Job hunting can be stressful at the best of times, but if you thought job interviews are nerve wracking, you ought to see what MWR InfoSecurity does on a recruitment drive.

Last week I was invited to HackFu, a three-day event that serves as both a way for MWR to spot potential new hires and to get folks interested in cybersecurity. The event started ten years ago in the UK and a local version kicked off last year.

HackFu participants are drawn from universities, MWR’s internship programme as well as from within MWR itself. The participants from university usually study something related to computer science but not all of them study programming.

This struck us as odd given that a large part of information security involves analysing code but MWR informed us otherwise.

“We’re looking for problem solvers,” security consultant and MWR Travis Ford tells us. “Coding is important but we’re looking for people that excel at solving problems and that can work together as part of a team.”

That teamwork is vital as HackFu participants are separated into teams when the event begins and each team is tasked with completing a series of tasks that earn them points. An eventual winner is crowned and they traditionally get bragging rights though there were mystery prizes up for grabs at this event.

The tasks that are set are mind-boggling. For instance one challenge has teams using an Alberti cipher disk to decode a string of letters into a Latin sentence which then needs to be translated into English after which you need to take specific words to form a sentence that will give you a clue.

If that sounds like a lot, that’s just one challenge.

This is an example of an Alberti cipher.

Teams need to complete tasks such as decrypt the name of their team, pick locks to free a team member from a straight-jacket and work together to free themselves from an escape room.

The entire event is created by seven MWR employees that also oversee the event. Many of the puzzles are inspired by the UK version of HackFu but many more are fresh creations from the local team.

While problem solving is important the teams also have to perform well during a live simulated attack on a network, trying to breach a network and warding off attacks from fellow competitors.

“The teams can hack the power supplies to each tent and DDoS each other’s power supplies,” Ford revealed to us to wit we asked if anybody had figured this out yet.

“Not yet, but we’ll know when somebody does.”

What we learned at HackFu

You might think that using puzzles to identify potential new hires is blue sky thinking at its best but when you really sit down to think about, that’s what information security is about.

And honestly if Jaguar can try something similar why can’t MWR which has been doing this for the better part of a decade.

One of the HackFu teams getting ready to escape an escape room.

In information security an analyst is presented with a problem and they need to find the most efficient way to solve the problem. While pouring over code for months on end remembering what function should be called when that’s just half of the war won.

A number of the puzzles and tasks are based on mathematic principles. Skills that you thought you would never use in high school are all used here because they help you find patterns and the shortest route to a solution

Programming can be taught and MWR provides all participants with a cheat sheet so that they spend more time solving problems than trying to figure out what code they should be typing up.

There will be coding.

The real value is being able to solve problems creatively and quickly.

Perhaps I’ll take part next year but that is a challenge in and of itself. Each year MWR puts a challenge up online before the event and if you manage to complete the challenge you might get an invite to HackFu.

It’s also worth noting that once at HackFu there is no guarantee that you’ll get a job. If the organisers identify that you have the right skills you might get invited to join the recruitment programme.

While it sounds like a secret club, the event hopes to lessen the skills shortage in the information security sector and by exposing folks to areas of computer science they might not have realised they enjoy.

Having been berated by MWR I am considering entering next year. Who’s to say if I make it through the initial tests but one thing is certain, MWR got me excited about maths, something my high school teachers are surely envious of.