COMMENTARY

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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