Shortage of security pros worsens
March 9, 2015
Security hiring challenges have worsened over the last several years. Threats are more numerous and more sophisticated; security breaches are more publicized; and CEOs, CIOs and CISOs are being held accountable for damaging hacks. It’s no surprise companies are working harder to find, hire and retain experienced security pros.
A turning point was the TJX breach in 2006, which led to data-breach disclosure legislation and increased scrutiny of corporate data-handling practices, says Larry Wilson, information security lead in the University of Massachusetts President’s Office. From then on, demand for security pros “really started to accelerate."
Data from Boston-based labor analytics firm Burning Glass highlights the spike in demand: cybersecurity job postings grew 74% from 2007 to 2013, which is more than twice the growth rate of all IT jobs. The labor pool has yet to catch up. U.S. employers posted 50,000 jobs requesting CISSP credentials in 2013, a year in which the population of CISSP holders numbered 60,000, Burning Glass said in its 2014 report.
“The size and scope of the problem has grown dramatically as the threat has increased and as we've seen more high-profile breaches,” says Charlie Benway, executive director of the Advanced Cyber Security Center (ACSC), a nonprofit consortium of industry, university, and government organizations. “Executive management and boards of directors are now recognizing that cybersecurity is not just a tech problem, it’s a business problem. We're starting to see more executive-level emphasis on cybersecurity, more resources coming into cybersecurity, across all industry sectors. That has definitely increased the demand for cybersecurity folks.”
“It’s probably 10- to 12-times harder to find cybersecurity professionals than it is to find general IT professionals," says Rashesh Jethi, a director in the services group at Cisco – which last year pegged the number of unfilled cybersecurity jobs around the world at 1 million.
Enterprises are definitely feeling the pain. Eighty-six percent of organizations polled by ISACA believe there’s a shortage of skilled cybersecurity professionals. Not only that, most companies feel they’re at risk. Just 38% of ISACA members believe their organization is prepared for a sophisticated cyberattack.
The lack of preparation stems, in part, from an overall shift in security strategies. The ubiquity of technology has driven enterprises away from a perimeter defense model and toward an approach that combines intrusion prevention with functions such as risk assessment, threat mitigation, and incident response, says Robert Stroud, international president of ISACA, a nonprofit association that advocates for information security, risk management and governance professionals.
"We can't protect against every threat, so what happens once we've discovered something, some unusual behavior? How do we react?” Stroud says. "Organizations are now attempting to add to the skills they need to cover this gap. When you've got everybody in the world realizing they need to do something and going to the market, it leads to a skills shortage, especially when we haven't been training people with these skill sets necessarily."
Just as security tactics have changed, so too has security leadership.
In the past, security was typically IT’s domain, “part of something you did in infrastructure or in networking," Jethi says. Today, more companies have a chief security officer (CSO) or a chief information security officer (CISO) who’s explicitly responsible for security.
“Increasingly they are no longer part of the CIO organization but they are a separate, independent entity that is responsible for cybersecurity and often reporting directly to the COO or the CEO of the company," Jethi says. "It never got relegated to that level of significance or importance” until the nature of threats changed dramatically "and you started seeing a lot more visible impacts to customers, businesses, and executives."
Benway agrees. Today a majority of ACSC’s member organizations – which Benway acknowledges tend to be relatively mature in their security development – have a CISO, and most have established specific security teams. "I have seen a definite trend toward establishing specific security teams vs. IT being dual-hatted with IT operations and security,” he says.
UMass is a good example. "The day-to-day running of the technology is in our IT department,” Wilson says. “But looking at the policies, looking at the risks, looking at the threats, looking at incidents or indicators of a compromise -- that's a dedicated security team. That's how we’ve done it."
Benway also notes a more recent organizational trend: the convergence of what were once separate and independent enterprise risk management and security departments. “That again is a reflection of the recognition that cyber security is a business problem and not just a technology problem,” Benway says.
These changes require more manpower at all levels, industry watchers say. On the technical side, system complexity has created a need for security admins. Years of accumulating security products have left companies with dozens of products to support, oftentimes from vendors that have gone out of business or been acquired. Companies need people to maintain those systems and secure the infrastructure, Jethi says.
On the strategic side, "you need people who can do more than configure rules and policies and 'keep the bad guys out.' You need data scientists. You need people with different backgrounds. You need people who can look at large quantities of data and can analyze trends and are good at spotting anomalous behaviors in those data patterns,” Jethi says. “That's a very different skill set than somebody who can configure equipment."
If there’s a silver lining, it’s for qualified job hunters. Their options abound. According to tech careers site Dice, job postings for security professionals are up year-over-year, with cybersecurity up 91% and information security up 48%.
"At the moment, if you're a cybersecurity professional, and you have the skills, it's a very good market. You can do very, very well,” Stroud says.
High salaries reflect the demand. The average IT starting salary is expected to climb 5.7% in 2015, according to Robert Half Technology (RHT). Five out of six security titles in RHT’s annual salary guide are getting larger-than-average bumps in pay for new hires:
- Chief security officer: starting pay ranges from $134,250 to $204,750, a gain of 7.1% compared to 2014;
- Data security analyst: $106,250 - $149,000, up 7.4%;
- Systems security administrator: $100,000 - $140,250, up 6%;
- Network security administrator: $99,250 - $138,500, up 5.3%;
- Network security engineer: $105,000 - $141,500, up 6.7%; and
- Information systems security manager: $122,250 - $171,250, up 6.6%
Certifications drive starting salaries even higher, RHT notes. In the security category, having a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification adds 6%, on average, to IT salaries, while Check Point Firewall administration skills are worth a 7% bump, Cisco network administration skills add 9%, and Linux/Unix administration skills add 9% to starting pay.
The allure of compensation contributes to another staffing challenge for enterprises: turnover. It’s particularly tricky to keep top security talent. CISOs and other senior security executives leave after 2.5 years, on average, according to research from Ponemon Institute.
Qualified people at the c-level and just below – titles such as director of information security, chief security architect, chief security officer -- generally come from two different tracks, says Andy Ellis, chief security officer at Akamai. There’s the mostly homegrown security pro with deep technical experience who worked his or her way up in an organization, knows everything about how that organization works, and can make that business transition.
The second type is the experienced security pro who hops from company to company. “Some of these are really astounding CISOs, they'll work a three-to-four-year stint at a company, turn it around, and that's what they love doing,” Ellis says. “They're not big fans of the maintenance, they'd rather just do that and turn it around.”
Both types are in danger of being lured to the start-up world, Ellis notes. “What I find a lot of companies are competing with is the experienced c-level folks saying, 'I could go do this job again, or I could go be the CTO of a security company.’ There are more and more of these really good technical senior staff that are going to either be a CTO or a chief strategist or CEO of a small security startup because the payoff is so much better if they can make it work.”
Just how hard is it to find people?
Benway tells the story of one global technology company whose stringent hiring standards have made it a target for poaching security talent – even before that talent shows up for work. "One of their competitors has a policy now that if this particular company makes an offer to any individual, the competitor company will offer that individual 10% more. Sight unseen, no interview necessary, because they know they've made it past that particular bar," Benway says. "That's the kind of thing some of these companies are facing."
One reason it's hard to find people is the maturity of the profession. Roles such as SAP architect or Java developer are mature, well defined jobs with established skill sets and training protocols. By comparison, cybersecurity is relatively new, Jethi says.
Experts agree more education and training is critical to increase the candidate ranks. "One of industry biggest concerns, or criticisms, relative to security talent that’s coming out of colleges and universities is that ... the academic learning is terrific, but you really need hands-on experience in cyber security environment," Benway says.
Jethi agrees. While many colleges and universities are trying to bolster their cybersecurity curriculum, in the meantime, "there is no ready pool of talent that you can groom and train," he says. To help address this issue, Cisco is running a pilot program with Duke University and Purdue University. "We're looking for people with engineering, analytical, and data backgrounds and abilities and interest, and we're offering them internships with our security business," Jethi says. The interns work on site at Cisco’s security operations centers. "Even while they're in school, the internship allows them to get specialized exposure to the cybersecurity program."
If the pilot goes well, Cisco plans to expand the program to other universities. "They're not experts, obviously, on day one, but they start out with a much better view of what the cybersecurity world looks like and how to prepare to work in an environment,” Jethi says.
Within schools, getting students exposed to real-world conditions is a growing priority for cybersecurity educators. UMass’s Wilson notes how other fields prioritize hands-on work: "My son is a first year medical student, but already he's doing surgeries a couple of times a week. He has lab courses and he has academic learning. He's getting hands-on experience right from day one,” Wilson says. “I think that's an area that we need to do a lot better job of, as far as cyber security is concerned."
The Burning Glass report turned out to be a catalyst for UMass to bolster its cybersecurity academic programs – an initiative that’s being driven from the school's top leaders. The university also is boosting its research focus. Participation in ACSC is one way that UMass is partnering with industry to develop the criteria for its academic programs. “We recognize that we can't develop curriculum in a vacuum outside of industry,” Wilson says. “Collaboration is really critical to anything we do in this area."
For its part, ACSC is working to launch a fellowship program that will connect students with industry players to improve talent development. Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Northeastern University, UMass, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute are all ACSC members.
"The idea is to identify the talent within these universities, and connect them with industry members in form of fellowships that are related to the areas of research these students are pursuing -- which are also areas of interest for the industry folks,” Benway says. Once launched, the fellowship program will then feed into boarder collaboration on R&D projects and solutions, he says.
More training and education also are needed for IT pros who’ve already begun their careers. There are opportunities for people skilled in incident response, for example, or risk professionals, to transition into cybersecurity roles. "People who understand the business world, and processes, and have an aptitude for technology, whether they're actually in the technology organization or not. They can be potential candidates today as well,” Stroud says.
But it takes work. "There's a defined lack of training available right now. We want to bring some of those training courses in," Stroud says. "That's one of the reasons why ISACA transitioned into this space. We saw this need, over the complete career and various skill sets, of a security professional's progression.”
ISACA administers four certifications -- Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA), Certified Information Security Manager (CISM), Certified in the Governance of Enterprise IT (CGEIT) and Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC). Last year, the organization launched the Cybersecurity Nexus (CSX) program, which specifically targets cybersecurity skills development with research, education, certificates and certifications, and industry mentoring programs.
How picky is too picky?
UMass is able to hire student workers and recent graduates in greater numbers than a lot of organizations, Wilson says, but the university still struggles to fill more senior security roles. "The higher level positions, or the more senior level positions, we still have difficulty finding the right talent, just like any other industry.”
At the senior level, the qualities that make a strong candidate are a combination of technical acumen and business skills.
“You need technical skills, because you have to figure out what's going on. It's not always easy, because the adversaries are getting better and better. To diagnose, to figure out whether or not you're being attacked, to identify root cause, and to figure out whether any information has been infiltrated -- it's not straightforward,” Wilson says. At the same time, candidates need strong business and communication skills. “While you're fighting the fire you need to be communicating with executive management.”
Akamai’s Ellis views the staffing challenges differently than many of his peers. "There are areas of the country where finding people with a specific seniority level is really challenging,” he says, but “that doesn’t mean that there's a shortage overall.”
It depends on your hiring criteria – and where you’re looking for talent, Ellis says. “If you say, 'I'm looking for a CISSP,’ recruiters will find you someone. If you say, 'I want somebody who deeply understands safety analysis,’ it's a hard problem especially because there aren't a lot of them in the security community yet.”
In particular, candidates that fall between mid-level technical staff and senior staff can be scarce. “When you want people to already have 10 years of security experience, and a deep technical background -- there really is a shortage of good quality folks like that,” Ellis says.
Akamai’s solution is to venture outside the security community for many of its hires. The company recruits people who have done release management, or software engineering, or safety and hazard analysis, for instance. Or people who come from a different technical background entirely, such as biochemists. (See the full story, Akamai CSO takes a creative approach to finding security pros)
While Akamai casts a wide net for security talent, one quality that’s highly valued is passion. “We look for people who are really bright, who are passionate about something,” Ellis says. It would be nice if that something was security, but it doesn’t have to be.
Admittedly, not every company has the resources to turn bright people into cybersecurity professionals. An out-of-the-box hiring approach takes extra work on the part of recruiters, hiring managers, and the people who train newcomers.
"Instead of the problem being that I can't find good people, my problem is that I have to turn great people into great assets,” Ellis says. “Now you have to make sure that they learn your systems, that they learn security and understand the language, and that you can mentor them.”
Some of that hard work is unavoidable. Whether a company sets out to hire someone with a traditional cybersecurity resume or from a nontraditional path, there are going to be compromises -- the idea of finding someone who can immediately do everything and doesn't have to learn anything is absurd. “You're going to have a hard time if that’s your standard,” Ellis says.
No one hire will fill all the gaps, and continuing education and training is imperative to build a strong security team. "There's no magic potion here," Stroud says. "It has to be a sustained and continuous program.”