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So You Want to Be a Security Researcher?

Security researchers need a broad set of skills to investigate a constantly-changing threat landscape. But specializing in areas such as reverse engineering or network forensics will boost opportunities.

checking all of the security and vulnerability forums as well as social media to make sure they are up on all the latest security news.

 Snyder also has his team working on certain pieces of research. If something sparks their interest, they are encouraged to dig deeper. For instance, with the rise of Apple products in corporations, the team is examining malware that targets the Mac OS X operating system.  Recently, that investigation lead to the uncovering of malware that most antivirus tools weren’t detecting.  Ocean Lotus was published in China last year, but didn’t receive a lot of coverage in Europe and North and South America, Snyder explains. AlienVault Labs did an in-depth analysis of the piece of malware – an application bundle pretending to be an Adobe Flash update -- and published the results in a blog earlier this year.

 “My guys love it when they find something that is really not being detected, to pull it a part, do some reverse engineering and do a report on it.  That way antivirus companies can pick up on the research and provide protection for it.”

Snyder offered some advice for the professional looking to get a security researcher job as well as for the seasoned, experienced security researcher.

Look to incident response as a stepping stone. If you understand networking and reverse engineering, but don’t think your skills are mature enough, try to get into an entry-level incident response or security-related position. Being a part of an incident response team lets you see attack activity as it happens.  “You have your hands and eyes and ears on so many different things at once,” Snyder says.

Never stop learning.  This is sound advice for entry level as well as seasoned security researchers, Snyder says.  Don’t stay locked in one area of coding or limit yourself to knowing only the C++ programming language.  If you do, you are only going to be at a disadvantage.

Don’t be a recluse.  There are many social forums where knowledge is exchanged.  And if you don’t know something there are many people willing to help on these forums.

Be a Jack of All Trades -- but specialize, too. It is good to have a broad set of skills, but once you have become a security professional, it is worthwhile to specialize in an area such as malware reverse-engineering or network forensics.  Companies are looking for people skilled in these disciplines.  “Knowing how everything works is good, but specializing in something takes your career to the next level,” Snyder says.

What types of companies are looking for security researchers? In many cases, technology companies or security managed service providers need security researchers.  The large traditional corporations in financial, manufacturing or retail are not looking for security researchers, says Lee Kushner, president of LJ Kushner & Associates, a leading recruitment firm specializing in the information security industry. 

“The corporate world is looking to tie security to more business purposes and research doesn’t lend itself to that,” Kushner says.  Large corporations, many of which have been hit by well-publicized security breaches, are focusing on incident response and threat intelligence as well as investing in in-house security teams and technology to protect their organizations, Kushner says.

Snyder agrees. Based in Houston, Snyder has seen financial, insurance and oil companies spin up security research teams when there was money for it, but soon realized how difficult it is to tie security research back to a certain revenue stream.  So they wound up selling part of the company and hiring outside investigative specialists.  Technology companies such as Amazon, Google and Yahoo are investing in security research as well as security companies such as AlienVault, he says. Intel, General Dynamics Land Systems Harris Corp. and Juniper Networks are a few of the technology firms that posted security researcher jobs on LinkedIn.

“One of the things that draws a lot of us to the security research industry is not only are we doing theoretical [research], but we are solving problems meaningful to the real world.  We are not just stopping people who want to poke around networks, we are stopping people who want to steal data and information,” Snyder says.

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