Canada’s first Masters in IT security graduate

Eight Canadian post-graduate students have received what’s touted as the country’s first-ever Master’s Degree in Information Technology Security (MITS).

Offered by University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in Oshawa, Ont., the full-time full Master’s program commenced in September 2005, and last Friday, the first batch of enrolees attended their graduation.

“The MITS program helped me become aware of the different kinds of available (computer) attacks – where these attacks are coming from, how they can be developed and how we can prevent them,” said one of the graduates, Marjan Zandi from Whitby, Ont. Zandi finished at the top of her class and was a recipient of the Governor General’s Academic Medal.

Before enrolling in the MITS program, Zandi worked as a senior hardware engineer for a telecommunications company. There, she got particularly interested in the security and privacy aspect of communication systems and the data that pass through those systems.

“In recent years, I noticed how security has become more important and critical,” said Zandi, who has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

Another graduate of the program, Mustapha Refai, echoes Zandi’s view on the importance of obtaining IT security expertise.

Refai entered UOIT’s Master’s of IT Security program to enhance his security skills, particularly in secure software development. The recent MITS graduate runs his own software and Web site development company called DQCSS (Dependable, Quality, Complete Software Solution) Inc.

“I have noticed that it’s a big challenge for software developers to develop not only software that works, but [one that] works in a context that is secure,” said Refai, who is based in Ajax, Ont.

In addition to gaining expertise around secure coding techniques, Refai said the program exposed him to the latest and greatest technology, and gave him a glimpse of where the technology is headed.

Since its commencement two years ago, the university has seen a steady growth in MITS enrolment, said Clemens Martin, assistant professor at UOIT’s Faculty of Business and Information Technology.

MITS is open to all students with a technical undergraduate degree including, but not limited to, computer science or software engineering degree, Martin added. Students with a non-IT-related technical undergraduate degree would, however, be required to take some programming and computer architecture courses to fulfill the prerequisites of the master’s program, he added.

“What we have done to create something unique and useful to industry and society is a blend of technical skills with some management, law and ethical skills,” Martin said. The program integrates some of the most important curriculum aspects from industrial certifications such as CISSP (certified information systems security professionals) and the SANS Institute.

MITS includes courses on computer law and ethics, technical background on operating system security and advanced communication networks, cryptography and secure coding techniques. There is also a course called Attack and Defence, which provides technical know-how on various types of network attacks and ways to protect the organizations’ network.

Towards the end of the program, students are given a course on policies and procedures, which attempts to link the business impact of IT security and technical practices, “because you need to know why you’re protecting things and what business processes are crucial and critical,” Martin said.

Enrolment projections for MITS are “looking very good,” according to the professor. The optimal class size is between 24 and 25 students, and there were about 50 to 60 enrolment applications received for the upcoming term.

Martin said the university hopes to extend the capacity of its hacker research lab, where students can safely experiment with malicious codes and defence strategies. Employment prospects for MITS graduates are also looking positive, said Martin.

“From what we hear from industry – that is mainly banking, insurance and telecom – is that they see a shortage of IT security professionals. We did our market research three years ago, when we started designing the (MITS) program and nothing has led us to believe that this has changed in any major way,” he said. That remains to be seen for Zandi, however.

Fresh from her recent graduation, Zandi has now begun her search for suitable employment. Although she is prepared for the challenge ahead, she is confident that the knowledge she gained from the program would help her land a position appropriate with her qualifications.

“Finding a job needs experience; (for) most of the job they require at least three to five years experience in this field. But I’m trying my best to find my job,” Zandi said.

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