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.

Joshua Goldfarb, Global Solutions Architect — Security

July 22, 2016

6 Min Read

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.

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About the Author(s)

Joshua Goldfarb

Global Solutions Architect — Security, F5

Josh Goldfarb is currently Global Solutions Architect — Security at F5. Previously, Josh served as VP and CTO of Emerging Technologies at FireEye and as Chief Security Officer for nPulse Technologies until its acquisition by FireEye. Prior to joining nPulse, Josh worked as an independent consultant, applying his analytical methodology to help enterprises build and enhance their network traffic analysis, security operations, and incident response capabilities to improve their information security postures. Earlier in his career, Josh served as the Chief of Analysis for the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, where he built from the ground up and subsequently ran the network, endpoint, and malware analysis/forensics capabilities for US-CERT. In addition to Josh's blogging and public speaking appearances, he is also a regular contributor to Dark Reading and SecurityWeek.

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