Operational security managers are often the first line of defense against cyber and physical attacks that threaten the security of our nation's energy infrastructure. The work they do is essential to ensuring the systems we rely on every day for our power and fuel are safe and secure, but the fact of the matter that these critical workers face an ever-evolving and dynamic threat landscape, often with limited resources at their disposal.

That’s why the Department of Energy (DOE) creates programs like the Operational Technology (OT) Defender Fellowship. The OT Defender Fellowship is a highly selective educational opportunity led by DOE’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER), alongside the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), that gives its fellows an exclusive, insider view of how the government functions. During year-long cohorts of about a dozen participants at a time, these OT security managers have opportunities to collaborate with key stakeholders and partners, are shown how to better serve their organizations and the energy sector, and how to contribute to two-way information sharing between government and industry. The first cohort began in January of 2021 and ran through March of 2022, and the second recently kicked off in April of 2022.

The Fellowship is much more than just a networking activity; it offers its participants experiences that they cannot receive anywhere else. The students are given access to cutting-edge tools and technologies, virtual meet-and-greets with key cyber leaders, and input from and conversations with partners that had been previously out of reach. One fellow commented during program closeout, “This program provides a great overview of all the programs available to critical infrastructure. It also builds bridges and gets OT Defenders in front of policy makers in the ways other programs have not.”

A graphic showing how the OT defender team and NREL gathered feedback from virtual sessions

“One of the things we heard throughout the year is they want time to hear from each other,” shared Jared Smith, Program Manager at the Cybercore Integration Center at INL. “They’ve got a strong desire for additional opportunities to collaborate outside of the program. Because of this resounding interest, we plan to facilitate more inter-session discussions and in-person engagements in the future.” That desire for interconnectedness highlights the real value of the program: it fosters closer partnerships between companies that might otherwise not have been working together as closely as they could.

Mr. Brian Marko, Program Manager of Energy Sector Exercises and Cyber Training Programs in CESER, also added that he was “thrilled at how quickly barriers went down between the fellows as the program kicked off. They shared information willingly and freely, which shows that they really do see this as a collaborative opportunity, not competitive, even despite geographical dispersion and industry rivalry.”

Though the second OT Defender Fellowship Program cohort began just recently, the team is already running at full speed to apply feedback from the first session. Prioritizing opportunities for bi-directional communication, initiating conversation, and promoting strong collaboration between industry, government, and stakeholder partners remain the primary goals for the next year.

“We’ll continue to make a point of putting our heads together and facilitating those connections between the fellows,” Mr. Marko stated. “When we really focus on how we can benefit from sharing information instead of competing amongst each other, it creates amazing results.”

For more information on the OT Defender Fellowship Program, visit their homepage on the Idaho National Laboratory’s official website.