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Joshua Goldfarb
Joshua Goldfarb
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Public Vs. Private: Is A Prestigious Infosec College Degree Worth It?

Today's graduates coming into the information security industry from private universities aren't ready for the workforce.

I’m a big believer in taking security lessons from the analog world, including advice from someone many might consider the most unlikely of people – American rapper Eminem.  Eminem can teach us a lot about information security, especially with respect to the security leaders of tomorrow.

Consider “Lose Yourself,” Eminen’s hit song about taking advantage of the moment:

 Look, if you had, one shot, or one opportunity

To seize everything you ever wanted. In one moment

Would you capture it, or just let it slip?

What does that have to do with educating information security professionals? During the course of my travels, I regularly receive two pieces of feedback related to staffing and talent: It is difficult to find people with the right skills to fill open positions; and, there is more work to do than the number of positions we have to fill.

People, including me, often address the second point through solutions like automation, orchestration, improved workflow and operational efficiency.  I’ve written a fair bit on a number of these topics in the past, as have several others in the field. But it’s far more difficult to solve the cybersecurity skills gap problem.

Sure, I hear a lot of talk about the lack of skilled security professionals. But as for how to address this challenge?  That is something that is almost never discussed.  Perhaps we feel helpless or merely accept it as an unchangeable fact. One way to approach this issue is to “grow” our own.  By that I mean looking for analytical people, providing them the opportunity to gain experience on the job, and turning them into security professionals over a period of time. 

A better way

It seems obvious to me that if we are looking for the next generation of security professionals and security leaders, we should be looking at universities. After all, universities are where young people go to learn the skills that will carry them through their adult professional lives.  Unfortunately, many universities disagree with me on that. 

Let me elaborate by sharing a story. From time to time, university students reach out to me to ask a few questions or discuss a few information security-related issues. I’m always happy to speak with them, as I see it as a great way to try and encourage young people to pursue a career in our field.

Recently, a student at a prestigious private university approached me with this type of request.  The student was looking to perform research for his thesis on current challenges and future directions in information security. The student seemed to be intelligent, well-mannered, and an astute listener. Unfortunately, it was evident from our discussion that this prestigious private university had not prepared the student with any practical exposure to information security involving real-world scenarios and operational problems. 

Something as simple as spending a few hours or days with information security professionals on the job could bring students such relevant experiences.  And what about actively integrating such experiences into the academic curriculum to give students a more focused base from which to invest their creative energies.

Public v. private

Contrast this to public universities that I’ve had the privilege to work with as an advisor and/or speaker, such as University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Maryland. Visits to those universities and discussions with students show that the education they are receiving around information security is far more practical and applicable to the world in which we live.  It’s no surprise that this is the case. Industry experts are consulted regarding the curriculum, experienced practitioners are often invited to speak or meet with students, and classroom and lab environments contain real-world assignments and equipment.

Private universities will tell you that they need to stay true to their research focus, and that they need to be able to recruit faculty fitting to such a prestigious institution. I certainly get an earful of messaging along those lines from my alma mater. That may very well be the case, but allow me to ask a simple question. If a university is going to take $250,000 from hard working families, shouldn’t it produce information security graduates qualified for the positions of today and the leadership roles of tomorrow?  I think most of us in the profession would agree that we need universities to help us out a bit more in that endeavor.  The graduates we’re getting today, particularly from private universities, aren’t ready for the workforce.

Let’s take another look at Eminem’s lyrics in this context. Universities have one shot. One opportunity. One moment. The experience a young person has at university and the skills he or she learns will shape his or her entire adult professional life. If I were a university looking to educate the information security leaders of tomorrow, I would ask myself one question: Will we capture the opportunity, or just let it slip?

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Josh is an experienced information security analyst with over a decade of experience building, operating, and running Security Operations Centers (SOCs). Josh currently serves as VP and CTO - Emerging Technologies at FireEye. Until its acquisition by FireEye, Josh served as ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Strategist
2/25/2016 | 9:25:53 AM
Public Vs. Private
I think that, perhaps counter-intuitively, that there is a lot more competition for the dollars with the Public schools than the Private.  With the Private schools, the students go for the name, and mom and dad pay.  With the Public schools, a significant slice of the student population is paying their own way (either their own money, or hard-earned benifits from work), are doing the school after work, and they are VERY interested in results, and they have a better idea of how the work world works than the average High School senior.  Those students have very high expectations, and will leave in a second if they are not being met.
Joe Stanganelli
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
2/24/2016 | 11:04:11 PM
public vs private
I'm sure, as with most cases, it depends on the specific public or private universities, but the point is well taken; a quality information-security education (or other education, for that matter) can easily be had for pennies on the dollar from a public university.

Or for free from a private university via edX, for that matter (as long as you don't care about the degree).
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