A Shortage in Common Sense: The Myth of the Talent Gap

I have a visceral reaction every time I encounter yet another article bemoaning the so-called "talent gap" or "labor gap" in cybersecurity. Having been in and out of the job market several times over the past decade (for better and, more often, for worse), I can honestly say this is utter nonsense. The roots of this clamor began more than a decade ago in DC as federal agencies grappled with modernizing, making use of the annual Sept/Oct budget season to decry how poor and helpless they were in order to justify demands for ever-increasing budgets. Local universities (such as UMUC) quickly caught on to the marketing plan and rapidly launched a cybersecurity degree program. Meanwhile, ISC2 helped ensure that the CISSP was a mandatory component for hiring in many positions.

While I am still in the midst of a job search (one that's a year old at this point), I find I need to speak out on the recent TechCrunch OpEd piece "Too few cybersecurity professionals is a gigantic problem for 2019" in order to address some of the nonsensical statements made that really have no business being taken seriously. The author does get a couple things right, but not enough to compensate for perpetuating many myths that need to be put to rest.

Allow me to start by addressing some sound-bites from the piece:

"Seasoned cyber pros typically earn $95,000 a year, often markedly more, and yet job openings can linger almost indefinitely. The ever-leaner cybersecurity workforce makes many companies desperate for help."

There are several reasons why positions often sit open for long periods of time: they require an existing clearance; hiring managers are obtusely fixated on experience with a very narrow list of tools (a tool is a tool is a tool!); recruiters aren't even passing resumes along to hiring managers, often because of a failure to find keywords, sometimes because of useless biases (e.g., I've had several short stints due to layoffs and projects being terminated - outside my control! - which is used to rule me out), or just as often because they don't have the first clue what they're looking for; positions are requiring "experience" with far too many things; the interview process focuses too much on tool fit rather than people fit, including failing to evaluate attitude, aptitude, and adaptability.

The bottom line here is this: if you see a position that's been open a long time, then that's a red flag. Something is broken in the hiring process. There are literally thousands (likely tens of thousands) of quality candidates on the market today with varying degrees of experience all trying to find work, and yet we cannot land these positions because of arbitrary requirements.

Oh, and by the way, one of those arbitrary requirements is geographical. If you have 2 or more offices in separate geographic areas, then you have an implicit "remote worker" policy, because a certain percentage of your workforce is working in a location separate from your primary HQ. Not everyone wants to live in big cities. Not everyone wants to move to key tech "capitals" like Silicon Valley or Austin, TX, or Seattle or NYC or DC or Boston. Those places are all expensive (in some cases very expensive) and, especially for junior hires, completely inaccessible financially. It is beyond time to support remote workers and introduce flexibility into the workplace. It's ironic that in 1998-2001, when there was also allegedly a labor shortage, companies were willing to do far more things to attract and retain talent. All of that has gone away since the recession in 2009. It's time to wake up and change.

"Between September 2017 and August 2018, U.S. employers posted nearly 314,000 jobs for cybersecurity pros."

Posting a job with "cybersecurity" (or comparable) in a title or description is a far cry from the position actually being oriented to cybersecurity. This is a situation that has worsened in the last few years. I encounter numerous "cybersecurity" roles that have little-to-nothing to do with cybersecurity. For example, it's very common to find "DevSecOps" positions that are acutely focused on DevOps automation. Or, sometimes they're just recast application security roles that got a trendy bump to "DevSecOps." Similarly, the "security architect" title has become a veritable grab bag of random terms, tools, and duties, and can be anything from a SOC analyst to hands-on engineer to manager to developer and so on.

Authors of job postings are really doing themselves and the labor pool a major disservice by failing to write clear, concise, accurate job postings. It's very common to encounter posts that list everything but the kitchen sink, not because they need actual direct experience with everything under the sun, but because they aspirationally believe that some day they might need those skills, or, worse, because they really need hire 5 people, but only got approval for 1 slot, and so they try to find a mythological being who's expert in secure coding, appsec, netsec, cloud security, container security, traditional infrastructure, cloud infrastructure, divination, unicorn taming, and budget mastery. Worse, they then start out interviews by asking if the candidate has experience with a handful of tools, and failing that, either drop the candidate (because oooOOOOooo there's magic in big security vendor tools) or force them to continue through a process that reveals an increasingly bad fit.

And now, the kicker: You shouldn't be hiring this many security people anyway! There's a delicious irony to being interviewed for a dedicated and growing cybersecurity team/program that espouses "build security in" ideology. If your org is really so interested in building security into everything, then quit trying to create massive cybersecurity teams/programs that only lead to failed old enablement practices and "otherness" that actually alienates your internal clients and decreases security. But I digress...

"Companies are trying to cope in part by relying more aggressively on artificial intelligence and machine learning, but this is still at a relatively nascent stage and can never do more than mitigate the problem."

First, never say never, m'kay? That's just silly. Second, while vendors are aggressively pushing AI/ML solutions, most of it isn't even AI or ML (it's amazing how many products are just elaborate regex schemes under the hood!). The phrase "snake oil" comes to mind. Third - and this is very important! - the focus should absolutely, positively be on automation and orchestration today. There are tons of things that can be automated, and there is a growing pool of reasonably qualified candidates with experiencing using generic A&O tools (e.g., ansible, puppet, chef, etc.).

The key takeaway here is this: AI/ML is an easy target for throwing stones, but the comment obscures an important lesson, which is that organizations are not doing enough with automation and orchestration, especially as it pertains to security. This reality needs to be remedied ASAP!

"These are ideal candidates, but, in fact, the backgrounds of budding cyber pros need not be nearly this good."

There is no perfect, and perfect is the enemy of good. Hiring managers, HR, and recruiters: pay attention! You. Should. Be. Hiring. For. People. Fit. And. Aptitude. FULL STOP. If you're having trouble "finding good candidates," then YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. I could rant endlessly on this point, but won't. Introspection, please.

"Almost no cybersecurity pro over 30 today has a degree in cybersecurity and many don't even have degrees in computer science."

Mmmmmmmmmmaaaaybe. I'm over 30. I have an undergrad in CompSci. I have a Master's degree in Engineering Mgmt with a concentration in InfoSec Mgmt. Also, the older millenials are now hitting their 30s. Cybersecurity (or comparable) degrees have been around for 15+ years. This statement is in many ways demonstrably false, but more important IT DOESN'T MATTER ONE BIT!

The problem, again, is with the hiring process, including having arbitrary "requirements" that artificially shrink the labor pool (which is the point the author seems to be making here). QUIT HIRING BASED ON A PUNCH LIST! Sing it with me: attitude, aptitude, and adaptability! These are the key qualities you should be seeking in the majority of hires.

Here's a perfect example: I interviewed in mid-2018 for a "security architect" role that had been open for a very long time (red flag!). When I hopped on what I thought was a quick intro call with the hiring manager, I was instead met with the hiring manager and 2 reports (red flag!). The 2 reports gushed over how awesome the hiring manager was to work for (odd), and then they launched into questions. Every single question was about hadoop security, even though the first question they asked was "do you have extensive experience securing hadoop?" to which I answered "none, really, but it's just a NOSQL data store, so *shrug*." Moreover, the hiring manager was a total jerk on the call (not sure if this was being done as a stress test tactic or because the guy was just a jerk). I would be asked a question, I would start to answer (literally, I'd just get a couple words out of my mouth, like "Well, for starters...") and the hiring manager would jump in, tell me my answer was insufficient (I hadn't even answered yet!), and then demand I "get to the point." Suffice to say, I cut the interview off and then provided strong feedback to the third-party recruiter to run away.

There are 2 lessons from this experience: 1) The job description (JD) was completely and wholly inadequate. While it mentioned hadoop experience as a requirement, it became immediately clear that they didn't so much want a security architect as they wanted a hadoop expert (go get a contractor - sheesh!). 2) Don't be jerks to candidates! If that hiring manager is allowed to exist and persist within that organization, then that is absolutely not a place I would ever consider working (and have avoided applying or being submitted there ever since).

Key takeaways: If you're having trouble finding candidates, make sure the JD is accurate, and make sure your hiring manager is doing a good job representing the company. It's still a small industry and many of us talk and share stories. Wanna kill your applicant pool? Become known as a horrible place to work that's filled with belligerents and "brilliant jerks." I'm a big fan of Reed Hastings' (Netflix) "no brilliant jerks" policy. Hugely and most biggestly important.

"Asking too much from prospective pros isn't the only reason behind the severe cyber manpower shortage."

Perhaps not, but it's a major factor in hiring decisions. If you cannot offer any semblance of work-life balance, especially for your experienced hires who may very well have families, then you need to re-evaluate your org culture. Moreover, organizations must immediately stop trying to hire single resources to fill 5 different roles. These candidates are rare, if they exist at all, and it's killing your hiring process. More importantly, it means you don't actually know your priorities, AND... it says you're not willing to invest in your people to help them develop into the retainable talent you so desperately need. Once again, it's time for some serious introspection here!

"One key finding was that 43% of those polled said their organization provides inadequate security training resources, heightening the possibility of a breach."

Ya gotta love the orthogonal throw-away quip... this comment has nothing to do with the "labor gap," nor is it about the challenges of tech hiring. This point actually pertains directly to organizational culture. At face, it's true, insomuch as organizations tend to over-rely on annual security (and privacy) training, among other things. However, what it really reflects is a huge problem with pretty much all organizations in that they don't really make security a priority, they don't make it a shared responsibility, and they don't hire the right people in HR, org dev, or security to help executive leadership transform org culture in a favorable and necessary manner.

"IBM, for example, creates what it calls "new collar" jobs, which prioritize skills, knowledge and willingness to learn over degrees."

"Technology companies still must work much harder to broaden their range of potential candidates, seeking smart, motivated and dedicated individuals who would be good teammates."

To close on something a bit more positive, I very much agree with and appreciate these points. But, again, this is all about organizations needing to fix themselves, and ASAP at that. If you think hiring for a cybersecurity role is purely about running down a list of arbitrary "requirements" and only accepting candidates who meet all (or most) of them, then you're failing. I've mentioned it several times throughout my post here, and I'll say it once again: Hire for attitude, aptitude, and adaptability!!! If you don't know how to do this, then get educated and fix your hiring process.

The analogy I've used of late is this: A car repair shop does not hire a mechanic simply because they know how to use metric vs. standard/imperial wrenches. No sane person would say "oh, I'm sorry, you only know how to use wrenches in millimeter sizes, but we need someone who can use a wrench in fractions of inches." Think about that for a second! How insane would that be?! And yet... this is exactly how the vast majority of orgs are trying to hire tech talent. "Oh, I'm sorry, you've worked with Symantec, but not McAfee or Trend? We need someone experienced with those other brands." Or, "Oh, we're a Rapid7 shop here, so I don't see how your Tenable (or Qualys) experience really applies." Or, "When were you last 'hands-on' in a role? Oh, I see, it's been a few years? Well, thanks for your time..." Etc. Etc. Etc.

These are all things I have experienced first-hand in the past year. Tech is tech, tools are tools, and the most important thing is my willingness and ability to learn and adapt. But, alas, very few organizations want to invest in their people. Very few organizations know how to interview for attitude, aptitude, and adaptability. It's truly sad, and I think it's a skill that organizations have actually lost in the last 10-15 years. I had a great job with AOL, and I landed it not because I had experience with every security tool on the market, but because I had a solid base technical knowledge and I had the attitude, aptitude, and adaptability to quickly learn and apply new things. THIS HAS BEEN LOST IN TODAY'S JOB MARKET.

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To close this ranty post out, I just want to reiterate, for the umpteenth time, that I strongly believe the "talent gap" or "labor shortage" is largely imagined and manufactured because organizations don't know how to hire, make absolutely no commitment to train and retain their people, and have in general completely lost their way. It's very sad and very troubling. We used to know how to do this! Where have all these skills gone within HR and management?

Part of these issues are a direct result of cuts made during previous economic down-turns, but I also suspect that we're seeing the "day-trader" mentality as it hits hiring, too. In this age of 24x7 news and pervasive, ubiquitous social media, and endless amounts of raw outrage... we have lost our humanity within organizations. Human resources has always ultimately been about protecting organizations from their people, but it has really gotten broken badly in the past decade. Hiring managers are often forced to do too much with too little, all while being stuck following grossly outmoded thinking and strategies (e.g., if you build a SOC today thinking people first, then automation and orchestration, then I'm sorry to say that you're already starting 10 yrs behind the curve).

If you're trying to hire people, then you need to force introspection and open dialogue within your organization, and you need to DO IT NOW. I'm a GenX'er. I want to do good work with a good org and good team where I'm treated respectfully, but allowed work-life balance. I would like to have some meaning in my job. Younger generations are reportedly even more concerned about this last point, wanting to contribute meaningfully. Once upon a time, I was told by a higher-up that corporations could not exist if they weren't benefiting the general good of society. I'm not completely sure this is true, but I would love for it to be so. However, in application, what this means is that organizations must also take care of their people, which many are failing at today. Forget about all the various movements and management fads out there and take this to heart: If you want good employees who will stick with you, then you have to hire good people AND TREAT THEM RIGHT. It really is just that simple.

As a closing remark, I strongly recommend that people go read Laloux's Reinventing Organizations as it is remarkable and a necessary evolution in business management.

Addendum (1/31/19): One additional observation: Numbers lie. I have found here in the DC market that many jobs get reposted multiple times by placement/search firms. Positions, for example, with major firms like Fannie, Freddie, ManTech, DHS, CapOne, etc., will often show up a dozen times or more, but listed by the headhunter firms and not the actually hiring company. So, imagine that out of, say, 300k job postings for "cybersecurity," that number may actually be closer to 25-30k in real jobs. Quite shocking to think about and realize, and as a job searcher it's extremely frustrating. I'll literally get a flurry of inquiries from a half dozen or more recruiters when a new position posts. Crazy.

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This page contains a single entry by Ben Tomhave published on January 28, 2019 9:39 AM.

Business Must Change: InfoSec in 2019 was the previous entry in this blog.

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