Behind the Curtain: Bringing the Cyber 9/12 Competition to life

Head of the Scenario Team, Dr Danny Steed, takes you behind the scenes to understand what it's like to create a realistic scenario.


Dr Danny Steed

2/18/20204 min read

Those visiting the BT Tower over the past two days would see the hustle and bustle of 17 student teams, competing from universities all across the UK. This the third year for the Atlantic Council’s Cyber 9/12 in London has gone off without a hitch, growing to a record size in participants. What may go missed however, are the months of dedication and passion needed for Cyber 9/12 to happen in the first place. For the students, preparation begins two months before the competition; for us the organisers, it begins six months before.

The Scenario

Building a competition worthy of attracting high-calibre student competitors begins first and foremost with a compelling scenario. The challenge lies in identifying a topical theme in cyber security with policy appeal, and weaving an escalating situation against which the students can respond to. The objective of the entire exercise is to challenge our student teams to provide credible policy responses to a scenario that, if left unchecked, could fast threaten UK interests.

Writing such a scenario is no mean feat. Writing begins in earnest six months out, with the senior planning team convening to agree first exactly what themes will be followed. For 2020, the policy challenges of telecommunications investment from abroad, and the role played by problems such as deep fakes, provided the driving forces behind the intelligence packs that are provided to the teams

Dr Danny Steed. Head of Scenario Team, UK Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge

Danny headshot
Danny headshot

From that point on, it becomes a question of what information to provide the students, how to weave the credible (and factually informed but ultimately fictional) narrative that student analysis is directed to. Intelligence packs will contain a mixture, some real world reportage, but the bulk originally authored materials ranging from news reports to classified intelligence reports, email correspondence and private industry whitepapers. All materials are designed to provide the trail of breadcrumbs for student teams to prepare their submission and briefings against.

It takes great dedication from the senior planning team, and help from generous friends across government and industry, to create and proofread the materials to ensure they reach the standard for challenging all 17 student teams. It is also a great deal of fun! While trying to create a credible illusion for the students, the students challenge us each year to be better, more on trend, closer to the reality of policy in this country. Simply put, the quality of the students we have the pleasure to host and meet keeps us honest and on our toes.

Dr Danny Steed. Head of Scenario Team, UK Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge


A real joy of being part of the competition is moving from the early morning meetings and late night planning calls to finally meeting our contestants across two very busy days. The experience of judging comes with a juggling act; giving the students a taste of the realities beyond academia, where you are pressed very hard indeed by time-pressed decision makers for clarity, versus how to nurture young students who may well be exposed to briefing leadership figures for the first time in their lives.

In this, a huge effort is made to carry out briefing sessions with all our judges at each stage of the competition, to ensure that everybody understands the context of the scenario and the expectations for judging. Given that a large number of highly experienced colleagues from across industry, government and academia volunteer their time to judge, it is imperative to work hard to ensure that such a disparate group sings from the same hymn sheet.

For those students who do not progress to the semi finals, the organisers created a Coaching & Mentoring Session on day two. The purpose of the session is to provide teams with the opportunity to dissect their feedback from the judges, providing a one-to-one session with highly experienced senior cyber security professionals. Not only this, but students also get to benefit from access to genuinely amazing people in the types of jobs most students simply do not know even exist. Having the chance to chat directly with experienced professionals takes the competition beyond the scenario to give students the chance to learn about wider career expertise.

Building a Pathway

The Cyber 9/12 competition now spans several countries, with annual events held in Washington D.C., New York, Munich, Geneva, and London. While the objective can be shallowly viewed merely as an interesting diversion for students during a busy university term, to us organisers it is about so much more. For those of us who have worked in cyber security delivery for years at this stage, few are as aware of the skills shortage as we are. The skills shortage extends far beyond just technical expertise and those schooled in STEM subjects.

There is a growing imperative to identify and nurture the next generation of strategic thinkers in cyber security, in revealing to students from a wide range of non-technical degree subjects that there really are so many pathways to working in cyber security. Cyber security is about far more than technical skills, with technologies that underpin our entire way of life - from our critical national infrastructures through to the most sensitive areas of our personal lives - there is a clear need to entice students into cyber security, not deter them because they do not study STEM subjects.

The Cyber 9/12 competition serves as a proud standard bearer that builds a pathway for students to build the confidence to believe that they can work in cyber security. The success of the competition year on year, not only here in London but across our other partner teams internationally, is testament to two facts. First, there really is a need for non-technical minds to drive cyber security leadership. Secondly, and most important of all, there are legions of incredibly talented and devoted students who want to be shown the way into cyber security. The proudest thing about helping to organise the competition is meeting these wonderful young people and (hopefully) convincing them that working in cyber security is worthwhile. For those of us finishing the competition today, red-eyed and sleep-deprived, meeting these students makes every late night call and planning session worth each and every second. See you all next year!