Meet the Alabama Student Working to Educate Us On Cybersecurity Breaches

Monroeville, Alabama, college student AJ Nettles has had a strong interest in and passion for technology since childhood. From as long as he could remember, he was drawn to computers and how they worked. And, well, that passion recently led him to be named one of the winners of Apple’s 2024 Swift Student Challenge, a prestigious worldwide competition where the next generation of developers, creators, and entrepreneurs have the opportunity to showcase their creative, coding capabilities. 

With his family supporting his dream from the beginning, Nettles pursued a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and is now going for his Master’s in Cybersecurity from the University of Birmingham. EBONY had the opportunity to chat with the Swift Student Challenge winner, and he tells us more about this distinguished honor, the importance of families supporting young learners as well as why cybersecurity in general is so important to him.

EBONY: Tell us more about your love for technology and when it developed.

AJ Nettles: I got my first computer when I was around 5 years old and was fascinated with how they worked. Eventually, I became known as the computer guy in my family, and they embraced my love for them. This led me to become interested in app development, especially during the pandemic, when I had more downtime to really teach myself. I ended up pursuing a degree in Computer Science, and now I’m gearing up to study for my Master’s in Cybersecurity. 

How did this lead you to enter the Swift Student Challenge and what did it consist of?

When I got into developing apps I learned about Swift which helped me with developing iOS mobile apps. This led me to the Swift Student Challenge after receiving an email from Apple. 

The Challenge pushed us to develop an idea from concept to pretty much the full version in just 3 weeks. I appreciated that, because it didn’t give me time to put it off, which is what I tend to do as far as apps go. We had to really grind it out.

Talk to us about the app that ultimately led you to be named a winner, and why this concept is important to you?

I had my own personal experiences that pushed me toward cybersecurity. In the past, I would have these really easy passwords for my different accounts. But, when I got a notification that someone tried to access my account, it put things into perspective that everything I had worked for could be gone because someone had my password. 

I knew that others shared this same experience, so I built around teaching the importance of password security and why we need more complex passwords, as well as how to keep them safe. I wanted to just emphasize that this shouldn’t be taken lightly, and the consequences of someone getting a hold of your passwords. 

In the app, it starts with a tutorial on the importance of passwords and how they are used within company systems. It’s interactive and lets you see how your passwords are stored. Once you finish the initial steps, it switches from a guide to then allowing you to generate encrypted passwords and have them stored safely in the app.

Screenshot of Nettles winning app. Image: Courtesy of Nettles.

Now that you’ve won the Challenge and were even recognized as one of the Apple’s Distinguished Winners, what’s next?

I’m really looking forward to going to Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference this summer, it feels like a dream come true. As a winner, I get a free year of developer access, so I can submit my application to be published on the App Store. So, it will be amazing to get this opportunity and spread my awareness and passion for cybersecurity, and hopefully get people to take it more serious. 

Looking back, was there anything your parents did that guided you toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) ? And what advice would you offer parents to get their children interested in the tech field?

My parents didn’t quite understand computers at that time, but they knew the power of tech as far as the future. They saw my passion and where it could take me, so, they were intentional on supporting me every step of the way. 

My advice to other parents or families is to just support that thing that your child wants to learn, even if it may be outside the norm. Just have open arms and give them the push to go out and try or pursue that passion, even if it doesn’t work out. 

Updated: May 9, 2024 — 3:01 pm