Could America's defenders find new roles in enterprise defense? It seems they could be, based on new programs designed to bring veterans into the cybersecurity workforce.
Facebook and Synack have both created initiatives to train vets in security skills and help prepare them for employment opportunities in the field. Initiatives such as these have the twofold benefit of training veterans for sustainable careers and bridging the security talent gap.
More than 65% of veterans experience difficulty in transitioning out of active duty, says former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson, who also serves as an adviser to the Synack Veterans Cyber Program. The process requires a series of adjustments, USC researchers report: geographic location, careers, relationships, support systems, communities, and cultures.
Facebook, which is currently in the second round of its Cybersecurity University for Veterans, and Synack, which is launching its program now, both aim to make this process easier.
"I was apprehensive at first, not knowing the extent of what I was expected to do," says Jonathan Killinger, who completed Facebook's program and now works as a production engineer for the company. "The second I got there and connected with other students in the class, mostly vets, I instantly knew this was the place to be."
Facebook launched Cybersecurity University for Veterans in 2017, in partnership with several universities, and recently graduated its first class. The program initially received over 1,500 inquiries and started with a class of 45 veterans, 33 of whom completed the course. Facebook's goal is to teach the fundamentals of cybersecurity to veterans with technical backgrounds.
"It was a wide range [of experience]," says program manager Stephanie Siteman. "A lot had experience in the military doing IT jobs, technical jobs." Some were in school, majoring in computer science, while others were currently working in tech and wanted to bridge the gap.
The course educates veterans on a range of security topics through a combination of sessions, videos, projects, and labs. Students complete both a weekly lab in-person and a weekly assignment, which takes the form of Capture the Flag for weeks 1-5 and pen testing and research for weeks 7-10. Week 6 focuses on vulnerabilities and exploits related to user authentication. A capstone CTF in weeks 11-12 tests their knowledge from the course.
"The course is quite lengthy and in-depth," says Siteman, adding the students meet once a week for the 12 weeks. "It takes an average of 120 to 150 hours to complete … by no means it is an easy course."
Facebook ultimately hired three of the veterans from its inaugural program, including Killinger, who gained his IT experience in active duty as a cyber operations technician in the Air Force. The program, he says, taught him about an industry and roles he didn't know existed. While his current role isn't security-specific, he says it has been helpful to add infosec skills.
"I've definitely been able to translate the skills I've learned here," he says.
For the second round, Siteman says Facebook is adding more guidance with next steps to help its graduates enter the workforce. This includes scholarships to conferences like Def Con and Black Hat, which was attended by 19 veterans this past August, she adds.
The Synack Veterans Cyber Program is built on the idea that crowdsourcing veterans' expertise can help them, their employers, and national security. Co-founder and CEO Jay Kaplan says the program has two phases: one helps train veterans who have been exposed to cybersecurity but need to develop their ethical hacking skill set, and another provides veterans with a security background a means of accelerating their job applications for the Synack Red Team.
"It's helping find ways for the veterans leaving government service to utilize their skills, especially those with experience in cybersecurity, which many of them [have]," says Kaplan.
One of the key tenets of the program is to help veterans transition from government duty to the private sector, explains Anne-Marie Witt, director of product marketing and head of government programs. Synack kicked off its program launch with veteran recruitment events at San Jose State University and a talk at Operation Code in Washington, DC.
Applicants for full-time roles undergo a five-step process to assess their skills and trust, Witt says. "We're looking for researchers and ethical hackers who are top caliber and highly trustworthy," she notes. However, they don't need a security background to apply for training.
Kaplan explains how Synack is working with federal agencies to evaluate applicants who come on board. Former military members, who often have security clearance, are ideal, as are former government employees with experience performing red team operations. But employees coming from development or other computer engineering backgrounds have a strong foundation to transition into the world of white-hat hacking, he says.
"Generally speaking, the good thing is if you have cyber experience, your transition to the private sector is much easier," he adds. "Because our researcher community is 100% freelance, you can apply and get through processing in a few weeks, and you're making money as soon as you're on board."
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