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Contributing Writer

So, you want to be a security pro? Read this first

Apr 04, 201611 mins

How to tell if a move to IT security is right for you

cyber security
Credit: Thinkstock/Wikimedia

Of all the high-demand areas in IT, security stands out at the top. According to DICE, the number of security jobs skyrocketed by more than 40% from 2014 to 2015, to 50,000 openings, compared with 16.8% growth the year before.

“Security jobs are growing at a far more rapid pace than other areas of technology, which are also growing rapidly,” says Bob Melk, president at DICE.

Meanwhile, in a 2015 survey by ISC2, 62% of respondents said they lacked adequate security staff, and 45% cannot find qualified candidates. In five years, the organization says, the shortfall in the global information security workforce will reach 1.5 million.

The inability of many companies to fill these jobs is only driving up salaries – as well as IT professionals’ interest in developing the skills to fill these jobs. “It pays well and is in high demand,” says Julie Oates, senior technical recruiter at Mondo. “There are so many jobs out there, and there will be more and more.”

Here are some insights to help IT professionals take advantage of the shortage – as well as some reasons it might not be the right move for you.

• Don’t worry if you don’t have specific security experience.

Much of the demand today is focused on roles that require several years of experience, such as senior security software engineers, Oates says. Such roles can demand upwards of $200,000, she says. The ISC2 study also reports that the highest job growth will be for security engineers and architects.

At the same time, there is still a wide array of security needs, says Julien Bellanger, co-founder and CEO at Prevoty, an application security monitoring and protection company. “So many different types of skillsets are in demand for security, and no single person can field all these roles,” he says. “You need a very large team to cover all the bases,” including people who understand what’s going on with the network and network traffic, the hardware appliances, the applications and the business logic of the applications.”

Tony Martin-Vegue, risk manager at a Bay Area financial services institution, agrees that information security is “a huge and widely varied field that includes programmers, risk managers, PR experts who can talk to business professionals in terms they understand, people who understand human behavior and even people with an economics background. “If you have an economics degree or understand finance, I’d hire you as a risk manager even without security expertise because that’s all economics and finance is, is understanding risk.”

Similarly, he says, someone with a background in psychology would have the needed insights to understand why, for example, someone would click on a phishing link and how to deter that behavior. “You need a baseline of cyber or information security knowledge, but you can still use what you already know to educate yourself,” Martin-Vegue says. “You’re not starting from scratch.”

• Think long term

The greatest need in the foreseeable future is in the realm of software and application security, according to observers. “The greatest problem we face is related to insecure code and poor software development processes,” says Jeff Combs, vice president of talent management at ISE Talent, an executive search and recruitment firm dedicated to information security professionals. “People have been developing software for 50 years or longer, but we’ve only been paying attention to issues related to software security in the last 10 years.” For younger IT professionals considering a future in security, software engineering and coding is where the majority of opportunities – and challenges – will exist, he says.

Even now, the gap in supply vs. demand is wide, says Bellanger, especially as there is little training available in this domain, and talented developers might be more likely to flock to the likes of Google or the next Facebook rather than a job in security. “We get asked all the time, ‘Do you have any good application security people you can send our way?’” he says.

Two types of people are needed in this area, he says: program managers and actual practitioners. Businesses would be best off if they hired a program manager internally and then used that role to bring others onto the security team to help train and guide them.

From application security, IT professionals can grow into many other areas, like architecture security or learning more about the cloud, Bellanger points out, while other choices – like network or hardware security – might be more limiting. “If I had to make a choice today and was 18 years old, I’d go into application security or be part of a DevOps security team,” he says.

• Don’t under-value your current skills.

According to Martin-Vegue, if you’re a systems, network or database administrator, “you really are 75% there for certain types of information security sub-fields,” such as ethical hacking, penetration testing and information assurance positions. Professionals with these backgrounds understand things like how systems work and how users access them, he says, “so it’s not a leap to go from setting up users, to checking compliance with standards and frameworks. It would be easy to segue if you already have that baseline.”

In fact, Combs says having this type of background can be a real strength. “To be good in security, it’s important to have a strong foundation in systems administration, network engineering or software engineering,” he says. “Although there are many aspects that aren’t technical, understanding how things work at the ground level or under the hood is what gives people the credibility and knowledge to build upon to be successful over the long run.”

For this reason, Melk believes CIOs should begin to build security capabilities among their existing staff rather than solely seeking external candidates to fill these needs. “We’ve got to do more than simply increase salaries or benefits,” he says. “Businesses need to find ways to fill the gap by nurturing internal talent.”

In fact, DICE is working to identify skill commonalities between an array of IT and security positions, and then developing a skills map that can help professionals create a plan for filling the gaps. “The good news is there are a lot of related jobs where folks in various roles could move into a security role,” Melk says. “When you look at typical skills for various titles like assistant security engineer, security auditor, IT security project manager, all these skills are consistent with the baseline requirements of roles like network security or intrusion detection,” he says.

What stands in the way is a lack of understanding about the exact skills required to move to a particular position, and the quickest way to get there. “We’re trying to make the journey as short and as inexpensive as possible,” he says. “While going back and getting a degree is a clear path, it’s not the only option.”

• Don’t assume you need to go back to school.

Indeed, while the bar for entry into a security position may be difficult to overcome, never before have so many learning resources existed, says Combs, whether through free online classes, certifications and becoming part of a security community. From SANs, to ISACA, to Information Systems Security Association (ISSA), to ISC2, to the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) and beyond, there are many highly active security organizations that offer both training and a community of people that can share ideas.

Getting involved with OWASP, Bellanger says, “is the best vector for getting hired and receiving the best advice for certifications.”

Martin-Vegue advises starting by taking a free online class on security fundamentals through a provider like Coursera or EdX, and then determining which sub-field would make the most sense to pursue. “Once you get a good baseline down, find stuff that interests you and gets you excited about information security and begin to specialize,” he says.

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Melk agrees that online courses are a great option to grow skills, especially when employers don’t offer training. “You can take courses on your own without going back and getting a bachelor’s or masters in cyber security.”

Once you have a sense of which direction you want to head into, certifications are a good choice, as they continue to be highly regarded in the security field, Martin-Vegue says. “People say they don’t prove anything about real-world skills, but the truth is, hiring managers do look for them,” he says. “Even if you think they’re pointless, if you want to get a job, you have to have your certifications.”

In particular, the CISSP certification offered by ISC2 has essentially become table stakes for higher level positions, while CRISC from ISACA is essential for risk management, he says. In other cases, such as reaching higher than an entry-level job working with firewalls, it would be a good idea to get a vendor certification from Cisco or Juniper.

Meanwhile, in software development, becoming an SSDLC certified practitioner will prove your chops in application security, Bellanger says.

• Know what you’re getting into

There is a downside to the security profession, however, in the form of stress and burn-out. “At security conferences in the U.S., a major topic is depression, and it’s starting to be talked about in the field,” Martin-Vegue says. “If you feel you can’t deal with the work stress and burn-out, [pursuing a security career] might not be the best idea.”

The reason for this phenomenon, observers say, is the attitude of many companies toward the security function. That is if a breach occurs, it’s assumed that someone in security didn’t do their job. In the case of a highly public breach, “it’s very disruptive, both for customers and the people who work there,” Martin-Vegue says. “People get fired, the stock price takes a hit, you lose public trust. If you’re the guy behind the keyboard, assessing security controls for the year leading up to that, it’s really serious.”

In addition to always being on the hot seat, the security function is often perceived as being separate from the business, Bellanger says. The business doesn’t always appreciate the delays caused by placing security controls around an initiative, and yet, if something goes wrong, security is blamed. “It can be a very lonely, siloed position,” he says.

This situation is bound to change over the long term, he says, as security becomes a full part of the business development cycle. “When security is fully embedded and in synch with the business, you’ll have a lot less stress on the security team,” he says. “The business needs to realize it’s going to get hacked at some point. Right now, there’s a lack of understanding that pushes it to find someone to blame.”

Still, Combs says, “a security career requires you to have strong chops in various areas.” With continuously changing technology, evolving threats, new regulations and the constant fight for security budget, “you never reach that point where your work is done.” In the ISC2 survey, even though more than three-quarters of respondents said they are satisfied with their current position, the industry experienced a staff turnover rate of almost 20% last year, the highest rate of churn (ISC)2 has ever recorded.

• Follow your passion, not the money

So while the demand – and the dollars – may be an attraction to the security field, it shouldn’t be the only driver. On the positive side, the security profession is a great place to be part of a community, Bellanger says, especially compared with the software development world. “Security practitioners are an amazing, close-knit community that works well together,” he says.

In some ways, you’ll know if security is for you if you’re the kind of person who has the desire to understand how things work, or how to break – and then – fix them, Combs says. “There are a disproportionate number of artists, musicians, creative people and asymmetrical thinkers who’ve come into field,” he says. “It really comes down to personal desire and an interest in understanding what’s underneath the surface and not accepting things at face value.”

Brandel is a freelance writer. She can be reached at