A poster of a moustached Batman hangs over several computers. Diverse old electronic devices, computing related books, a fridge packed with snacks, professional network equipment, and a Nyan Cat pillow are some of the furniture that decorate Sieg 328, Batman’s Kitchen headquarters.
Batman’s Kitchen is a student-driven security hacker competition group that involves around 700 current students and alumni from the three UW campuses. It provides its members with the opportunity to attend weekly cybersecurity conferences, or become part of the core team that participates in two main types of competitions: Capture the Flag (CTF) and Attack-Defense.
CTFs consist of “Jeopardy” style challenges where participants choose between different categories of puzzles and earn a certain amount of points for finding out hidden keywords or phrases in different files, images, or pieces of software. Attack-Defense events instead require participants to set virtual networks, protect them, and try to exploit vulnerabilities on the opponents’ systems.
During the days and nights of the competitions, the members of the team get together to play, have fun, and learn while competing against some of the best cybersecurity groups both on a national and international level.
According to Melody Kadenko, computer science and engineering program director and founder of Batman’s Kitchen, the team currently ranks 33 out of 10,935 teams worldwide and fourth place in the United States.
Kadenko can’t help but smile, even though managing the members of Batman’s Kitchen and keeping them on task can be a struggle.
“I am so proud of my team, even though they make me yell at them a lot,” Kadenko said.
During the second week of November, a group of students from the core team (made up of students Alex Kirchhoff, Bo Wang, Stanley Hsieh, and Dan Arens) finished third place at the U.S. based CTF Cyber Security Awareness Week at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. For 36 uninterrupted hours, the group solved computer security challenges while the members took turns sleeping in shifts.
The team then represented the country at the Trend Micro CTF competition in Tokyo, where they took fourth place.
Watch Daily Video's interview with members of Batman's Kitchen
“I have learned a lot,” Wang said. “People sometimes say they are just games and not real scenarios, but they are actually very similar to what you would expect in real life.”
In addition to the competitions, Batman’s Kitchen provides a space for students to learn about information security and practice their skills on actual challenges.
“All students are welcome to become active members as long as they participate and get involved,” Kadenko said.
The group is open for students from any background, such as Carson Hill, a business major who has been participating with the team for a couple of months.
“It is a good opportunity to learn about my personal passion, so I just showed up and here I am,” Hill said.
Members are encouraged to get involved in a learning process that includes attending Batman’s Kitchen weekly workshops and conferences, engaging in individual research, and solving puzzles through trial and error with the support of their peers.
“Here, both veterans and new guys mingle,” said Alex Sirr, informatics student and member of the core team. “Both learn together and it is all about how much time you [put in] for this. I have classes and work, but I find some little time to read at least Wikipedia with basics of network protocols for example.”
The skills members learn with the group are also helpful when transitioning into the security industry. Batman’s Kitchen has received support from multiple sponsors within the Seattle security community, including Deja Vu Security, Security Innovation, and Leviathan.
Jin Oh, who started collaborating with the team one year before as a freshman, feels more confident now when facing the challenge of finding a job.
“For a long time I thought I knew nothing, until this year in a career fair they asked me questions about web security and I could answer,” Oh said. “As a newbie hanging out with the team … they would make CTF questions and show me how to solve them, so I learned.”
Either to get a job in the highly demanded field of cybersecurity or for sheer passion, Batman’s Kitchen is an open space for students to experiment, collaborate, learn, and be challenged.
Reach contributing writer Daniel Kapellmann Zafra at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Kapellmann