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Helping Students Find Their Way in Cybersecurity Careers

To combat the major labor shortage in the cybersecurity industry, educators and employers must find ways to attract more women and minority candidates into the field, and develop them into successful professionals. We spoke with two industry experts about how this can be done.

Bryson Payne

Director for Cyber Operations Education, University of North Georgia

What advice can you give to prospective students interested in and looking to enter the tech industry? What insights can you give to readers on getting started on the right foot?

The first advice I would give to students considering a career in this field is to find an area that is interesting to them. In addition to great salaries and thousands of job openings in every state, there are so many types of work professionals can do based on their interests. 

No matter what kind of work they do now or aspire to do in the future, there’s a place for them. 

If they like solving mysteries and looking for patterns, forensics might be the right field for them. If they like puzzles or have ever picked a lock, ethical hacking and penetration testing might be a good fit. If they like taking things apart and putting them back together, they might find their passion in reverse engineering. 

Network operations, incident response, security operations, risk management, audit, law — there’s something for just about everybody.

Employers are looking for people with a passion and for graduates who have done more than just their required classwork. They like seeing applicants who participate in competitions, attend conferences, and complete certifications. It’s a win-win for both student and employer.

How can university programs focus on gaining and retaining female students to enter and thrive in technology?

It’s important to start building interest in the field early by providing positive experiences for young women before college. At UNG, we run summer camps for high school students and over the past five years, we’ve served more than 220 students, with slightly more than 50 percent female participation. 

It’s also important, especially for young women, to be able to see themselves represented in high-impact careers. One way to support that is to have guest speakers and faculty who are as diverse as our student population. For example, recent guest speakers have included a female military intelligence officer, a Latina NSA analyst, and an African-American engineer from Lockheed-Martin, which helps students envision themselves in similar roles in the future.

UNG also is fortunate to have a faculty team that is more diverse than many of our peer institutions, with an instructional team that is 40 percent female and 70 percent ethnically diverse.

How can getting a degree prepare students to advance their careers?

Because college graduates are generally considered to be more well-rounded candidates, a four-year degree is still the minimum qualification used by hiring managers. Job seekers can earn a number of entry-level certifications that can help them get their foot in the door for a position in cyber but a degree typically gives candidates access to higher-paying careers. 

A four-year degree is often a first step toward leading a team in both government and industry. My best students combine a degree with one or more industry certifications and a successful internship. Every student I’ve known with this combination of qualifications has landed a terrific job even before they crossed the stage at graduation. 

In your opinion, what is the main challenge this industry faces in the coming years?

There are two challenges I think outweigh the rest. 

First, the workforce shortage is dire. Training programs just aren’t able to scale up fast enough to build the pipeline of future professionals to address this level of demand. Likewise, while many school systems are just beginning to offer coding classes, curricula in the majority of K-12 schools has not yet begun to emphasize security education at that level. The demand for talent will continue to outpace the supply for another decade or two.

The second major challenge we face is the growing number of threats. We have adversaries ranging from criminals to nation-state groups attacking our critical infrastructure, private companies, local and national government, defense networks, and even individual citizens.

That’s why so many jobs are available in all of these sectors. Wherever somebody wants to make a difference, there’s a job waiting for them once they build the skill set. 

How can mentorship help professionals advance their careers?

Mentorships and internships help students get started on building a strong network of industry professionals who can play a pivotal role in their future success. Because most universities and training programs don’t provide formal, individual mentoring opportunities, internships are an excellent way for students to meet industry professionals who can become mentors to them. 

Mentors can provide guidance to help students find their professional niche, offer advice in navigating the job search, and be a source of support once they begin working in the industry. Internships make it easier for students to connect with professionals in their field, and we’re seeing a steady increase in the number of both private industry and government internships. 

For organizations, offering internship opportunities is a great strategy for connecting with new talent and addressing the workforce gap. For future professionals, it’s both a resume-builder, and an opportunity to experience an organization and a specific role to see if it’s a good fit. 

I recommend internships to every student, and mentorships to those who are willing to put in the extra time to build a lasting relationship with someone in their field. 

Lesley Carhart

Principal Threat Analyst, Dragos, Inc.

How can mentorship help professionals advance their careers?

The difference between a good manager and a bad manager is often how much they invest in the growth and well-being of their employees. Most of us can all point to that one supervisor or director who took a little extra time to put us in the right role or steer us in the right direction when we were off course. After all, it often takes an outside view to see where we could make a smart career move. 

It’s certainly possible to be successful in cybersecurity without mentorship, but people who receive smart career advice and coaching at the right time are frequently fast tracked to success as individual contributors or leaders. It is a broad field with more technical knowledge and roles than any one person could ever hope to pursue.

Currently, women only represent 20 percent of the cybersecurity workforce. What advice would you give to women entering such a male-dominated industry?

I’ve seen a lot of different studies with widely varying figures for how many women work in the industry. I fear that some of the very important niches that employ a higher population of women are not seen as “technical enough” and therefore are not included in some figures (auditing, risk and compliance, secure development, etc). That’s an immediate problem to tackle because it reflects negatively on our industry and people who fill those critical roles. 

That said, empirical evidence would certainly suggest there’s still a substantial disparity in genders. Being an outsider or exception in any industry can be tough — it is human nature to be more familiar and trusting of people who are “like us.” In any such situation, there is a decision to make as an outsider of how much you will bend to fit in, versus breaking and compromising your ethics or your individuality. 

The last decade has taught us how utterly critical diversity is to innovation and problem solving in technology, so we should not take this decision lightly. You might choose to “fit in” to a group by playing a few video games or going to a sports event outing that you don’t really enjoy a lot. Conversely, when facing harassment, unethical hiring processes, or professional disrespect, I recommend you draw a firm and clear line. However, that choice is always entirely yours to make.

You have mentioned in the past that you have a passion for helping people get started in the industry. Why is this industry so important for people to enter and what insights can you give readers on getting started on the right foot?

Every day, more parts of our lives that used to be analog become digital. Our homes are now filled with microphones and smart home controls. Our jobs are in the cloud, often remote, or filled with data analytics. We’re tracked by numerous data aggregators that know our most intimate daily activity. Even our power and water and elections involve computer systems. 

The biggest problem I see newcomers face is the tyranny of choice. There are dozens of interesting fields of work, and mastering a single one can require a lifetime’s study and practice. 

I highly recommend any student or person take a look at many research projects and recorded talks, and try to choose some area that catches their eye to focus on. The field as a whole can be overwhelming and it’s very difficult to find any mentorship if you can’t state generally what you want to learn.

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