Finding the right skills balance in data security hires

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As cybercriminals learn to evade conventional technical solutions such as firewalls, cybersecurity teams are turning more and more to behavioral analytics to combat malware campaigns such as ransomware, social engineering techniques like phishing and other cyber threats. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that information security analysts will be the fastest growing overall job category, with 28 percent growth during the decade ending in 2026.

In general terms, information security analysts perform data analysis to identify vulnerabilities and threats to a company’s digital assets. These analytics are used to configure threat detection tools to optimize preventive measures and mitigate business risk.

Trouble is the supply of analytics talent isn’t rising fast enough to meet this increasing cybersecurity demand.

Per Cyberseek, a free workforce and career resource developed jointly by my organization’s parent association, CompTIA, and labor market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, currently there are more than 285,000 unfilled cybersecurity openings nationwide. Among those vacant positions are data-driven jobs such as cybersecurity analyst and vulnerability analyst / penetration tester.

Where will U.S. companies find the analytics talent to fill these roles? Narrowing such a wide gap will be neither fast nor easy. The IT industry has years of work ahead of it addressing this mission.

In the short term, some companies are hiring or partnering to meet overall cybersecurity needs, but the most common approach is to improve the technical skills the existing workforce. CompTIA researchers found that 60 percent of companies use training to sharpen security expertise, and 48 percent pursue certifications. Many companies also extend this skills training to the non-IT workforce. But today, a specific focus on cybersecurity analytics acumen seems to be lacking.

My organization believes tweens and teens should become a focal point in this area. They already make up a quarter of the U.S. population and will account for more than 20 percent of the workforce in the next five years. Plus, my organization’s research indicates many in this group have the temperament to become more than technicians; they will be technologists, people working with technology of varied types in companies of all shapes and sizes across the country along a broad spectrum of industries – not just those that write software and make hardware.

We believe workers with a technologist’s mentality – an optimal mix of hard technical skills and relationship acumen (often called “soft skills”) – are well-suited for today’s fast-paced, continually evolving cybersecurity environment. And as argued in my past columns for Information Management, we believe good technologists can make great data scientists.

But there are issues confounding and complicating raising the next generation of technologists. Seven myths about technology careers discourage potential teenage technologists and their parents. So, in my position as a leader in a philanthropic organization dedicated to creating on-ramps to tech careers of all kinds – not just cybersecurity -- I consider busting those myths not only a duty, but a pleasure.

Let’s take the seven myths one by one in a series of articles, starting with the biggest misconception of them all:

Myth #1: “Technology is all about coding, math and science”

Coding: Tech entrepreneur success stories in the news always seem to revolve around software and coding. Plus, starting salaries for web and software developers are relatively high. That’s great and surely will inspire more teens to consider tech careers. But these facts could discourage a lot of kids, too, for whom coding is neither easy, accessible nor interesting. Reality is, as more businesses and households connect more devices to the internet, more data will be gathered, which will need to be understood – and protected.

Math and Science: Resourcefulness and common sense are greater predictors of success in a technology career than excelling in math and science. Communication skills such as active listening and the ability to articulate and present innovative ideas are essential for technologists, especially in the analytics field. We refer to these as “soft skills,” with aptitude in areas such as problem-solving, empathy and entrepreneurship. True, good grades are important for anyone working toward any future career because they demonstrate the ability to learn and develop. And yes, solid grades in math and science certainly won’t hurt any aspiring student’s chances of finding a future position as a cybersecurity analyst. But for technologists, grades only tell part of the story. Curiosity and motivation are more important than an impressive report card – especially when confronting cybersecurity threats like social engineering techniques.

In short, educating cybersecurity analysts must include STEM classes but not be limited to them. We believe access to tech classes in school at any level should not be dependent on how well a student scores in math and/or science. Every school should offer opportunities to learn and work with technology that are broader than a computer science curriculum, and all tracks that involve working with technology should weave cybersecurity into the syllabus.

In my next piece, we’ll tackle the next biggest myth about tech careers: “Working in technology requires a 4-year college degree.”

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