It's not just about the money: skilled cybersecurity professionals most value a position that includes challenging work with plenty of variety, training and career development, and where they work alongside similarly highly-skilled security pros.
Sure, a competitive salary is their threshold, but they're willing to stay with their employer if the organization provides them other perks including flexible hours, according to a new study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
"Once their basic salary was met … to higher-level technical professionals, salary is not the most motivating factor," says Katrina Timlin, associate fellow with CSIS' Strategic Technologies Program. They value interesting work, the ability to hone their skills, and working with fellow seasoned pros.
"They seek companies where they can learn from their peers," she says.
It's what CSIS calls the "Kevin Durant Effect," named after NBA star Kevin Durant who this year left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the stronger Golden State Warriors team so he could play with other highly talented teammates and have a better shot at winning the NBA championship.
"We saw [cybersecurity] ninjas worried less about competitive pay — they know they could find [something else] with good pay — but other factors were more important. What I found most interesting was what we call the 'Kevin Durant Effect,' where they want to play with other high-end performers" at their organization, says Frank Reeder, co-founder and director of the Center for Internet Security and the National Board of Security Examiners, who co-authored the report with Timlin. "They want to be working with colleagues who can raise their game."
Most aren't interested in moving up the ladder to management either: they prefer promotions that don't require their taking a management-level position (46%). They want to remain hands-on and stimulated in their craft, which includes coveted security skills such as threat analytics, advanced forensics, intrusion analysis, secure programming, and penetration testing.
Just what it takes to retain skilled cybersecurity pros — nicknamed "cyber ninjas" in the CSIS report — has become a burning question for employers today in what has become a seller's market for these employees. The gaping cybersecurity skills gap has left some 1 million cybersecurity job openings worldwide, and the most seasoned professionals are in hot demand, often leading to attrition problems for companies.
Nearly half of cybersecurity pros one or more times per week receive an email or phone call from a recruiter or other party about a job opening, according to recent Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) and the Information Systems Security Association (ISSA) data. Only 41% say they are "very satisfied" with their current gigs, while 44% are "somewhat satisfied," and 15% are not satisfied at all, ESG and ISSA found.
The goal of the CSIS study, "Recruiting and Retaining Cybersecurity Ninjas," was to determine what drives seasoned cybersecurity professionals to pick one employer over another, and to identify what employers are doing to attract, and more importantly, retain them. The report took survey data from nearly 300 cybersecurity pros. CSIS then interviewed some of the respondents to gain more insight into their answers.
Some 72% of cybersecurity ninjas ranked as "very important" having engaging and challenging tasks and employer-paid training to keep their skills up-to-date; 67%, flexible hours; 58% competitive pay and benefits; and 46%, promotions that don't require moving into management positions. Non-ninja, or less skilled pros, diverged from ninjas when it came to the importance of flexible work schedules (52%); competitive pay and benefits (64%). Only 26% of non-ninjas say they prefer not becoming a manager in order to get promoted.
Cyber ninjas value a variety of tasks, Timlin says. "This is interesting for employers: if you want to have vibrant cybersecurity professionals, you have to offer them new experiences and they don't want to be solving the same problem over and over," Timlin says. "That's one of the key differentiators that set cyber ninjas apart" from non-ninja cyber pros, she says.
Training is also a must-have for ninjas: some 67% say a lack of funding by their employer for training would be an important factor in their leaving the organization.
The bad news there is that training is often low on the budget priority list. Candy Alexander, CISO of ISSA and chair of its cyber security career lifecycle program, says training is one of the first things that gets cut from the budget. "It always comes down to budget, and training is the first to be cut, or cutting back on resources," she said in a press briefing earlier this month.
CSIS found that the ninja-level pros held the most industry certifications: one or more. The most common certification for ninjas and non-ninjas is the CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional), with nearly 60% of non-ninjas holding one.
The CISSP also was most valued in the ESG-ISSA report, which found that some 56% of security pros hold a CISSP, and most say it was "valuable" both for getting hired (61%) and for on-the-job know-how (55%).
Reeder says the value of certs in cybersecurity is relatively unique. "This is materially different from other professions, where folks are compelled to maintain some level of currency by continuing education credits," Reeder says. "Cyber ninjas see certifications as being effective and in maintaining their currency."
The National Security Agency, Cisco, Citibank, and several federal laboratories got shout-outs in the CSIS report for their high marks from ninjas who work there.