Pratum Blog

In the first part of this discussion I spoke to those not currently in the IT career field. Now let's focus on those of you who are in IT but are being lured by the mysteriousness of InfoSec and Information Assurance. How do you prepare for the transition? What are job prospects like? What are the challenges?

Let's start with preparing for the transition. You need to jump out of your comfort zone. I can't say it more simply. Get uncomfortable and stay that way. Start doing some job shadowing in other IT disciplines. For instance, if you are a developer, spend some time with the infrastructure teams or volunteer to manage a project. If you are a network engineer, start learning some development methodologies or pick up a language. Developing a well rounded skill set in multiple disciplines will be critical. You have to be able to see the forest through the trees.

Certainly you can choose to specialize in a security focused discipline as well. You could only do forensic analysis, code review, penetration testing, risk analysis, PKI or any number of other things. If you really love it and are happy with the compensation and future opportunities then go for it. I usually recommend people pick up some additional skills though. As technology advances, markets change, etc. you may find yourself being forced into doing something different. You want to be ready for that before it actually happens. Being somewhat diversified can also provide you some credibility. When you're an expert in one area but can speak intelligently to all disciplines in the room…Wow.

Next is to consider a professional or technical security certification. CompTIA's Security+ is a good place to start. It's an entry level technical certification which may help you decide if security is even right for you. Then you can move into some of the advanced tracks such as SANS GIAC certifications or the CISSP from (ISC)2. While certifications alone don't prove anything, when combined with experience and education they can help convey your skills and abilities to hiring managers.

As with any major shift in a career you might have to consider taking a lower level position than what you're accustomed to in your current career. Breaking into a new role can be difficult. Given the shortage of security professionals we're now facing I doubt many of you will need to do this if you've followed the steps above. A search on for the words CISSP OR security OR GIAC yielded just over 10,000 positions. Granted there is some duplication there but you get the picture. Try a search for DBA or CCIE and you get about 20% of that. This is a great field to be in and it's only going to get better.

A common mistake people make is to join security so they can force people to do something they couldn't otherwise make them do, like patching or implementing change management. Sorry to tell you this but security can't make anybody do anything. And if you try…you doom any chance you had of earning respect in the organization. Our role is to identify risk and help determine ways to reduce that risk to acceptable levels. Only the business unit leadership can choose to accept or reject risk. It's their data and process so it's also their head on the chopping block. Security should be a trusted advisor to the business, not heavy handed thugs. Does this get frustrating at times? Sure. However once you accept your role in the BUSINESS, things get easier.

My last bit of advice is to find a mentor. They can help you learn about different career options, pick good educational opportunities or even help you land a job in the field. I have mentored several people over my career and it's been a great experience for both sides. Mentors are rich sources of information, have lots of experience and networking contacts. The relationship will only be a fruitful as you make it though. Don't expect your mentor to do much of the work. That's your job.

If you're thinking of getting into information security I welcome you with both arms. We need more in the ranks. Do it for the right reasons though. You're not going to be popular, have lots of perks thrown at you or be the envy of all your friends. There are a lot of late nights, lonely lunches and some very uncomfortable discussions you'll need to have with people at all levels of the organization. If that appeals to you, and I'm not entirely sure why it would, then welcome to the party.

If you are considering Information Security as a profession and are looking for a mentor I'd be happy to interview you. I only maintain a couple of mentee relationships at a time. If we're not a good match I may be able to help you identify another mentor.

One of the questions I get asked routinely is how I got started in this business of technology. Quite frankly…I was simply venturing into uncharted territory as a brazen young man not at all afraid of what life or the world would throw at me. I wanted to do what people said couldn't be done. Prove that a college dropout could be a game changer. Of course it didn't matter that other college dropouts such as Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Larry Ellison (Oracle) and many others had already proven it. I, Dave Nelson, also needed to prove it. I did eventually return to college and finish my degree, but I had already been very successful to that point. Finishing the degree was more about pride than anything else.

Though my method worked for me, it's not how someone just starting out wants to approach their career. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to all but the craziest risk junkies. Instead I like to point people in the direction of career management. It looks a little different for the college student than a practicing professional so I'll lay out some guidance for the student first. In my next post I'll address the steps existing IT pros should take to break into security.

Step one for students is to pick your career field wisely. Information technology for the most part isn't glamorous or sexy. (Think datacenter in a basement with no natural light…). InfoSec is even worse. You're known as the "NO" people. Even within the IT ranks we're not appreciated or even liked at times. You've got to have thick skin and broad shoulders in this field. You know how TV cops always hate Internal Affairs? Yep…same deal here.

So if you're still reading you must have some interest in this field. That's a good start. Traditionally people moved into a security role from some other technical field such as server and network administration or application development. They knew a specific area really well and are able to find the holes or weaknesses. Up until a few years ago you really couldn't find any mainstream colleges or universities which offered InfoSec or IA programs. That has changed. If you are planning for, are now in or will be returning to college you have many options to choose from. There are bachelors and masters level degrees available which will help you get your foot in the door. The Information Assurance Center at Iowa State University, which is an NSA Center of Academic Excellence, offers a masters certificate and Master of Science degree in Information Assurance.

The federal government is also offering scholarships and fellowships for students in this arena. You go to school on their dime, get a stipend while in school then agree to work for a federal agency for a certain number of years. If that deal had been available to me I'd have jumped at it. It's a crazy to go into debt to the tune of $40,000 or more just for an education when there are plenty of people who are willing to pick up the tab. While working for the US government might not be your first choice you might actually like it. You get to see technology which lots of smaller companies don't use or can't afford. There are lots of promotional opportunities and the pay is very competitive due to some recent changes in the compensation structure for had to fill career fields. You might also get a security clearance which is VERY valuable to government contractors should you ever decide to move into the private sector.

Don't expect to come out of college as an InfoSec Ninja Master though. It will still take you years of on the job experience to develop a fully rounded skill set. What it will do for you is better prepare you to view technology and business integration from a risk perspective. This typically isn't taught in Computer Science or MIS course work. In order to be successful you'll need a broad understanding of different technology components. Take course work in various disciplines such as application development, network infrastructure, communication protocols, cryptography and computer architecture. It won't all make sense to you at first. As you mature in the profession things will begin to click. You need to be able to see the larger portrait that's being painted, not just the individual brush strokes immediately in front of you.

InfoSec is still a maturing field. As we move forward we're finding better ways to recruit and retain talented individuals. We're also learning that just because someone understands security, they might not be really good and understanding and working with the business to reduce risk. You have to be technical but also have some business acumen to truly succeed in this field today.

One last bit of advice as I close. Never, ever get involved with any activity which could be considered illegal, unethical or immoral either online or in the physical world. Remember, the standard you're judged against may not be your own. This career is based on trust. Without trust you have no future. Pick your friends and acquaintances wisely. (Sorry…the father in me just jumps out sometimes…can't help it.)

Next time I'll speak to those already in the IT field who want to break into InfoSec. Stay tuned…

Join the Des Moines chapter of the ISSA for a FREE lunch and learn session sponsored by Purewire. The meeting begins at 11:30. Please RSVP to ensure we have enough food.

Topic: Security Review & Outlook
The Web has shifted, is your network ready?
How hackers are exploiting your employees' Web surfing to gain entry into your network

Location: Buccaneer Computer Systems
1401 50th Street, Suite 200
Regency 2
West Des Moines, Iowa

Speaker: Guy Weaver
Senior Systems Engineer - Central Region
Purewire, Inc.

RSVP to Dave Nelson to reserve your spot.

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