I started my freshman year of college at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an attempt to find a sense of purpose and belonging on campus, I joined a cybersecurity club and pledged for a business fraternity. I found my community, and yet, I still felt as though something was missing. So when I was offered a position to compete in a digital forensics case competition, I leaped at the opportunity.
Information Technology Competition, better known as ITC, is an annual competition hosted by MISSA (Management Information Systems Student Association) at Cal Poly Pomona. Consisting of five categories—IT Security, Digital Forensics, IT Strategy, Web Application, and Data Analytics—ITC aims to provide an environment for students to display their understanding of various information technology categories outside of their coursework. Students are given a case study to analyze in their respective fields three weeks prior to the competition—the first two weeks dedicated to completing deliverables, and the final week to produce a slide deck to present to a panel of industry professional judges.
Competing in ITC was probably the most important decision of my freshman year—second only to deciding to tryout for my school’s CCDC team. Prior to ITC, I struggled to feel like I belonged in the cybersecurity industry. Although I had some technical exposure from competing in CyberPatriot and teaching entry-level STEM courses, I still felt extremely trapped and limited from both my lack of knowledge and confidence.
At an introductory event of the business fraternity I would soon join, I spoke with the future captain of the ITC team about my desire to work in cybersecurity. He convinced me, against my argument that I had no experience in forensics, to join his team and compete in the Digital Forensics category of ITC.
Soon, I was thrown in headfirst into the world of digital forensics. As my teammates guided me through their investigations, I slowly familiarized myself with various forensics processes. By the time the competition rolled around, I had gotten comfortable with our set of tools, parsing through the NTUSER.DAT file with Registry Explorer and helping build a general timeline of the events we were able to find.
Although I barely contributed during this first experience, the patience and support of my teammates and our first place title gave me the confidence I needed to take bolder steps into advancing my career.
One year, an internship, and a couple other competition experiences later, I returned to the registration page of ITC, but this time, as captain of a new team. Taking on the responsibility of captain, I remembered how this competition changed the pace of my career. I wanted nothing more than to offer the same support that helped me find my confidence to my new team.
However, I seriously overestimated my ability to juggle my commitments during that time. In the two months leading up to ITC, I was also scrambling to successfully organize and host Tech Symposium, develop Red vs. Blue, prepare for CCDC Western Regionals, and fulfilling my basic academic responsibilities, including taking my midterm exams.
Completely contrasting my original intent, instead of providing them with clear and constructive direction, I was everything opposite of proactive when checking in with my team. I demonstrated the most hands-off leadership—assigning tasks based on what people volunteered for, never setting aside the time for scheduled and consistent work meetings, maintaining the minimum required level of communication to confirm that people understood their tasks without furthering the conversation to gauge their confidence or progress...
As a result of my absolutely atrocious leadership, or lack thereof, our team struggled immensely the week of the competition, pulling consecutive all-nighters in an attempt to complete our deliverables on time. The fact that we had enough energy to wake up and present the morning of the competition at all is beyond me, and I am extremely proud and grateful of my team for persevering through the experience.
Although we did ultimately win and managed to present deliverables that I was very happy with, I could not shake the sense of guilt and disappointment I felt from my lack of leadership. I am even more regretful that I did not take the time to help my team develop confidence in a field that they were trying to learn due to my own poor time management.
As much as I wish I handled the situation differently, this second ITC experience really forced me to confront not only my poor leadership skills, but also my naive mindset of committing to every opportunity that comes my way, believing that it would all magically work itself out. I began consuming books and podcasts that outlined various leadership styles, personalities, tips, in an attempt to improve my approach towards leadership.
Now, a couple months of research and further leadership experience later, I can confidently say that I am still very much struggling with finding a balance between being supportive of my team without compromising too much of other important factors, such as time and appropriate discipline. However, with each mistake I make, I continue to learn more about myself and the leadership style that I am comfortable with :)