In search of more than a few good geeks

Government, industry developing a farm system for IT security pros

In a simpler time, Thomas Marshall, vice president under Woodrow Wilson, could sum up the national predicament by saying “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.”

Cut to the present, and the country faces a different deficiency: “We need more geeks.”

That’s what Philip Reitinger, deputy undersecretary at the Homeland Security Department’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, told a recent identity management and cybersecurity conference hosted by TechAmerica. In the past two years, DHS’ National Cybersecurity Division has increased its workforce sixfold, but “I still don’t have enough of them,” he said, “and getting them is really hard.”

One reason it’s difficult is that other civilian and defense agencies are in the same boat, trying to draw from the same relatively shallow talent pool. Reitinger told another recent forum in Washington that DHS has been recruiting from other agencies and the private sector, but those efforts amounted to a zero-sum game. “There are not enough people to go around,” he said.

The prospects for immediate help might appear gloomy, but government and industry are trying to develop their farm systems.

A coalition launched last year the U.S. Cyber Challenge, an effort to recruit and develop 10,000 “cybersecurity practitioners, researchers and warriors.” As part of that effort, universities in three states this summer held cybersecurity boot camps, which the organizers hope to expand to all 50 states.

Earlier this month, teams from four Washington, D.C.-area colleges held their own red team/blue team hacking competition at an event hosted by Computer Sciences Corp., which was straightforward about the reason for the competition. “We are in the competition to attract talent,” said Carlos Solari, CSC’s vice president of cyber technologies and services. Several universities also are offering degrees in cybersecurity.

The search for more geeks has also filtered to the high school level. The Air Force Association is in the midst of its third CyberPatriot competition, which has attracted 300 high school teams from 45 states and Japan to vie for a national title in network protection. The finals will be settled next spring in Washington.

At the local level, San Antonio is riding the Air Force Association’s coattails with the third year of its Mayor’s Cyber Cup, which honors winning teams based on how they do in the first round of the CyberPatriot competition.

Taken together, the groundswell toward developing cyber talent is helping to raise cybersecurity’s profile and, perhaps, its attractiveness as a profession. As Reitinger said, “Being a geek has got to be cool.”

Geeks, of course, already think it is; the trick could be in making others think so, too. Maybe San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro has the right idea. In addition to scholarship money, winners of the Mayor’s Cyber Cup also get leather Cyber Cup jackets. How cool is that?

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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Reader Comments

Sat, Feb 19, 2011 Francesca Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

The government says that qualified people are hard to find to fill cybersecurity jobs. I have 10 years experience in IA, a CISSP, a CISM certification (Certified Information Security Manager), a pile of Microsoft certifications and a Masters Degree in InfoSec. I have applied for hundreds of government jobs and keep getting turned down. The "US Cyber Challenge" is aimed at people in High School. Think about it. It's going to take years before they are even ready to go to work in government. People are needed now. I'm ready. Hire me. The issue is not that I am not qualified, the hiring system is broken. They need to figure out how to become more like 'private industry' and figure out how to hire the right people.

Sat, Dec 4, 2010

Have to agree with the other commentators: they aren't putting the word out adequately, or are foolishly expecting everyone to move to DC. I also wonder who they are targeting for recruitment... they may be ignoring older workers. Big mistake. The best IT techs are generally over 40 (sorry kids, experience really counts). There are plenty of talented technicians like myself who are looking for work. I found out about a projected layoff and just got a better paying job in less than two weeks in the private sector. I saw NOTHING indicating the Federal government was looking for people who are ready to become "cyber-warriors"... some people like me would jump at the chance. One more factor some other folks in IT have mentioned to me about certain jobs: drug-testing. While some people undoubtedly are taking drugs and don't want to have that known, many more simply don't care to give up their Constitutional rights to freedom from unwarranted and unreasonable search, a violation of personal privacy.

Fri, Nov 26, 2010 Anonymous Fed

If the government wants to be able to attact highly talented "geeks", the first thing they should do is actually start treating their employees decently. All you hear in the news today is that us "greedy" government workers are making way too much money, do very little work, and would never cut it in the private sector. Meanwhile a highly successful company like Google is giving all of its employees a large pay raise. Google realizes that if you want the best and brightest working for you, you have to provide competative compensation, and treat your people well. Apparently Google knows what it is doing if their revenues are any guide. Even if a geek isn't good enough for Google, there are plenty of employers out there who pay well and don't go around telling the world "our employees are worthless" like the politicians do. The only reason I put up with it is I've got a bit to go until I can get my CSRS retirement. The golden handcuffs are worth too much for me to bail early, but the anti-fed demagoguery is enough to make me plan on going as soon as I'm eligible.

Fri, Nov 19, 2010

Their efforts are flawed at best since I know of many highly qualified applicants that do not even get an interview for a government position when they are already doing the work as a contractor (and getting paid more!) In short, either their processes are flawed or their current (and under qualified) staff cannot (or will not) hire the truly talented!

Thu, Nov 18, 2010

Just did a search at for "geek" opportunities and found no such posting.

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