InfoSec Chief Organizes Campus Cyberfair 13th Consecutive Year

Christopher Laasch has been helping plan the campus cybersecurity fair since 2004.

For videogamers, the excitement of becoming a first-time console owner leaves a lasting impression. What Christopher Laasch (’16, CIS) did after receiving his first system was a precursor to how his future would unfold.

“I took it apart and reassembled it before playing any games,” the lead of systems security for the entire Cal Poly Pomona campus says. “Ironically, the DOS books I read when I was 11 turned out to have answers to finals questions for Dr. Carlton’s class.”

While most of his contemporaries were witnessing Reggie Jackson morph into “Mr. October,” learning about IBM’s $20 million Cray Y-MP was more Laasch’s style. Although the then-supercomputer now lacks sufficient hardware to run 2006’s Windows Vista, Laasch evolved his interest in computers to a professional career. He also goes through great lengths once a year to share his passion with the entire campus.

The origins of CPP’s annual Cybersecurity and Awareness Fair can be traced back to 2004 grant to raise consciousness of access to information systems at Hispanic-serving institutions. Laasch volunteered for the planning committee while working with Student Health Services. The Laasch-SHS link hit pay dirt by partnering with the annual health fair, which coincided with the Departments of Homeland Security’s October National Cybersecurity Month. His supervisors greenlighted Christopher to piggyback the event’s infrastructure.

“We were given six weeks to put together a program,” Laasch says. “It was the first true Cybersecurity and Awareness Fair at CPP. With the help of SHS, we were able to provide eight security presentations and about 10 exhibit tables from industry leaders for students.”

Joining Laasch to comprise the core of the planning team were CIS professor Dan Manson and CPP systems analyst David Lyon. Lyon and Manson served as grant managers, but only two years into the venture, the grant money ended. Nobody was prepared to give up on the event and it has been kept alive financially since 2006 through university support and corporate sponsors.

The fair is unique with partnerships between faculty, staff, and students from across campus that includes IT, CIS, and CS. It is always experimenting with ways to increase its reach; 2017 it was an Alice in Cyberland theme and in 2016 the Bronco Student Center became Carnivale de Mystère. Regardless of the hook, the actual events have been as diverse as the attendees. One year it was marketed heavily among senior citizens with activities geared toward basic internet literacy; 2013’s focus was career opportunities for women in IT security.

Variety abundant and there’s something for all skill levels. Tech companies like IBM and CrowdStrike arrive ready to hire work-ready talent. Newbs and seasoned administrators cohabitate or learn how to pick locks. Anna Carlin and Mohammad Husain have created the research poster contest and 2018 will bring the first scholarship opportunity.

If you ask Laasch his motivation for returning each year to plan a new event, the response will likely include the importance of educating students about safe internet practices. It’s expected given he spends 40-plus hours a week protecting the same students from the dangers lurking online.

“In a busy week, our office can deal with a malware outbreak, targeted phishing attack, or forensic investigation,” Laasch says. “My personal favorite is working our student assistants to learn together as a team.”

Christopher is as student-focused staff member as Cal Poly Pomona has. Through more than 17 years of employment, helping them has always been a top priority.  The 2017 Cybersecurity and Awareness Fair was especially sweet for Laasch because it was the first time he was able to experience the event as not only an organizer, he also arrived as an alumnus.

The journey to earning a bachelor’s in Computer Information Systems is one Laasch began in 1987 when he first enrolled at CPP as an undeclared freshman. Life began happening and within a few quarters Laasch opted to take a break while helping run a family-owned business. Technology was still a major interest though and Laasch chipped away at an associate’s degree in computer graphics at a local community college. Then life would happen again.

Closing the business was a tough pill to swallow, but it forced Christopher to alter his career path and return to a familiar place. Shortly after, Laasch was hired as a systems administrator for the International Center. Once on campus, the desire to pursue a bachelor’s resurfaced until an injury and family demands thwarted his comeback attempt. 

The third time was a charm for Laasch as he regained student status. By day he was a systems administrator and at night he was in class with a new determination and altered outlook to provide a foundation for long-term success.

“Having worked in small business, the fundamental accounting equation had a different meaning from having to close a business due to bankruptcy,” Laasch says. “I viewed security courses from a perspective of when CPP did not have border firewalls back in the days of Windows NT.   The audit and forensic courses complemented my transition into lead of the information security office.”