• There will never be enough professionals in the workforce who understand cyberspace operations, says Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.), vice president, Perspecta’s defense group. Credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock
     There will never be enough professionals in the workforce who understand cyberspace operations, says Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.), vice president, Perspecta’s defense group. Credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

Incoming: People Skills Are Vital to Cybersecurity

February 1, 2020
By Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.)

More than half of organizations today are not prepared to handle cyber attacks and data breaches, according to a recent report from FireEye. Updating operating systems, patches and even cloud strategies is a start for addressing the problem today, but technology only offers one, often over-emphasized, leg of support.

Longer-term strategies to stay ahead of threats to military and military-supporting organizations must place equal weight on the skills of the team members. The earlier in life that skills are established, the better—and there has been tremendous progress made in STEM programs that set up students for success. Communities foster these programs through robotics, hacking exercises and other competitions, and this support must continue to help identify career pathways in cyber operations.

There will never be enough professionals in the workforce who understand how operations are conducted in and through cyberspace. Similarly, there will always be a strong need for those who know how to inherently bake in security from design to execution.

But there is another side to developing a cyber-ready professional. The best cyber operators are creative thinkers who know and anticipate how humans interact. They can understand or figure out how dispersed groups of people are connected, what their communications styles are, and when patterns and anomalies are evident. They connect dots that others cannot see based on behavior, not data or fingerprints.

Cyber professionals who do this well may have nontechnical degrees in communications, sociology or psychology, which complement their technical computer science base. They often have nontraditional hobbies such as playing music or creating art. These versatile backgrounds blend the necessary creativity with technical capability, resulting in well-rounded professionals who can fulfill the cyber operations mission.

This blended operations model is not new. For many years, the rules of engagement for aerial warfare required that pilots visually identify their targets and receive permission to attack. As radar was developed and technology improved, flyers could see targets electronically and engage them from far beyond the horizon. The system improvements led to greater trust that the professionals could make the right decision. Similarly, as cyber technology improves, we need to allow machines to do what they do best and people to apply their strengths.

How should government, industry and academia encourage this?

First, there must be recognition that hiring alone will not solve the problem. Addressing cyber threats requires a comprehensive approach with layers of people, technology and processes, all woven together and able to be quickly disassembled and reorganized for the next event. This is too big a problem for any one line of defense.

Second, more threats can be mitigated by increasing the capacity for automated responses that incorporate intelligence. Machines are more adept at sending alerts and isolating infected areas of the network. Employing machines frees up people to use their creativity in identifying the source and deploying countermeasures.

Last, continuous improvement means training people to capture the intelligence and develop the automated responses. Even the best defenses are only as good as the last attack, and the threat landscape changes constantly. Having a well-balanced solution means empowering the right people with the right tools and in the right configuration to support the mission.

Maj. Gen. Jennifer Napper, USA (Ret.), is a vice president in Perspecta’s defense group. She previously served as director of cybersecurity plans and policy for the U.S. Defense Department Cyber Command, and she led the U.S. Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM). 

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