Behind the deal that brought Facebook and Texas A&M-San Antonio together

September 21, 2018
In The News

Texas A&M University-San Antonio can thank a local lawmaker's social network for the chance to show the potential of its cybersecurity students and faculty to the country's largest social media company.

An introduction from U.S. Rep. Will Hurd enabled the historically Hispanic-serving institution on San Antonio's South Side to become the first college in Texas to join Facebook Inc.'s Cyber Security University Program. Under the program, the university is slated this fall to offer a hybrid cybersecurity course to students underwritten by Facebook. The program enables students to attend Facebook-sponsored security training and conferences and to interact with Facebook employees.

Hurd, who received his undergraduate degree at Texas A&M University’s College Station campus, is an acquaintance of Alex Stamos, who at the time was Facebook's chief security officer and has since become a researcher and professor at Stanford University.

“We were talking about what kind of skills companies need for [their] cybersecurity professionals, and he talked about his frustration that some people didn’t have the skills [Facebook] needed,” Hurd, R-Helotes, told the Business Journal. “I was like, hell, Texas A&M-San Antonio has and is always looking to do things on the cutting edge and thought it would be great [for Facebook] to talk to them."

So Hurd, whose 23rd Congressional District includes parts of the South Side, introduced Stamos to Texas A&M-San Antonio President Cynthia Teniente-Matson in late 2017, and "it went from there," the congressman said. "It was a good pairing, and I’m glad to have played a little role in it.”

Teniente-Matson visited Facebook and negotiated the parameters for the new program, which is being rolled out this fall.

Tenient-Matson said connecting with Facebook comes at a pivotal point, as the university is growing and making major investments.

Facebook "was really interested in our diversity, our commitment to equity and inclusion, the caliber of the academic program, our commitment to the four-year degree, the fact that we have the [National Security Agency] certification already with the labs and we are building a new facility,” she told the Business Journal. “We’re the only university that was selected in Texas.”

The Cyber Security University Program's curriculum is a collaborative effort — taught by Texas A&M-San Antonio professors and “informed by professionals at Facebook’s cybersecurity” arm, Teniente-Matson said. "Students get both perspectives.”

The partnership was spearheaded on Facebook's end by Stephanie Siteman, an information security program and operations manager, who was surprised by the volume of response to its university initiative.

“We weren’t really sure there was going to be any interest,” Siteman said. “The first time we piloted our advertisement on social media, we had more than 1,500 applicants.”

Siteman told the Business Journal that universities often have a difficult time implementing new curriculum, a process that can get mired in bureaucracy.

“It takes a lot of time, up to many years, I’ve been told,” she said.

In Texas A&M-San Antonio's case, she said, “They’ve been able to move fast. Most times, we’re not able to [offer students] credit for the first semester. It’s usually a pilot.” 

The overarching goal behind Facebook forging partnerships with universities around the country — nine so far — is to foster diversity of thought to solve rapidly changing problems, Siteman said.

“We feel that security is only going to be better at Facebook [with people who have] diverse backgrounds, diverse talents,” she said. “We’re able to identify students who really excel at different domains and [those] who are critical thinkers. We’ll look at how we can train professors as well.”

Hurd, meanwhile, has been a consistent advocate that more must be done to cultivate the skills needed for jobs in tech fields such as cybersecurity.

“You need good companies, but you also need a talented workforce and a sense of urgency," Hurd said. "San Antonio recognizes that what is a talented workforce for 2018 might be different than what you need in 2020. You have to be flexible enough to make sure you are preparing kids for those future scenarios.”