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October 11, 2018

Columnists Corner: The Future of Cyber-Defense is Teen Technologists

By Charles Eaton

Opinion: Our Best Cyber-Defense for the Future: Teenage Technologists


Cybersecurity is not an issue that is confined to IT departments. The menace of cybercrime looms over business operations of all kinds and cuts across every industry in this country.


Cybercrooks breach healthcare databases for the credentials—such as user IDs, passwords and credit card numbers—that enable retail fraud. They raid social networks for lists of familiar contact names to inform their “phishing” expeditions and other social engineering techniques, which enables them to evade conventional technical solutions such as firewalls.


So, if cybercriminals reach around the boundaries of traditional technology, our pursuit of solutions must rise above the constraints of technical layers into realms of analysis. This type of thinking is driving cybersecurity teams more and more toward behavioral analytics as weapons against malware campaigns such as ransomware, social engineering techniques like phishing, and other cyber threats.


In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that information security analysts will be the fastest growing overall job category, with 28 percent growth during the decade ending in 2026.

Phone in the woods

In general terms, information security analysts perform data analysis to identify vulnerabilities and threats to a company’s digital assets. These analytics are used to configure and deploy threat detection tools to optimize preventive measures and mitigate business risk.


Trouble is—the supply of analytics talent is not rising fast enough to meet this increasing cybersecurity demand.


Per Cyberseek, a free workforce and career resource developed jointly by my organization’s parent association, CompTIA, and labor market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, U.S. employers posted 285,000 open job notices for cybersecurity professionals during 2017. Among those vacant positions are data-driven jobs such as “Cybersecurity Analyst” and “Vulnerability/Analyst/Penetration Tester.”


Where will U.S. companies find the analytics talent to fill these roles? Narrowing such a wide gap will be neither fast nor easy. The IT industry has years of work ahead of it to address this mission.


In the short term, some companies are hiring or partnering to meet overall cybersecurity needs, but the most common approach is to improve the technical skills of the existing workforce. CompTIA researchers found that 60 percent of companies use training to sharpen security expertise, and 48 percent pursue certifications. Many companies also extend this skills training to the non-IT workforce. But today, we’re lacking a specific focus on cybersecurity analytics acumen.


My organization believes that tweens and teens should become a focal point in this area. They already make up a quarter of the U.S. population and will account for more than 20 percent of the workforce in the next five years. Plus, our research indicates that many in this group have the temperament to become more than technicians; they will be technologists, people working with technology of varied types in companies of all shapes and sizes across the country, along a broad spectrum of industries—not just those that write software and make hardware.


We believe workers with a technologist’s mentality—an optimal mix of hard technical skills and relationship acumen (often called “soft skills”)—are well suited for today’s fast-paced, continually evolving cybersecurity environment.


In short, we believe that good technologists can make great information security analysts. Why? Because technology is an integral part of the aver American teenager’s lifestyle.


In fact, that last statement is a bit of an understatement. My organization’s latest study “Youth Opinions of Careers in Information Technology,” reveals that about three quarters (74 percent) of boys and about two thirds (65 percent) of girls in the 13-17 age range go so far as to say they “love” technology. Moreover, more than half the teens we surveyed late last year answered that friends and family usually turn to them for “tech support,” such as answering questions and troubleshooting issues with computers, software, or mobile devices.


But does their high comfort level with tech mean that these teens are suited for successful careers in information technology?


Our research shows more and more young people are asking themselves this question. Seven in ten teenagers we polled reported that they are open to the possibility of a career in the tech arena. That finding represents a 62 percent increase from the result of our last teen study of this kind two years ago.


Another encouraging trend is that the largest increase in tech interest comes from girls. In the latest survey, 62 percent of girls said they would consider a tech career, an increase of 11 percent from 2015. Among boys, 80 percent have considered technology as a career option to some degree, up 8 percent in 2015.


Why the boost in positive perceptions? Our researchers found most teens see IT careers as lucrative and as offering the opportunity to do creative, innovative work—the kind that information security analysts do. They also think that working in technology means the possibility of a job in an appealing professional environment with smart people and plentiful positions.


These are welcome findings these days, as Cyberseek’s data demonstrate that the need to attract a new generation of analytics talent is critical. Failing to address this looming talent gap has troubling implications for workers, employers and the entire U.S. economy.


So, how do educators in the technical and STEM fields do their part to stoke this growing interest in tech careers in general and analytics in particular?


First, we believe that educators should view their mission as encouraging teens to become more than technicians. They should become technologists, as I have stressed in each of my previous columns for ITSP magazine. And the best way to understand and appreciate the work of technologists is to see them in action.


But this is where our research uncovered a challenge. Teens tend to look to people in their close family circle, family or people whom they know that work in the industry as reliable sources of information. The difficulty is that fewer than 3 in 10 (33 percent of boys and 24 percent of girls) know someone who works for a technology company or has a job in technology.


Schools may be able to help bridge the gap by offering first-hand experience. More than half (54 percent) of the students in our study cited teachers and career counselors in schools as primary sources of career guidance, so educators appear to be in a prime position to steer teens to clubs, camps and other programs that offer a slice of life as a technologist.


Initiatives like NextUp are primed to give schools a helping hand. We created NextUp to introduce teens to the many possibilities of technology careers. Through curricula, projects, partnerships and mentorship, we aim to tap into their passion for technology, spark their curiosity and build a generation of technologists for tomorrow. Our volunteers augment the work of CTE educators by mentoring students in hands-on STEM projects, while sharing why they love their careers as technologists.


Here’s how we work with partners in the education and business worlds to fuel IT enthusiasm.

  • FUSE, a Northwestern University program that’s expanding and enriching STEAM (STEM plus Arts & Design) learning, with attention to IT concepts and skills for students in middle and high school.
  • The New York Academy of Sciences, where CompTIA’s network of IT professionals mentor students attending the academy’s after-school and summer programs.
  • TechGirlz, which offers fun and educational hands-on workshops called TechShopz and an annual Entrepreneur Summer Camp, all aimed at getting middle-school age girls interested in various kinds of technology.
  • The Technology Student Association (TSA) made up of 250,000 students in 38 states who go head-to-head each spring in several STEM team-based competitions.


In these programs, teenage students work with each other and with technologists, as we feel that it’s the best way to counter the negative perceptions of tech careers. For example, nearly half of teenagers are concerned that careers in IT could be isolating, with long stretches of sitting alone in front of a computer all day. Girls more than boys have this perception.


Together, schools and organizations like Creating IT Futures can give teenage technologists a broad perspective that goes beyond the classroom into their future in the working world—a pathway that enables them to translate their love of technology into a career they will love. In the process, young people will gain the perspective to see beyond technical constraints and visualize cybersecurity solutions suggested by insights gleaned from behavioral analytics.


The growth of cyber-attacks using social engineering techniques reveals that cybercriminals are a passionate, creative bunch. To thwart them, we need to raise a generation of cybersecurity analysts with an even greater commitment to vigilance and innovation.


Charles Eaton, CEO of Creating IT Futures and Executive Vice President of Social Innovation for CompTIA, will contribute to ITSP Magazine on a regular basis in 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @FoundationEaton.


Please also follow @ITSPmagazine for updates on tech myths, careers and other stories about the NextUp generation.