Vulnerabilities / Threats

7/22/2016
12:00 PM
Joshua Goldfarb
Joshua Goldfarb
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5 Failsafe Techniques For Interviewing Security Candidates

Filling critical information security roles with the right people is never easy. But learning how to separate the 'wheat from the chaff' is a smart step in the right direction.

The need to “separate the wheat from the chaff” would appear to be such an important need in life that it receives its own idiom, or expression in the English language. The intent of the expression is to communicate the need to separate something of high value (the wheat) from something of little to no value (the chaff). In other words, what we need doesn’t always come to us neatly packaged and ready for consumption. Quite often, we find ourselves needing to sift through a variety of different things to pick out what we’re really after.

Although there are many topics that this particular principle could be applied to, I think the challenge of hiring qualified information security candidates is one worth discussing. The talent shortage in security, and more specifically, the issue of hiring is one that I discuss often with organizations during the course of my travels. Hiring is a strategic challenge that many organizations face on a daily basis. Making the wrong hire can have disastrous effects for an organization, as I’ve witnessed more than once during the course of my own career.

Candidates come in all different varieties. Often, a recruiter, or someone in human resources reviews and filters resumes before they make it to the security manager’s desk. The people who work in recruiting and HR are talented professionals, but they are recruiting and hiring for all career fields across the entire organization. Thus, it is difficult for them to deeply examine candidates to the level necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff. That is a specialist’s job. Many candidates understand this and some even take advantage of it. 

What do I mean by that? It is not uncommon for certain candidates to spend quite a bit of time writing their resume to what the recruiters and HR professionals are looking for. Even an unqualified or underqualified candidate may have a LinkedIn page that reads like an all-star, lists several sterling references, and includes an impressive and professionally written resume, ample buzzwords, and an endless list of certifications. The trouble is that not all candidates who look great on paper are actually qualified for the jobs they seek or a great fit for the organization.  And for those of us who have worked with these types of candidates post-hire, we know how truly frustrating and disappointing the experience can be.

Talking about the talent shortage and hiring challenges is easy, but what can organizations do to address these challenges? One approach (among many) is to look to separate the “wheat from the chaff” when interviewing candidates. This leads to better hiring decisions that place more qualified candidates in positions. Because these candidates are a better fit for the organization, it also helps with retention of existing employees. 

How to go off script
One thing I’ve noticed over the course of my career is that many of the candidates we might like to filter out almost seem to be on a script. The only way to know what is really going on "behind the scenes” is to force the candidate off script. The process of doing so can shed a tremendous amount of light on how the candidate thinks, processes information, and reacts to situations that are unscripted. 

Here are a few approaches that have worked for me in the past:

Technique 1: Ask open-ended questions: Straightforward questions most certainly have their place during an interview. But to really see how a candidate handles new, unstructured information, try asking open-ended questions. For example, consider a question like: “If I gave you three log sources, an indicator of compromise, and asked you to investigate a potential breach, which three log sources would you choose and how would you structure the breach investigation?” As you can see, this type of question requires analytical skills and the ability to organize thoughts, map out of a process, and communicate those thoughts clearly to the interviewer. The open-ended question is a great way to gain insight into whether a candidate is truly analytical, or if the candidate is just talented at memorizing and reciting a script.

Technique 2: Push them outside their comfort zone: One good way to gain insight into someone’s personality and their ability to adapt quickly as conditions change is to push them outside of their comfort zone. Do they come along for the ride in a laid-back and gentle manner, or do they become tense, aggressive, or agitated? The answer to that question says a lot about the type of candidate you’re interviewing.

Technique 3: Distract them: Can a person remain focused, organized, and on-task when presented with noise, distractions, and conflicting information, or does the person drift off in various directions, never converging to the answer we were looking for? The behavior we observe here is very telling in the security field, which as we all know is, unfortunately, full of noise, distractions, and conflicting information.

Technique 4: Call them on their claims: Does someone claim expertise with a particular tool or in a particular area? Call them on it. Dig deep and probe into the details of what the candidate claims. Far too many people list skills that they don’t really possess, and this is a great way to uncover that type of a red flag.

Technique 5: Make something up: Test the candidate’s knowledge of their own resume and their candor by probing them about something that’s not on their resume while telling them it is on their resume. Do they know what they do and do not list on their resume in detail? Are they confident and candid enough to note that they haven’t listed that skill on their resume? All very helpful information when trying to understand what a candidate is really like beneath the surface.

There is no doubt that the information security talent shortage and skills gap are not going to be solved overnight. In the meantime, organizations need to do the best they can to fill critical information security roles with the right people. While not the only approach, taking steps to more deeply evaluate candidates helps organizations make better hires. That ultimately leads to higher quality employees and better overall retention of existing staff.

 Related Content:

Black Hat’s CISO Summit Aug 2 offers executive-level insights into technologies and issues security execs need to keep pace with the speed of business. Click to register.

Josh (Twitter: @ananalytical) is an experienced information security leader with broad experience building and running Security Operations Centers (SOCs). Josh is currently co-founder and chief product officer at IDRRA and also serves as security advisor to ExtraHop. Prior to ... View Full Bio
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dwilds
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dwilds,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/1/2016 | 8:11:21 AM
Nice
Nice
PCComf
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PCComf,
User Rank: Strategist
7/26/2016 | 5:09:41 PM
Re: All good until
"The harder trick is finding the golden security engineer ..."

I would not look for the perfect candidate, it does not exists. What is important is somebody who has the skill and will to do the job on hand. I prefer to create a perfect worker rather than trying to hire one.

 

Right - good point. By "golden security engineer" meaning the right person for your position.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
7/26/2016 | 3:15:02 PM
Call them on their claims
This is something I use a lot. It is important to demonstrate skill the candidate says he/she has. That is the main reason they were called for an interview.

 
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
7/26/2016 | 3:14:13 PM
Re: All good until
"The harder trick is finding the golden security engineer ..."

I would not look for the perfect candidate, it does not exists. What is important is somebody who has the skill and will to do the job on hand. I prefer to create a perfect worker rather than trying to hire one.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
7/26/2016 | 3:10:39 PM
Re: No...
"... and the tool knowledge but deliberating ..."

I take #5 as a skill that was not mentioned in the reume and the candidate is being asked what does he know about it? I do that all the times.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
7/26/2016 | 3:07:27 PM
Re: All good until
 

"I can go with most of this until #5.     "

For me #5 is ok too. The candidate should be able to know their skills, they can easily let you know that they do not know the subject you are asking about and everybody goes to next question.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
7/26/2016 | 3:04:17 PM
Ask open-ended questions
 

I enjoyed reading it, all makes sense but for me, none of the techniques gives us the right skill. Especially this open ended question does not take anybody anywhere. There is a real trap in there, people who can elaborate on a question can easily come to the trop and we know that may not be the right skill you are looking for. Especially in IT world, most would not elaborate on any topics well but they are quite smart and get the job done.

 
PCComf
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PCComf,
User Rank: Strategist
7/25/2016 | 11:07:26 AM
Re: All good until


I totally agree. #5 would turn away your best candidates unless you are a really good social manipulator yourself and can get it by them: "Sorry, must have been thinking about another candidate's resume" while being sincere.

Even so, are you looking for someone who thinks fast in a social environment (like an interview) or while in front of a terminal? Those two skill sets are not as connected as you might think. Pop culture tends to portray the security wizard as someone with godlike skills in everything from social engineering to defense to offense. Personally, I look for the engineer who can confidently say, "I'll get back to you on that" or "I would google for what others have done in that same situation" Because in defense there is no sense wasting time reinventing the wheel in security technique. In fact, rolling your own might be great for obscurity but usually also leaves gaping holes.

Speaking of the defensive role, the hiring trend I've seen lately is one that requires a candidate to have spent 3 years in a "pure security role" with the same products that the company currently uses. That's crazy. I want the person who is good at and knows a little about everything including system administration, because that is what needs to be protected. A higher level security person can move their specific security product knowledge from product to product with minor effort. Requiring someone to have done the same thing for the past 3 years is just asking for somoene who has not been challenged to change processes and technique enough. Also, it means you are looking for someone who has no desire to change. Otherwise why would they be applying for a job exactly like their last one.

In other words, the hiring process for defensive security people is broken at a more fundamental level than the interview. I've never found it hard to identify someone who is faking it. The harder trick is finding the golden security engineer who otherwise might blow away with the chaff because something on their resume was not exatly what you were looking for. 
Fausty0
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Fausty0,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/22/2016 | 2:50:51 PM
No...
Sure, I understand testing the skill level, and the tool knowledge but deliberting creating havoc or just outright fibbing about their own resume is a bit crazy...

There are surefire ways to interview and get a good and competant candidate. #5 is surly not one of them. 
rstoney
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rstoney,
User Rank: Strategist
7/22/2016 | 1:26:35 PM
All good until
I can go with most of this until #5.    

  There are plenty of valid, useful ideas for getting to know a candidate than to play that sort of game.  And remember, you are being (or should be) evaluated by the candidate as well.  Is that how you wish to be?

  You wish to demostrate that you will play games, or do not know the person you are talking to?  Demostrating you are unprepared?  

 

   Two of the ideas, in pushing beyond comfort zone and seeing how they react in a distracting enviroment are perfectly valid.  Because if you are progressing in a security career you WILL have to go beyond comfort limits and you WILL have to work in sometimes distracting enviroments.

  Interviews are courtships.  Remember that.  How would you like to be courted by someone who thinks manipulation and playing childish games to be perfectly valid and acceptable?  Make them prove the claims on the resume.  Ask them open-ended questions.  Dig into experience to find the details.   You can even do this in a cafeteria or work center enviroment.

 

Leave the high-school level games in high-school.

 
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