From Competitor to Coordinator

Emma Schroeder shares her journey from competitor to Assistant Director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council


Emma Schroeder

2/18/20203 min read

In February 2020, I had the incredibly rewarding opportunity to be a part of the Atlantic Council’s third annual UK Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge. My team was all-female and international, representing King’s College London where we were all studying for our master’s degrees, but hailing from the United States and France. For almost two months we prepared for the upcoming competition by studying cyber incident responses over lunch in the cafeteria, writing iterations of our situation assessment long through the night in library study rooms, and laughing over celebratory pizzas in cramped dorm rooms. Finally, on February 17, we entered BT Tower.

My team was formed in a class on cybersecurity policy and strategy. Throughout the year, we learned about the cyber strategies of major countries and supranational organizations, preparing us for our upcoming cyber policy and strategy competition. But what we didn’t have a chance to learn – what no class had ever taught me – was the experience of putting those strategies into action. Cyber 9/12 provided, even more than the opportunity to learn about specific cyber issues, a glimpse into the experiences of a senior decisionmaker in British cyber policy.

Walking into that judges’ room was walking into a cabinet briefing. Our assessment of the scenario would form how the nation’s top leaders viewed these events. Our policy recommendations would steer the United Kingdom’s course through the crisis and shape the successive international environment. The judges, though they are not truly cabinet members, are representatives of think tanks, private companies, and universities that are spearheading our evolving understanding of cyber strategy and policy. Through their questions and their feedback, I was able to build a foundation of how cyber policy and strategy are executed at the top levels of government and how, throughout my career, my work could contribute to their success.

This experience is why university students congregate to Cyber 9/12 competitions all over the world. But what happened outside the competition room was just as formative for me. I had the opportunity to hear from amazing speakers that could share their first-hand experience on topics ranging from the dot com boom to the UK’s digital infrastructure strategy. In one of these forums, Matt Warman MP, Minister for Digital Infrastructure, perfectly summed up the mission of the Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge when he spoke of the need for translators in the field of cyber security. Having studied history and international affairs in my undergraduate and graduate programs, for a long time I believed that my lack of technical skills would impede any career opportunities in the field despite the fact that I had developed a strong interest in the strategy behind cyber. But through MP Warman’s speech, speaking with present company representatives, and getting to know my fellow competitors I learned that my humanities skills were valuable and that my skillset was of direct interest to those organisations who were supporting the Cyber 9/12 event. I had been taught to critically analyse dense source material and synthesize evidence into a supported and convincing argument. From a skillset point of view, maybe interpreting and analysing hundred-year-old documents was not too dissimilar to analysing and conveying cyber challenges into a form that that policymakers could understand.

Cyber 9/12 proved to be a pivotal turning point in my life. With the lessons I learned in developing my team’s situation assessment and presenting our policy recommendations, I completed my graduate dissertation on the strategy of cyber conflict. With new skills and heightened confidence, I obtained my master’s degree on the History of War, with a focus on military strategy and cyber policy. With an understanding of how my skills and experiences fit into the ‘cyber world,’ I started a new job after graduation as an Assistant Director of the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative - the very team that houses the Cyber 9/12 program.

This journey has become cyclical. As I write this, my team is coordinating with the amazing leadership team of the 2021 UK Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge to help deliver another memorable experience to a new group of teams. To these teams I will say, take every opportunity this challenge gives you: learn from the judges, connect with company representatives, and share your experiences with one another.