Top tips to begin a cyber career

Cybersecurity is very much in the news, especially when many attacks are spectacular and may involve nation states attacking other nation states.

Written by Simon Crocker, Senior Director, Systems Engineering, Palo Alto Networks

The sums of money involved are startling. For example, our intelligence suggests ransom demands for stolen data are steadily rising. The most recent figures showed that demands have been as high as $30 million whilst actual payouts have reached $8 million.

With risks of this magnitude, the demand for cybersecurity skills to protect and defend against cyber criminals and attackers is growing. But, there is a real lack of cyber skills, with the UK government reporting that one in two UK businesses have identified a shortage of basic cybersecurity technical ability (Source: DCMS, May 2022).

While the opportunities to work in cybersecurity look very positive, how does someone actually go about becoming a cybersecurity expert?

Contrary to the media and Hollywood narratives, you don’t need to be a pure coder, wearing a hoodie in a darkened room. There are all types of individuals in cybersecurity and so many different roles and many paths into the industry.

For example, my company is looking for people to advise and build organisations’ cybersecurity systems that prevent attacks and mitigate the aftereffects. We also need people who can help clients recover from attacks, investigate how a breach happened and recover stolen data. Sometimes it can feel like you’re on the front line fighting to protect our digital way of life.

Because cybersecurity involves so much software and hardware and draws on advances in artificial intelligent, machine learning, cloud computing and so much more, engineering and other STEM degrees do provide a strong foundation for a future career in cybersecurity.

In my experience of looking for graduates coming from STEM and other subjects into our business, here are some tips to impress:

  • You need to have a passion for the topic. When speaking to graduates I ask whether they have learnt things outside of their course and do they have hobby projects in technology and cyber. Passion is king when it comes to cybersecurity.
  • Learn some programming / scripting skills, even if they are basic level and you don’t desire to become a coder.
  • Have an open and inquisitive mind to everything “tech”, since cybersecurity touches every element of technology, having a broad understanding is an advantage. Computing, cloud, end point, operating systems, SaaS applications, mobiles, IoT, POS systems etc
  • Don’t be afraid of breaking technology. You need to understand how it works and breaks. In cybersecurity, knowing how to break things is the first step to being able to correct vulnerabilities that put critical systems at risk of attack.
  • Read and listen to cybersecurity blogs, articles, podcasts and other relevant media or reports.
  • It’s important to understand the mind and motivations of the “bad guys”. Again, be inquisitive about their business, how it works, technology used, and how they make money. From this perspective then you can think about how you would hack and then defend.
  • Having a capacity for lifelong learning is needed. Making cybersecurity your profession means being ready to keep on top of a very fluid subject.
  • Don’t be a carpet starer. Contrary to that stereotype of the hooded geek in a dark room, good communication skills are critical. You need to have a flair to understand and explain some complex technical situations and concepts in simple terms to non-technical people. You also need to encourage these same people to apply greater levels of cyber hygiene; helping to make your life “easier”.

Engineering and other STEM subjects, including computer science, translate well into pursuing a career in cybersecurity. You are called upon to be very focused, adept at problem solving and weighing up and mitigating risks. These are considerable and can mean the loss of vital services, as well as revenues and reputations. What is guaranteed for graduates who go into cybersecurity is a real opportunity to help make our digital society safe.