Ramblings of a Recovering Academic on the So-Called Lack of Security Talent

Hiring for security is difficult, as many surveys show. But what the research doesn't explain is the "why" — and a lack of talent may not be the sole reason.

Kaan Onarlioglu, Security Architect, Akamai

April 25, 2019

5 Min Read

Recent reports by ISACA and Tripwire suggest that companies are having difficulty filling security jobs. Their studies stress that hiring for senior technical security roles is a particular pain point, with Frank Downs, director of ISACA's Cybersecurity Practices, stating, "Academic organizations don't necessarily teach all aspects of security that make an individual technically proficient."

While I dare not speak for the entire security industry, I'd like to offer a different perspective by taking a closer look at a specific demographic: graduate students pursuing advanced security research degrees (a PhD or equivalent).

When I earned my PhD, I had long discussions with my advisers to evaluate job opportunities. Over the years I've mentored numerous PhD students myself and have found my job search experience as a student matches the opinions of my mentees today: There are very few attractive security jobs available — or so was our impression. A lack of talent distresses the industry at large, while experienced researchers fail to find relevant jobs to apply for. We seem to have two views in stark contrast.

It’s easy to dismiss the situation as "academic snobbery" and accuse academics of being out of touch with practical problems. Of course, this is not true. Academic researchers comprise some of the most highly specialized and hands-on security talent. Alternatively, one could assert that industry jobs offer little challenge and therefore no intellectual fulfillment, especially since academic researchers work on cutting-edge security problems. This, too, is a misconception.

In reality, the false impression that available jobs are unattractive may be a symptom of miscommunication between candidates and employers, and misunderstandings about an academic researcher's skills and interests, which run deep in the industry. In turn, the inability to source candidates from academia may be leading to a perceived lack of senior technical talent in the field.

Based on the feedback from my mentees, here are three common factors that alienate PhD prospects in their job search.

Prescribed Experience Requirements
A recurring complaint of graduating PhDs is that their applications are immediately rejected due to a lack of work experience, or they are positioned for entry-level roles before they get an opportunity to talk to technical teams.

First of all, pursuing a PhD is a full-time job. Researchers are charged with the onerous task of creating knowledge. They independently identify novel problems, invent solutions, engineer systems, and disseminate the knowledge to the rest of the security community.

Unfortunately, many recruiters are unfamiliar with this structure; they are under the false impression that a PhD is an extended period of classroom education. In contrast, even new graduates will have made significant code, data, and know-how contributions to the security field. Instead of relying on an arbitrary years-out-of-school metric, it's a lot more meaningful to objectively evaluate candidates in light of job requirements.

Failure to Advertise Intellectual Gratification
Academia offers a versatile environment for researchers to pursue their professional interests, yet many academics still step into the corporate world. An important driver for that is access to data or technologies that would otherwise be out of reach. In my case, the opportunity to work for a leading content delivery network provider was a major attraction; access to an infrastructure of that scale wasn't a possibility in academia.  

Security is an overarching problem, but certain industries are at a disadvantage because they lack that immediate intellectual gratification appeal to draw talent from academia. The banking industry is an example. Although banks will remain a prime target for sophisticated attacks, they carry the stigma of being dull work environments using aged technology. This perception has a noticeable negative impact on job search behavior, and many candidates won't even entertain the thought of sending a résumé.

Promoting intellectual gratification is essential to attracting senior technical talent, especially in today's vibrant IT world. All businesses have important security problems to solve. The burden of advertising what unique challenges and learning opportunities a job offers falls on employers.

Poorly Calibrated Job Requirements
Another trend I observe with graduating PhDs is that they have difficulty judging from job descriptions the expected seniority, or otherwise they are puzzled by the rudimentary requirements listed for a "principal" or "lead" role. This confusion often results in them skipping positions without further consideration.

Job descriptions play an important ancillary role, especially in attracting senior talent. They signal the maturity of an employer's security team and the level of support it gets from management. A consistent description, explicitly listing the required skills and with the proper terminology matching the expected depth of knowledge, is key to establishing the trust that employers understand the problem they want to solve on a technical level and can provide the resources and recognition to help employees prosper.

For instance, an enduring grievance of data scientists is about jobs requiring "artificial intelligence" expertise, as opposed to listing specific machine learning and statistical methods necessary for the task. Similarly, jobs that ask for familiarity with "OWASP Top 10" instead of naming specific classes of web application attacks and analysis techniques are often a turnoff for seasoned vulnerability researchers. These often raise red flags that the employer may not have a technical understanding of its security goals or a clear direction for its security program.

As I conclude, I stress that the points I raise here are the ramblings of a recovering academic, based on observations and feedback and focusing on a narrow demographic in the security talent pool. The fact remains that hiring for security is difficult, as the survey data shows. What those surveys don't explain is the "why," and hopefully this piece hints that a lack of talent may not be the sole reason. Investigating the cause in a scientific framework is essential to closing the security talent gap.

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About the Author(s)

Kaan Onarlioglu

Security Architect, Akamai

Kaan Onarlioglu is a researcher and engineer at Akamai who is interested in a wide array of systems security problems, with an emphasis on designing practical technologies with real-life impact. He works to make computers and the Internet secure — but occasionally enjoys offensive security, too!

Even though he has stepped into the corporate world, Kaan still holds academic research in high esteem. He has authored numerous scholarly papers in top security venues including IEEE S&P, Usenix Security, ACM CCS, and NDSS, and he regularly serves on conference program committees. His recent work involves retrofitting novel privacy features into operating systems, hardening existing software against evolving security threats, and investigating the human factors in security.

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