AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – Four short years ago the Georgia Cyber Center opened, joining Augusta’s cyber workforce with not only the government and students. Michael Shaffer, the executive vice president for strategic partnerships and economic development, joins The Means report to take a look back at the advancements that have been made thus far and what the future holds for the Georgia Cyber Center.

Brad Means: Michael, thanks for your hard work down there at AU, and thanks for being here today.

Michael Shaffer: Yes, sir, thank you.

Brad Means: Four years ago, since the Georgia Cyber Center opened and I meant what I said, a lot of people drive past it each day. What happens in those two buildings? I’ve always just thought the short version is, it’s where students and the government and industry are under one roof, is that accurate?

Michael Shaffer: It actually is accurate.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Michael Shaffer: That’s a little bit of the magic sauce. You got two beautiful buildings that the state built, gotta give the state credit, unusual over $100 million, stood it up quickly.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Michael Shaffer: But they’re beautiful buildings, but the magic really is in the people.

Brad Means: And so can I just presume that everyone down there is either studying cyber security or in the cyber security business? Is that the total focus there?

Michael Shaffer: It really is in some fashion. That is part of our mission. If you think about it, the real name, our organization does a great job of branding it as the Georgia Cyber Center.

Brad Means: Right.

Michael Shaffer: But if you go back and look at it, it was the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center. Sometimes so innovation and training, training is the key, and why August? A lot of people used to ask the question. I remind them that, even though it’s sitting on Augusta University’s Campus, it’s not an academic buildings. These were built with economic development funds from the State of Georgia, and why? It was training. It was to have a trained workforce for the State of Georgia.

Brad Means: Well, the presence of the Cyber Center just helps us to claim the title of cyber capital of the country. Ever since we saw that transition happen from up in Maryland, I believe it was, down to here for the army, and then for AUs involvement and the state’s involvement. Are you starting to see that other people from other places in America see us as the cyber capital? Are they coming here to ask you questions and learn?

Michael Shaffer: Certainly, so, Georgia made a big statement when they made 100 million plus investment.

Brad Means: Yeah, that was huge.

Michael Shaffer: That’s pretty huge across any state. And since then, as you mentioned, four years later, we’ve had over 40 states come and visit.

Brad Means: Wow.

Michael Shaffer: And the number of different international countries that have come through many of ’em because they’re visiting for Gordon, but they always make a stop at the cyber center. So, the name of Augusta Georgia has a pretty good reach now for more than just golf. There’s another reason that we reach out to many states.

Brad Means: What kind of seeds do you think are planted during those visits? Do you think those folks go back to their states and say, “Man, you’re not gonna believe what they have “in Augusta, Georgia.” And then maybe even go so far as to say, “Maybe I should relocate my company or one of my operations “to Augusta, because they’ve got it going on there.”

Michael Shaffer: Well, I gotta give credit, we went and visited other states when looking at the concept of putting this together and states that already had a National Security Agency, NSA, and a DOD component. And those states helped us try to learn from what they were doing. And it’s interesting, both of those states have come to visit us now.

Brad Means: Wow.

Michael Shaffer: And back to one of our opening comments is, it really is putting academia, government and industry under one roof, not just on one campus, but where those forced collisions are. That’s where the magic is.

Brad Means: What does that mean for the parents watching out there? Can one of their children be learning about cyber security in a room and walk across the hall, and there’s a company that does cyber security or maybe go to the next floor and say, oh wow, here’s a real world company doing what I just learned in my textbook or on my computer.

Michael Shaffer: Sure.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Michael Shaffer: Absolutely. That’s part of it. Going back to what is our true mission, it is training. I looked at the numbers right before we walked in and in Georgia, there’s close to 22,000 jobs that need to be filled across the country, then you’re in the hundreds of thousands. And so our mission really is about that student, or retraining a workforce. So there’s a little bit of both. But that student can and one of the things that we put a full time effort towards is someone that tries to help ’em through, it might be an internship. So you could study and maybe, hopefully one of the companies that’s there needs that. And if not, we look for organizations outside of the buildings that might need internship.

Brad Means: It’s interesting, you mentioned retraining the workforce. People shouldn’t just picture a bunch of people 22, 23-years-old and younger inside there. Folks who have been in other jobs can go in there and jump into the field of cyber too, right?

Michael Shaffer: Absolutely. One of the few buildings in the State of Georgia, where you have both the university system of Georgia, which is Augusta University and the technical college system of Georgia, which is Augusta Tech. If you walk in the buildings, you’re gonna see students with backpacks. You’ll never know which student goes to which organization, they are there studying cyber security.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Michael Shaffer: Their course load is there. It’s wonderful because you can, we hit not just your traditional student, but those going back into the workforce are retraining from another job.

Brad Means: What kind of relationships do you all have? I know your relationship with the state is strong obviously since the state gave birth to the Georgia Cyber Center, but what about federal agencies? I would think Department of Defense, maybe energy, I don’t know, do y’all have ties at the federal level as well to help your programs stay strong?

Michael Shaffer: Sure, so, currently we have just over 16, what we call resident partners.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Michael Shaffer: Most people would say they’re tenants, but no they’re resident partners, ’cause everything we do is a partnership. And two of those partners are federal agencies. One is the Department of Defense and the second one is, DOE, Department of Energy. And if you think about that, I’ve been in many of campuses, many of buildings, and to have two of those agencies in one building is pretty special.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Michael Shaffer: And back to your question, we do. It is about being there, even if a footprint may not be large, it’s having personnel there that is working, whether it’s with the university, whether it’s with the researchers, but having that presence there is pretty special.

Brad Means: It’s very special indeed. We’re talking to Michael Shaffer. He is in charge of a lot of things at Augusta University. He’s talking to us today about the Georgia Cyber Center, and we’re gonna continue that conversation when we come back to examine what’s going on with the student body at AU? Is their interest in this new field of cyber that Michael and I have been discussing? I’m sure there is, I’m sure it’s growing every day. We’ll cover that and more when The Means Report continues.

Part 2

Brad Means: Welcome back to The Means Report, we’re talking to Michael Shaffer, the executive vice president for strategic partnerships and economic development at AU and AU Health. And he knows a lot of things about the Georgia Cyber Center to say the least, including the fact that there is an SOC down there, Security Operations Center, what is that?

Michael Shaffer: So that is the newest footprint of Augusta University, SOC or we say a SOC is where they provide the monitoring and keeping all of us across our university safe from intrusions of hacking or malware any formed, someone trying to phish through emails. So they help protect our network and each of our devices.

Brad Means: Michael, what’s that look like? Is it a bunch of people in a room or on computers?

Michael Shaffer: Well, it’s a little bit about like your studio, there’s screens everywhere. And they’re monitoring the traffic coming through using their tools and their trade that they’re working with. And so you have your engineers in there, but you do. What’s special about ours is not just that what they’re doing a service for our organization, but it is a training SOC. So it is a place of where they bring in students who get hands on learning, of looking at screens and identifying. And not only that, we’re reaching out to some of the possibility of some of our partners that they may be able to also come and have kind of the hand-zone and A-zone screens as they’re monitoring.

Brad Means: Yeah, I would imagine that there’s a demand in private industry for people who can spot hackers, who can spot these scams, phishing malware that you mentioned that could come in to the Georgia Cyber Center and pluck these folks out of there and give ’em other jobs.

Michael Shaffer: Absolutely.

Brad Means: And certainly the students could.

Michael Shaffer: Absolutely, and that’s what we look for. I mean, this is, for a student to get that experience before they ever leave from their coursework is just a great opportunity.

Brad Means: It is a wonderful opportunity. Talk about the Augusta University School of Computer and Cyber Sciences. We’ve discussed it with your colleagues here on The Means Report in the past. I would imagine interest in that is growing by leaps and bounds, enrollment in that part of your curriculum is increasing every day, right?

Michael Shaffer: Absolutely. On any given day across both our school being AU and Augusta Tech, there could be 600 students.

Brad Means: Wow.

Michael Shaffer: So it can get busy. For AU specific, Dr. Schwartzman, who is the dean of the School of Computer and Cyber Sciences, two things, one is attracting students of which enrollment continues to go up. And the second is researchers, which is also at the core of what he’s building, because that goes a long way of giving your students the opportunity to do the research, but also for us to help provide impact out. And of course he specializes somewhat in cyber security within the elections field.

Brad Means: Right.

Michael Shaffer: But he has done a phenomenal job of hiring, I believe he’s over almost up to 30 faculty and researchers. And certainly the Georgia Cyber Center is a great way of marketing as you’re looking to get good researchers to come to Augusta.

Brad Means: It sells itself, doesn’t it?

Michael Shaffer: Absolutely.

Brad Means: Yeah, people would want to come here I would expect. Go back to talking about that partnership with Augusta Tech, and the pathways that you all are able to provide for students there to go into careers. Do they have to do their time at Augusta Tech and then transition over to the Cyber Center in AU? How does it work for people interested?

Michael Shaffer: So it’s what they call an articulation agreement where you map between the coursework that is offered at Augusta Tech to the coursework at Augusta University. And if you think about it, if you’re a student, you may want to go get an associate’s degree. And so you’re at Augusta Tech and you’re going along, well, maybe during that course of study, you decide, well, I want to go get a four year degree. How do you transition to Augusta University? You’re in the same building–

Brad Means: Right.

Michael Shaffer: Right? How do you do that without losing credit? That’s always frustration as a parent or anyone that’s thinking, if I’ve already taken certain courses, can they accept them at the new institution? So, through the articulation and mapping of these courses, we’ve made it easier for a student that they don’t lose their time and their effort of some of their coursework.

Brad Means: Yeah, that’s the biggest pain for a parent is when those credits don’t count when you switch schools.

Michael Shaffer: Yes, sir.

Brad Means: Talk about the buildings down there. We mentioned them at the top of this broadcast and they’ve been there for four years and they’re so serving your purpose, your name is on one of them. What does the future hold just when it comes to those buildings and we’ll look into the crystal ball for a couple of other things as well, Michael, do we need more space eventually?

Michael Shaffer: The answer is yes.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Michael Shaffer: And we’ll get to that one. We’ve been very fortunate, but we’re also, a lot of people will look at it as well, it’s classy office space. Well, it is that, but we’re very specific. You have to be, fit the mission of what’s there. It’s not just a front office. And so we’ve been very fortunate. We mentioned earlier, we have some federal agencies there, but we also have companies, very large companies , like I could just think of Parsons or PAE or Purton, but we also have other smaller companies that you may not hear all the time, Soft Tech or OPS or Ceiling Tech. So it’s a great mix of large company, small companies, some who have been around for many years and some who are startups.

Brad Means: Yeah, that’s the thing. Sometimes you can just drive past the campus or walk past it and it might be intimidating because it is so nice and beautiful and so many important, in some cases, top secret things go on there. But at the core of all of that, it’s about entrepreneurship and innovation, where the little guy or girl can get their start at the Cyber Center, right?

Michael Shaffer: Absolutely, that’s one of the things that we will begin to focus on, just getting the building stood up, getting and just got some of the incredible talented people that are there, that are just great people, getting the right team together. Then you get a little, COVID comes through. But training was number one, but now as we start looking towards more of that innovation and entrepreneurship, that is something that is a big focus as we move forward.

Brad Means: What’s the garage? I was excited to learn about the Security Operation Center or SOC, I’m glad you touched on that, but tell everybody about what the garage is and what y’all do there?

Michael Shaffer: Yeah, it’s great. If you ever come into the Cyber Center, every room is named something, it’s kind of fun. It makes it a fun place to work as well. A lot of hard work gets done there, but you can also make it a little fun. But the garage is really a maker space. And we were very fortunate to get a young man who has come in, had run a maker space, had started a space where students were used to help run the space. And so, as we begin to crank that up, so the garage is getting started, but it is a place that if you have an idea and you need to fabricate something that helps you to put that project together, you can come in and Luke is the young man that’s there, and he’ll work with you on the various machines, whether it’s a CNC router machine or whether it’s a 3D printer or whatever, or laser cutter, he would work with you to create whatever that gadget is you’re trying to create.

Brad Means: So if you can imagine it, they can kind of make the physical version of it.

Michael Shaffer: Yes.

Brad Means: At the garage.

Michael Shaffer: Yes.

Brad Means: What about hacker space that y’all have there? People forget sometimes we need hackers. Hackers have value, they’re not in many cases, the bad guys, what’s the hacker space at the Cyber Center like?

Michael Shaffer: Well, we certainly have companies there that work in that area.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Michael Shaffer: But we have a thing we call the virtual world, and it is, it’s a place of where you can, along with the Georgia cyber range, which is a large computing power of ability, and you can do it in a safe area. So if you are doing what they call tabletop exercises, where the intrusions may be put in where it appears someone is hacking, you can do it in a safe environment. That’s something that doesn’t, they like to call it sandbox. You can put it so that whatever you’re working on is not gonna escape over to your network throughout the rest of the building.

Brad Means: Do y’all ever have lighthearted moments down there where I don’t think it would happen to you, because you’re too savvy, but where somebody might say, I bet you, I can guess your cell phone password, and then they do guess it. Does that happen?

Michael Shaffer: Well, I will say that the clubhouse is there and some others, and occasionally you get people, but we typically can detect what’s going on. We have a great IT team.

Brad Means: I had a cousin, my wife’s cousin actually, who was in the cybersecurity field in the Marines. And he came into our home and guessed our internet password in two seconds. He said, “Y’all gotta work on that.” He said, “That was too easy.” So they’re capable of figuring those things out. We talk a lot on the news about the cyber boom in this area. It seems like it’s on our newscasts every night about how we’re growing by leaps and bounds. Looking back on the last four years, is that boom about where you thought it would be? I mean, you’re kind of at ground zero there, is the growth meeting what you expected?

Michael Shaffer: I’d say, who has showed up has been further than I would’ve expected.

Brad Means: Yeah, seems that way.

Michael Shaffer: Some of the large companies that have shown up. Some of the smaller ones that have moved here, because this is where they’ve opportunity for workforce. If you listen to Tom Clarke at the CSRLI, and he’ll tell you over 1,000 people retire from Fort Gordon each year, that is an incredible talent pool.

Brad Means: Yep.

Michael Shaffer: And many of those are not so old that they don’t go on to have more careers in front of ’em. Well, with that, it’s pretty special. And so, I would say we are ahead of where I would’ve seen, but I also believe as we look to the future is we need to harness it and not stop at just DOD.

Brad Means: And so would you hope in the future that your campus continues to grow certainly, and that more of those entrepreneurs and innovators come to our area? Does that align with what you hope happens?

Michael Shaffer: Yes, sir.

Brad Means: That it’s not just all do DOD-driven.

Michael Shaffer: That’s right. And DOD we talk about Department of Defense, just–

Brad Means: Sure, yeah, Department of Defense.

Michael Shaffer: Defense. Absolutely, these are incredibly and talented people that are in the youth of their career, many of ’em.

Brad Means: Yep.

Michael Shaffer: And how do we keep ’em in Augusta? If we stop just thinking about, let’s just try to attract for contractors and others at DOD, I always look at other communities that get a large company that comes in and yet they get all the other companies that move in around them that help feed the supply chain. How do we keep some of this talent in Augusta and help them create their company? That’s what I think we have to, that I look forward to pushing forward with.

Brad Means: All right, so let’s say that we do realize those dreams and goals that you just outlined. What’s that look like? What are are you all planning to do on campus? You hear things like Simulation Center, you hear about your potential role in medical devices, Non-Department of Defense endeavors, kind of look into the crystal ball and tell me what might happen along those lines.

Michael Shaffer: Well, if you think about medical devices, it’s a great place to start, because if you think of Augusta University Health Science Campus, known for the medical school, dental school, all that. So, it was a great place to look, how do we cross over? How do we use that? If you think, if you look in operating room or a bedside, or anywhere in a hospital or at home, if you have a watch, an Apple watch or Fitbit, that’s transferring data. Well, is it secure on the back-end? Most of, if you walk into a normal hospital room, there’s multiple companies from multiple devices, do they talk to each other? If they do, how are they doing it? What’s the back-end of that? Is it secure? So that’s part of how do we kind of marry our Health Sciences Campus to this new thing called cyber.

Brad Means: A lot of people don’t think about that. We had something on the news last night about how bad guys want to tap into those systems, where you could be in a hospital room and there could be a key piece of equipment monitoring you that could be hacked or taken over. And so, I do hope that AU continues to branch out and the Cyber Center becomes a place where people come to learn how to work on things like that.

Michael Shaffer: So, Simulation Center, go back to that one very quick.

Brad Means: Give me the like 38 second version of the Simulation Center.

Michael Shaffer: It’s a great place to be able to bring people in, whether you’re a, you want to do a very complex tabletop exercise where you’re, as we talked earlier, introducing intrusions into your system, or if you might be a health office of doctors and people that come in, turn on a computer to teach ’em what happens if they come in and suddenly your computer’s been taken over?

Brad Means: Yeah.

Michael Shaffer: So the Simulation Center is a place that we hope that we can provide some real time training for whether it is, either are some of our folks there on campus, or folks that are outside, that we can help provide the training.

Brad Means: Well, it’s an exciting future, no doubt, it’s been a great start, Michael, thanks for shepherding this community through it. And thanks for staying on top of everything that’s coming down the road, we appreciate you.

Michael Shaffer: Yes, sir, thank you.

Brad Means: Absolutely, Michael Shaffer, our special guest today on The Means Report.