His laptop inside his backpack slung over his shoulder, Ryan Goulden (CS’15) steps into the gym. Undergrad students are everywhere, seated at tables, huddling over laptops. Tangles of cords wind across the tabletops, cascading toward powerstrips on the floor.
Most days, Goulden would be in class, but on this day he’s at NYU for its annual Capture the Flag competition, the largest student-run event of this type. In the competition, contestants launch simulated cyberattacks, to “steal” flags. “The idea behind it,” explains Goulden, “is to practice breaching security in order to learn how to build less breachable security.”
He's competed here since he was a sophomore as a member of CMU’s Plaid Parliament of Pwning (PPP), a competitive hacking team he now helps run. With him today are teammates Maxime Serrano (CS’15), Chris Williamson (CS’15), and Ned Williamson (CS’16). There are other PPP teammates as well—Tim Becker (CS’18), Chris Ganas (CS’18), George Hotz (CS’16), and Carolina Zarate (CS’18)—but owing to team-size limits, they must compete as PPP2. Nevertheless, as Goulden points out, “They’re still very much a part of our group.”
Of the more than 18,000 undergrad hackers around the world, only 15 teams, including the PPPs, have made the cut through preliminary competitions to compete in this final round.
CMU has emerged the winner for the past six years, creating a winning tradition to uphold. Goulden doesn’t feel the pressure, though. PPP has been honing its skills all year in dozens of hacking competitions.
Through the teammates’ travels and practices, plus just hanging out together, they’ve become in tune with each other’s expertise, and which problems to delegate to whom. At NYU, they quickly settle into their roles. Goulden gets to work on a complicated remote code execution task to exploit a flaw and, if successful, take control of the program’s server. Just my kind of challenge, he thinks, and he rises to the occasion.
The team knows they’re in a competition, but Goulden says they’re also there to connect with the hacker community and for the thrill of tackling challenging problems.
After the judges announce time is up, the teams must await the awards ceremony that evening to find out who won. Once again, it’s Carnegie Mellon as PPP is declared the winner. Second place goes to PPP2. No time to dwell on being a dynasty; PPPs’ next Capture the Flag competition is in five days.
—Jule Pattison-Gordon (DC’13