Conferences, Certifications or College: Which Is the Best Path toward a Cybersecurity Career?
By James Lint
Faculty Member, School of Business, American Military University
Senior Editor for InCyberDefense and Contributor, In Homeland Security
Cybersecurity and cyber defense experience are buzzwords that enhance a resume. They are also jobs that are needed now and far into the future.
In January 2017, cybersecurity expert and CSO Steve Morgan wrote about the need for more cybersecurity talent. On the the CSO website, which serves enterprise security decision-makers, Morgan stated that “there will be 1 million cybersecurity job openings in 2017.” In fact, it is the Chief Security Officers who make the hiring decisions and hire the employees who defend their organizations from cyber threats and vulnerabilities.
Conferences Are a Valuable Source of Cybersecurity Information
InCyberDefense has reported on cybersecurity conferences often in the past few years. Conferences such as Black Hat, DEFCON, BSides and CES provide additional knowledge from experienced professionals.
However, you have to know some cybersecurity basics to understand the discussions at these conferences. DEFCON has some tracks that are for “newbie, newb, noob, or n00b,” also known as “cyber rookies.”
Advantages of Conferences
- Conferences are great for making contacts, networking and potentially gaining employment if you have the required skills.
- Conferences offer you the opportunity to see new technology that might be of interest to your current employer. My CES report on Innovation in the Future of the Carwas one such example. However, CES’s annual show also highlights smaller innovations, such as a blood pressure measuring device from China.
- Attending conferences allows you to become more familiar with current industry trends in cyber threats and vulnerabilities. The knowledge you gain at these events will help you prevent and defeat future risks to your employer.
All of these conferences have one requirement going in: You must understand the content. No one understands every topic in cyber defense, but you must have enough knowledge to ask a relevant question that will not embarrass you or your employer at a conference with 20,000 attendees. Many conferences offer education tracks that can help you with gaps in your knowledge.
Certifications Are Useful If You Seek a Career in Cybersecurity
Getting certifications is smart because many businesses require them for specific jobs. In some cyber industry sectors, jobs align perfectly with certifications.
That helps managers to know the knowledge and skill sets they will be getting from a new employee. Often, a new person in the field will have certifications but little practical experience.
On the other hand, collecting certifications could have its drawbacks. Warren E. Wytostek, writing for the technology learning source InformIT, says, “There are too many certifications. Every vendor offers its own certification and degrees of certification—for example, Microsoft’s MCP, MCSE, MCSD, MCDBA, MCT…. There is no controlling authority, standardization board, or accrediting agency to validate that the training and certification have value in the IT world.”
Moreover, certifications cost time and money. In the end their value is in the eyes of the employer with the job vacancy. If companies have open positions requiring knowledge of Cisco, Microsoft or Sun Microsystems, they may feel those certifications are of value.
On the other hand, most universities do not recognize certifications. Certifications or training modules seldom qualify for transfer credit to a university because, in part, the quality and rigor of certifications vary across vendors and topics.
The Value of a Degree
A college degree offers recognized skills in cybersecurity and a broader outlook on the field. Look for a college with faculty members who are currently or were recently working in your chosen field.
Also, check to see how many universities hire recent managers and workers in the career you desire. Former hiring managers can easily guide you to the positions and companies that best fit your skills.
Advantages of a Degree in Cybersecurity or Information Technology
- College creates great contacts because you are spending a lot of time with the same group of people. Those fellow students will be your peers and sometimes your competitors in the job market. Some of them might even be able to alert you to job vacancies at their workplace before the jobs are published online.
- A college education is the recognized standard to become a leader or manager in a company. Most organizations’ hiring managers have a college degree and many have advanced degrees. That makes it harder to justify why they should hire a job applicant with no college degree over an applicant with a degree.
- Personnel with a college degree normally have better report writing skills due to years of writing papers in college. In the corporate world, you might have the best skills to fix a problem, but if you cannot clearly and correctly write the report that goes to higher management, few will know of your success. But higher management will know of your inability to write well.
- Colleges are places where you can and will make mistakes. Mistakes in college are normal and survivable. They will not result in major workplace disasters, such as deleting the CEO’s new business plan, causing the computer system to crash or creating a network outage.
A good university also has a Career Services department and career coaches to guide you into a successful job placement. Counselors can help you with resume reviews and mock interviews. Good counselors can help you differentiate between private industry and federal government careers.
Cybersecurity Depends on Knowing Your Cyber Enemies
Our enemies are producing cybersecurity experts very quickly. CNN reports that North Korea has established about 250 elite schools for computer education. Authorities select 500 of the most talented students for even more advanced training in cyber combat at two schools in Pyongyang.
According to Reuters, “Yearly, 100 students graduate from the over 2,500 who apply for the University of Automation. They graduate after five years of study at the campus in Pyongyang which is behind barbed wire.”
Americans should take advantage of the extensive cyber education opportunities available to build their skills and join the U.S. cyber workforce. But it is up to you to make your job skills useful for IT employers.
About the Author
James R. Lint recently retired as the (GG-15) civilian director for intelligence and security, G2, U.S. Army Communications Electronics Command. He is an adjunct professor at AMU. James has been involved in cyberespionage events from just after the turn of the century in Korea supporting 1st Signal Brigade to the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis as the first government cyber intelligence analyst. He has 38 years of experience in military intelligence with the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, government contracting and civil service.
Additionally, James started the Lint Center for National Security Studies, a nonprofit charity that recently awarded its 49th scholarship for national security students and professionals. James was also elected as the 2015 national vice president for the Military Intelligence Corps Association. He has also served in the Department of Energy’s S&S Security Office after his active military career in the Marine Corps for seven years and 14 years in the Army. His military assignments include South Korea, Germany and Cuba, in addition to numerous CONUS locations. In 2017, he was appointed to the position of Adjutant for The American Legion, China Post 1. James has authored a book published in 2013, “Leadership and Management Lessons Learned