Federal cybersecurity workforce should be more than just IT degrees

Agency information security officers say the most effective cybersecurity workforce is one that encourages equal use of left and right brains.

Whether you’re dealing with payroll systems on earth or satellites in the sky, when it comes  to federal cybersecurity hiring, think outside the job description.

That’s the advice recently given by two large agency information security officers during Fedstival, a Washington, D.C. event hosted by Government Executive and Nextgov, as government agencies look to strengthen their cyber teams and expand the diversity of their employees.

“The thing I think people focus on are the technical people; I need someone with this skill or that skill, I want a [penetration] tester,” said Jeanette Hanna-Ruiz, associate chief information officer for IT security and senior agency information security official at NASA. “But what I’m finding more and more is yes, we do need those people, hands down, absolutely. If you’re out there and you’re a young person in college thinking what should I do, cyber is still a good marketable skill to go into. But I also think we need people who are lawyers, specialists in procurement, I think we need people who are communicators, people as this industry continues to grow, who speak the language of those particular subject matter areas, and can bring the cyber expertise and marry those things up.”

“So for procurement there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on supply chain, and if we can marry a procurement expert brain up with a cyber person brain and help that person, they’re really going to enable us as an organization, whether you’re in private industry or in government, to be able to better execute cyber responsibilities,” she said.

Office of Personnel Management Chief Information Security Officer Cord Chase said since the exodus of employees after the 2015 data breaches, OPM has also seen a lot of new applicant backgrounds that don’t include a computer science curriculum.

“A lot of the schooling they were doing didn’t reflect what their actual passion and hobby was, which was cybersecurity,” Chase said. “So we were getting people that had art backgrounds, we had people that were liberal arts , we obviously had people that had criminal justice backgrounds. But I agree, when you incorporate procurement, when you incorporate all these other things and train those people up, they can communicate in a way that’s extremely important and efficient for individuals in our area to get that message out.”

Chase said within OPM, if you want to work for the agency, applicants must have an operational and governance background.

“We’re not looking for one or the other,” Chase said, adding OPM has a rotation that gets employees working in different areas they normally wouldn’t find themselves (in part through crowdsourcing).

“What we’ve found is a lot of people are progressing and very interested,” Chase said. “Where people used telework as an option to not come to work — that’s plagued the federal government for quite a while — now because they’re interested they’re coming in even on their telework days, or they’re coming in on afternoons or coming in on weekends, because they started projects with their teammates and peers and this crowdsourcing technique, to get what they wanted to do and what their objectives were done.”

Professional development

That rotation practice mirrors recommendations in a White House memo released Oct. 5, directing agencies on how to better embrace diversity when it comes to hiring for national security jobs.

According to the memo, agencies should prioritize the expansion of “professional development opportunities that support mission needs, such as academic programs, private-public exchanges, and detail assignments to relevant positions in private or international organizations.”

Speaking at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event in Washington, Jane Rhee, director for strategic planning at the National Security Council, said a workforce that’s “well-equipped to have all the skills and backgrounds and perspectives” is one that can address the variety of national security challenges facing the country.

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