Feds, Industry Get Creative to Woo Cyber Talent

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Federal officials and executives shared how they’re rethinking the credentials and experience of cyber recruits.

Federal agencies and major industry players are adopting creative new hiring practices and considering applicants without computer science backgrounds as they build robust cyber workforces, executives said Thursday. 

“Working with our [Chief Human Capital Officer Angela Bailey,] we are trying to design a system that is more cognizant of the skill sets that people bring to the table and measuring that to make sure you capture the right persons,” Homeland Security Department’s Chief Information Officer John Zangardi said at the Billington Cybersecurity Summit in Washington. “I’ll mention that my [chief information security officer’s] degree is in psychology. I’m more concerned about the experiences and skills he brings to the table than his [bachelor degree] and we have to be willing to look at that.”

America’s present federal hiring system dates back to the era of Calvin Coolidge, Zangardi said, so he and his team are reforming their approach to the security talent pipeline and the entire working environment. On top of establishing the cyber talent management system and opening the doors to people with more diverse backgrounds, he said it’s critical that the government makes it easier for people to swing back and forth between federal and industry positions—and offer salaries that are more comparable to those given by their private-sector competitors. 

“These are the aspects we are looking at: It’s about flexibility, it’s about using technology and it’s about creating an environment where people want to be able to move back and forth,” Zangardi said.  

Related: Trump Signs Executive Order to Boost Federal Cyber Workforce

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Related: The US Needs a Cybersecurity Civilian Corps

Emery Csulak, chief information security officer and deputy CIO for cybersecurity at the Energy Department, said his agency is looking at new options to recruit people who might not be the most qualified for specific roles but have invigorating potential. Officials are particularly interested in folks who are inquisitive, think logically and will possibly even challenge the status quo.

“How do we bring that thinking to the organization?” he said.

And though there are constraints around federal hiring, Csulak said the agency is also taking advantage of options already on the table, such as those that offer unique opportunities for them to hire veterans or people with disabilities, and they’ve introduced new gamified programs to get potential new recruits excited at the college level. 

Industry players are on board as well. Chris Valentino, vice president of global cyber solutions, cyber and intelligence mission solutions division for Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, said their journey began several years ago when the company realized that it’s not recruiting the top 1 to 2% of classes from public universities within the career field, so they “really needed a way to go after that.” 

Northrop Grumman introduced a cybersecurity experience for four-year degree students at the University of Maryland and is also working to offer apprenticeship programs to students in vocational trades or at two-year colleges.

“Not everyone needs a computer science degree to perform a cyber role, so we turned our attention there,” Valentino said. 

Booz Allen Hamilton Chief Information Officer Rebecca McHale said if entities really want to expand and diversify their pipelines, they have to really look for people with alternative backgrounds, which could mean a degree in something else or no degree at all. 

“My threat intel teams over the last several years have been political science and interior design [backgrounds], and you know, a whole bunch of different things,” McHale said. “So I think we have to start thinking about aptitude, willingness to adapt, and ability to take on these skills, versus ‘you have to have a certain skill set.’”

Four years ago, the CIA opted to approach hiring differently. Sean Roche, the agency’s associate deputy director for digital innovation, said leadership offered to give officials everything they need to revamp the workforce.

“So, we said ‘we’re probably going to have to change almost everything,’” Roche said.

And that’s essentially what happened. Insiders did away with a payscale that existed for years, gave more consideration to outside degrees, and moved people who really understood the business and its needs to the recruiting team. 

They also realized that some people are better with machines than other people. To accommodate them, the agency now promotes people up through Senior Executive Service as experts without forcing them to manage teams. 

“That, I think has really given people a path,” he said. “So a lot of the panelists have said it but I can’t emphasize it enough, [it’s] amazing [the] amount of support that we had to go ahead and challenge every rule.”

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