Survey hints at ways to solve the cyber talent gap
- By Derek B. Johnson
- Jun 23, 2020
Federal agencies and Congress have increasingly looked to bug bounty programs to find and stamp out cybersecurity vulnerabilities in their software. A new survey of nearly 3,500 security researchers who use Bugcrowd's platform offers a glimpse into the backgrounds and motivations of a highly coveted pool of emerging cyber talent that both government and industry are desperate to recruit.
More than half of those surveyed live in urban environments, and three out of four speak multiple languages. Despite efforts within the information security community in recent years to improve diversity, the average age of those who participated in the survey skewed overwhelmingly young and male.
According to the survey, higher education is an important feature for many security researchers and their families. They're most likely to have obtained a college degree (49%), have parents who have done the same (36%) and are three times less likely to drop out than their parents. The survey data "suggests most security researchers are degree-qualified because they come from educated families that value the acquisition of worldly knowledge, skills, values, beliefs and habits."
While the size of the average American household has been in decline for decades, nearly half (48%) of respondents come from large families with between 4-12 members. Even with more mouths to feed, 64% reported pulling down a median annual income of just $25,000 or less, though many also say they only chase bug bounties on a part-time basis. Perhaps not surprisingly, making money was cited as the most important issue, followed by flexible hours and improved skills.
The report predicts that over the next six months, cybercriminals will exploit the widespread shift to remote telework in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasingly targeting vulnerable infrastructure through expanded reconnaissance activities and asset discovery. That in turn will lead to organizations boosting their reliance on white hat hackers over the next year as they race to identify and fix hidden software vulnerabilities.
The pandemic "has demystified many of the perceived differences between employees working remotely and security researchers" and emerging technologies such as machine learning that are not yet mature enough to meet the increased demand.
"This gap between automation and human adversarial creativity suggests organizations will increasingly seek to augment their human expertise in securing their assets via crowdsourcing, the most efficient and practical approach to finding available talent," the company forecasts.
John Zangardi, former CIO at the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, told FCW in an interview that in his experience, two biggest impediments hindering the federal government's cyber recruiting efforts are money and the lengthy hiring process that consumes most federal agencies.
While they often cannot compete on pay, one potential advantage for federal agencies could be through supporting the continuing education goals of its IT and cyber employees. A recent study by government contracting intelligence firm Deltek cited declining budgets and a lack of career development programs as a contributing factor for rising turnover rates among federal IT contractors, while a majority of respondents to the Bugcrowd survey say they use the platform for personal development and improving their skills.
Last year the Trump administration issued an executive order creating a new rotational program for federal employees to detail at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and other agencies to improve their technical skills. CISA has also sought ways to sidestep normal federal hiring procedures to more easily hire information security specialists and pay them more.
Zangardi said during his tenure, cyber retention incentive bonus programs at DHS that provided extra compensation to employees who complete new certifications acted as a partial salve to some of the government's inherent recruiting challenges. However, he acknowledged that for many positions -- particularly highly-skilled ones -- individuals can still earn tens of thousands of dollars more per year by doing similar work in the private sector.
"I can't change the GS federal pay scale, but we can take steps to ensure that we're giving them what we can," said Zangardi.
Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.