ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Figuring out how to execute a cyber attack on a mock hotel’s computer system is something a team from the Rochester Institute of Technology is doing on purpose.

“Right now I’m trying to sign into the router to see if there are any vulnerabilities," said student Annika Clarke.

It's not only ethical, it's encouraged. It's part of the eighth annual Collegiate Penetration Testing Competition that features cybersecurity students from 15 universities around the world.

They'll experience what an ethical hack of a realistic company’s system looks and feels like.

“The level of expertise required to be successful in this career is very high," said Justin Pelletier, RIT Cyber and Training Center director.

The career requires deeply technical skills to protect networks from hackers. It’s a constant battle.

“It's really hard," said Pelletier. "I mean, frankly, it's very hard. So the attacker only needs to be right once. The defenders need to be right all the time.“

“You start to get used to some of the stress and it just becomes normal, which, it sounds sad, but it's fun," said student Max Fusco.

The competition isn’t just for bragging rights. It prepares students for cybersecurity careers — a field with hundreds of thousands of job openings but a relatively small talent pool to fill them.

“So events like this really create excitement," said Pelletier, "and by sharing that excitement with the broader community, we can attract, you know, those high schoolers, even the middle schoolers, to say 'hey, what if?' You know, this is a really, not just lucrative, but impactful career."

“Not only is it fun to hack into things, but you’re getting real-world experience because the people who are creating this competition, their job is real-world testing and they know what’s out there, and they want us to learn before we graduate.”

Virtually everything in life is tied to computer technology.

“We know there is stuff out there, but we have to navigate around the network to find it," Clarke said.

These students, in their careers, will be the ones protecting it.

“There's a lot of ways to make money with technology, but in this way, folks are able to think about something a little bit bigger than themselves and give back to the community with those skills that they develop, and help our civilization become more secure and reliable," Pelletier said.