My father always liked to tell me about how he and his friends used to hack cars in the 1960s to get more power and speed out of stock motors. They took apart the motors, learned all they could, tried to improve them — and sometimes broke them altogether. Occasionally, however, they pulled off amazing improvements with their hacking skills. (In fact, the engineers from Ford and Chevrolet actively followed automobile clubs in various cities to learn from them.)
I also know a chef who does something called “food hacking.” She routinely plays with heat, cold, dehydration, gelification and other techniques to develop new and improved flavors out of the same old foods. According to her, nearly every Michelin-starred restaurant uses food hacks in the form of molecular gastronomy to make incredible meals.
Every industry is improved by hackers: From rice cakes to rocket ships, engineering makes it — and then hacking makes it better. This is why hacking is such an extremely valuable skill for any teenager to learn.
So, What Is Hacking?
It’s important to understand that hacking doesn’t mean breaking into other people’s computers — that’s trespassing. Nor does it mean wearing black hoodies and sunglasses while using a computer (although stock photographs and Hollywood movies might make it seem so).
Hacking actually means having such a firm understanding of how something works that you can change it to do exactly what you want it to do.
Hackers are well-employed in the technology field — particularly in cybersecurity, which is in the midst of a skills shortage that’s expected to hit 1.8 million open positions by 2022, according to business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. Although hacking isn’t taught in many schools, aspiring security professionals can learn to hack through independent exploration, from peers and mentors and by leveraging online resources.
Hacker Highschool is a great tool specifically designed to teach teens how to approach problems with a hacking mentality — and it’s available for free, online. The only prerequisites teens need to get started are a natural curiosity and an eagerness to learn.
Why Should Teens Learn Hacking Skills?
Hacking teaches kids to be resourceful in the face of challenges. It shows them how to research, learn and be creative (as well as analytical and systematic). It also promotes empathy to help students understand problems from multiple viewpoints. Most of all, hacking teaches teens grit and urges them to keep trying when they fail.
Hackers don’t give up — it’s part of the culture because it’s part of the skill. Since hacking is all about learning how things work, it involves a healthy dose of trial and error.
Think about putting together a jigsaw puzzle: To complete the picture, you must try to find the piece that fits into each space. If the first piece you pick up doesn’t fit, you don’t quit the activity — in fact, you expect the first few pieces not to fit due to the very nature of the puzzle. The same approach applies to hacking.
Unlike puzzles, however, hacking is a complicated skill that requires in-depth research before trying anything. So, it’s more involved than merely throwing potential solutions at the wall and seeing what sticks. In fact, hacking is often referred to as the best parts of the scientific method. When they teach the scientific method in schools, teachers often place the most significant emphasis on the observation and experimentation stages.
Hacker Highschool’s first lesson, the aptly titled “Being a Hacker,” shows students how to approach problems with a hacker’s mentality. There are 12 textbooks available online that cover everything from navigating a computer to analyzing malware — all with a cybersecurity theme.
The books were written by the Institute for Security and Open Methodologies (ISECOM), the same firm that established the standard for security testing and analysis that’s taught to cybersecurity professionals around the world. The quality is high, and the stories are interesting. Most importantly, the writers are hackers — so they know what they’re talking about.
The purpose of Hacker Highschool is to help teens be more proactive in solving problems both online and offline. It’s designed as a self-teaching curriculum, so it doesn’t require teachers to be experts in cybersecurity themselves. The curriculum does have a computer focus, but that’s just a canvas for the teens to learn to paint on. While we do hope some students choose to be cybersecurity professionals someday, some of them will surely take their hacking skills to other fields.
The Next Generation of SOC Analysts
IBM is leading the way when it comes to hiring “new collar” professionals — candidates who have cyber skills but don’t necessarily have traditional college degrees. The more you study and participate in real-world experiences, the faster you can climb up this career ladder.
IBM Security partnered with Hacker Highschool to create a new lesson, “Defensive Hacking,” which prepares students to create strong cyber defenses as part of a security operations center (SOC) team.
It’s nearly impossible to predict what kind of career a teen will ultimately pursue — after all, many of us end up in fields that are very different from what we studied in school. No matter where they end up in their professional lives, however, these students will always be hackers at heart. For teens looking to develop the grit, resourcefulness and creativity necessary to solve a wide variety of problems, this summer is the perfect time to learn how to hack.