  • By Matthew McGovern
Sixteenth Air Force members imparted cyber insight and experiences to more than 130 eighth-grade students during an Airmen-led panel discussion at Zachry Middle School, Dec. 13.  

The panel of six Airmen and one civilian discussed their cybersecurity backgrounds, explained information technology opportunities, and described the benefits of Air Force and government cyber career fields.

“It’s hard to recruit members to join the Air Force for cybersecurity since we have a lot of competition from companies like Amazon and Google, but those companies are looking for experience,” said Capt. Christine Hanson, 39th Information Operations Squadron, Detachment 1 instructor. “The great thing about the Air Force is you might not have a technical background, but we’ll stick you in a technical course and get you the technical experience."
Hanson described her role as an instructor for a two-month long basic operators’ course and how it’s “one of the first courses you ever take to become a cyber professional.”
Tech. Sgt. Alfredo Pelaez, 39th IOS Detachment 1 student, is no stranger to cyber training and spoke to the students about his background. As a prior cyber defender, he is currently enrolled in Future Operator Readiness Growth and Enrichment training. The class is designed to teach cryptologic organization tools and risk management to carry out missions.
“Upon completion from my course, I’ll be well rounded with both cyber defense and cyber offense experience,” Pelaez said.
Aside from his military education, he credits the Air Force’s military tuition assistance program, that funds up to $4,500 per year to help with continuing education.

“Because of the Air Force I was able to get two bachelor's degrees and a master’s degree from a top 25 research university. Not only that, but I'm able to work side by side with officers, and people who have graduated from top tier schools who are amazing, like literally geniuses,” Pelaez told the students.

“The Air Force has also paid me to go to MIT for conferences, attend interesting, classified briefings, and go listen to the smartest people in the world talk about the most exciting cybersecurity topics, like AI.”
When asked what a cybersecurity job was like in the Air Force, Tech. Sgt. Deven Poepperling, 616th Operations Center, operations technician, gave the students a glimpse into a typical day analyzing malware.

“My job is never done, it’s always evolving,” he said. “There’s no specific end state—it’s always combating the future vulnerability and looking for the next potential issue and combating it with updates and moving things forward with planning and coordination.
“There's a world full of people who don't want to do nice things, and it's not one person in the fight against them. We're all in the fight together. Partnership and teamwork is paramount to combating threats and operating in today's environment, where everything is connected.”
Poepperling explained how this teamwork often comes from new recruits and what he likes to see in new Air Force members is creativity and the ability to solve puzzles.
“If you like solving puzzles, there are websites allowing you to work with cyber tools,” said Poepperling. “We use Linux a majority of the time, C++ and any other kind of coding we are interested in having you learn and continue that effort.”
Raul Casiano, a Zachry student, said he enjoys computer coding and relishes the advice he received from the panel.
“I found it interesting hearing what they do on a daily basis and how they use attention to detail to solve cyber problems to make things easier for people,” he said. 
Casiano is considering joining the Air Force and said he “would like to help the world by learning about defense hacking and stopping those kinds of threats.”  
The 16th Air Force headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, focuses on information warfare in the modern age.  Information Warfare requires integrating: Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance; Cyber Warfare; Electromagnetic Warfare; Weather; Public Affairs; and Information Operations capabilities.