Why DOD needs to think long term about cyber workforce

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Creativity, agility, flexibility -- those are the critical skills needed in successful cyber warriors, and those are also the qualities the Defense Department must adopt in order to train and recruit those warriors, according to security experts.

Panelists discussing cyber readiness and workforce development at the AFCEA Defensive Cyber Operations summit in Baltimore said the DOD should be developing short-, medium- and long-term strategies for the training and recruiting of cyber talent.

In the short term, the Pentagon needs to pull talent from across the services and continue educating the existing workforce, panelists said.

"The future is what I am most concerned about," said retired Rear Adm. Janice Hamby, the chancellor of the National Defense University’s College of Information and Cyberspace. "I see a lot of recruitment being focused at the skills we need today, or the skills we needed when were stuck on this notion of 'defense in depth.'"

She said it scares her to see that recruiting approach, "because the future that I see for us -- being effective in providing a level of security to our own operations -- is not about defense in depth, it is about resiliency."

"So if we don't talk about the indicators that tell us that the talent has that potential to grow and change with us and see the future, then I think we're going to get this one wrong," she said.

Panelists agreed that rather than hard skills like coding, the qualities of the best future warriors will be agility, creativity, curiosity and the ability to think through the reverse engineering of threats.

And when those people are identified, they said, the government must be agile enough to bring them into the fold.

Col. Jeffrey Collins, director of Air Force CyberWorx at the Air Force Academy, said he recently met a Columbia University graduate student who was offered a summer internship at a government agency. But because that agency failed to complete the paperwork in time, she took an internship in industry instead.

"What's her first interaction with the government? Is it good? Probably not," Collins said. "We also lost the opportunity to make an impact on that individual -- that no matter what she goes off and does, she would have the government perspective."

While he argued that the government must do a better job keeping young talent from running off to Silicon Valley, Karen Evans, director of U.S. Cyber Challenge, said that Wall Street and the energy sector are more-direct competitors for DOD.

Evans said that another challenge with developing the workforce is getting to potential candidates when they are younger to warn them about over-sharing information on social media that could keep them from getting hired by the government. At the same time, she said, agencies must be more open-minded about the background and past activities of young workers who might have been hackers on the side, which could create clearance problems, but also might generate skill sets the government needs.

Evans told FCW that while government must make its hiring process more agile, agencies should put more effort into reaching out to promising students a year or two before graduation to get them in the pipeline -- rather than waiting until they graduate to start the hiring process. That could cut down on some of the loss to the private sector, she said.

Hamby said she is facing two challenges that hinder developing the future workforce.

The first is making sure the curriculum and faculty are keeping up with changes in technology. The other, she said, "is getting the right students into our programs," she said. She added that the short supply of cyber warriors often means that commanders can’t afford to let them take the time off to attend school.

"The challenge we face collectively," Hamby said, "is how do we generate some white space in the operational tempo of these folks so that we can get them into these programs that will be preparing them not for the job they are in right now, but for the next three jobs that they will be in."

About the Author

Sean Carberry is a former FCW staff writer who focused on defense, cybersecurity and intelligence.


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