Long before Joseph DePlato became a cybersecurity expert, he was a cyberthreat to his own middle school.

DePlato, co-founder and chief technology officer at Bluestone Analytics in Charlottesville, said he was handed a suspension after he hacked into the school’s IT infrastructure and sold computer games to fellow students.

“That was a life-changing moment for me, … when I understood that there are consequences for your actions,” he said.

DePlato spoke about the role of ethics and social responsibility in “professional hacking” Thursday at Cybersecurity Day, a free event at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

“We want people to know about the cybersecurity opportunities that Virginia has, not only for employment but also for training,” said Richard Seweryniak, program director and associate professor of cybersecurity at PVCC.

Between April 2017 and March 2018, the U.S. Department of Commerce recorded 33,500 job openings in cybersecurity-related positions in Virginia. The Washington, D.C., metropolitan area had the largest number of cybersecurity job openings nationwide, with 43,200.

“The cybersecurity industry is facing a crisis: a shortage of skilled workers,” said Ben Gilbert, a cybersecurity advisor for the Department of Homeland Security.

Speakers at the event emphasized that cybersecurity encompasses a wide variety of jobs and can intersect with almost any field of work.

“It’s more than just the computers,” said Tom Ruggeri, a network administrator at PVCC.

“It’s also dealing with people, and it’s dealing with policies you want to have in place, so people don’t do things wrong.”

Bluestone Analytics serves small and mid-sized businesses and state and local governments on the East Coast. It recently was awarded a contract to provide cybersecurity services to Albemarle County’s government and schools.

Bluestone requires most job applicants to have some computer programming skills and an understanding of IT networks. However, DePlato said a candidate’s “soft skills,” such as communication and critical thinking, are more important than the technical certifications they hold.

“If you have the soft skills, I can teach you the technical side,” DePlato said. “In cybersecurity, you will never stop learning.”

DePlato said he also asks prospective employees about projects they are working on their free time. He said one successful applicant showed him ways they had tinkered with the code behind Candy Crush, a popular online game.

“It doesn’t have to be cybersecurity related … but it’s always important to have some side project that you are excited about,” DePlato said.

Launched in 2015, PVCC’s cybersecurity program currently enrolls about 80 students. Seweryniak said it could expand to about 200 students in 2019.

After 15 years of military service, Melvin Lamb enrolled at PVCC this fall to pursue cybersecurity jobs with the federal government or in law enforcement.

“I have always enjoyed computers, but programming is not my forte,” Lamb said. “I decided that I wanted a job that dealt with computers but wasn’t all about programming.”

Seweryniak said that women continue to be underrepresented in cybersecurity jobs.

Women currently make up about 11 percent of the cybersecurity workforce, and 20 percent of the enrollment in PVCC’s program, Seweryniak said.

“These skills are in demand and we don’t care what race, gender or ethnicity you are,” Seweryniak said. “[Hiring decisions] are based on the skill set, not who you know.”

PVCC, Lord Fairfax Community College and Germanna Community College shared a $100,000 GO Virginia grant in June to support the development of a shared cybersecurity program. The Charlottesville Area Community Foundation and the National Science Foundation will provide matching funds for the grant.