Attitude, Knowledge, Opinion and Expertise; an information security career map?

opinionI was talking to one of my colleagues a few days ago who joined our team a little under a year ago. Althea (I promised her a name check here) actually joined the security team from the small group of personal assistants in the company. While this is perhaps not the most obvious place to recruit into a technically savvy environment from, Althea has very quickly become an excellent member of the team.

I often hear in conferences and panels about the security skills shortage we are currently suffering, and I regularly quote the story of Althea joining us as an example of how we are very often simply looking in the wrong places and should be looking to promote from within more. Althea has been with the company for six years (a long time these days) and was working for and supporting some of the most senior people in our company. She had to be organised, forthright, able to communicate succinctly and above all remain calm under pressure (you know how senior executives can be sometimes).

For me, her attitude is far more important than her technical ability. Technology and hard skills are things that can be taught in relatively short periods of time; attitude is something that takes a lot longer to learn, decades even. Althea is already well on her way to getting the requisite technical skills required of her role, but her organisational skills, contacts within the organisation, and ability to communicate to people throughout the organisation whatever their seniority is second to none.

I was talking to her about this and related the competence framework I use to try and understand both mine and others maturity in their role. When first moving into a new role you move through each of one of these phases of competence:

  • Unconsciously Incompetent
  • Consciously Incompetent
  • Consciously competent
  • Unconsciously competent

(you might want to reread those a few times, I know I did when I first came across them)

So, if you start with the right attitude, you are going to minimise the amount of time you spend being unconsciously incompetent, as the next logical step is to acquire knowledge. This allows your to bring the right skills to bear onto your role, and bring you quickly into being consciously incompetent and possibly beyond. Minimising the time you spend in the first two phases is of course very important to your career.

But knowledge really isn’t everything. Those with just the knowledge can’t see beyond their day to day tasks and roles; they are unable to see the “big picture” as everything is focussed around technical solutions and black and white answers to business problems. (Just listen to some of the “questions” asked at every security conference you go to; they are not really questions but affirmation that their knowledge is greater than the speaker. They wholly miss the point that knowledge is actually all they have.) I would suggest that forming your own opinions on subjects is a logical and vital step in anyone’s career path. Business problems are not black and white, there are a variety of approaches, solutions, outcomes and inputs that those with a purely knowledge/technical viewpoint simply won’t appreciate. Forming and gathering these opinions takes place through reading, observing, listening, writing and finally testing your opinions in the community. These experiences are not just the gathering of specific knowledge, but the nuances of what can be right in one circumstance, wrong in another and even every possibility in between.

For instance, shipping a single, failed drive that was part of a RAID 5 cluster back to the manufacturer may be the right thing to do for some organizations. From a security knowledge perspective this is anathema unless the drive has been degaussed or even fully destroyed; it completely depends on the business, circumstance and many other factors. Encrypting backup tapes? Obviously this should be done, except of course when it shouldn’t, for the same reasons as before. Security is only one opinion in a sea of opinions that matter.

Having opinions in this industry is vital to stimulate conversation and evolve our understanding and viewpoints in our own workplaces. Once this opinion is applied in a considered and effective manner, only then could one possibly consider themselves having “expertise”, and I wouldn’t label yourself that before someone else does first.

In order to allow your team to grow in this manner it is vital to encourage them to engage with both the internal company community as well as information security community as a whole. Encourage them to take part in any related event, internal and external, or even organise one. What about volunteering to help at a conference, or ultimately even apply to speak? By giving your team members the opportunity to research, write, precis, deliver, defend and receive feedback on a topic of their choice they have the best opportunity to take their knowledge beyond the day to day and into the more opinion based level of the strategic, and become better decision makers in the process.

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About Thom Langford

An information security professional, award winning security blogger and industry commentator. Available as a speaking head and presenter on topics relating to information security, risk management and compliance.

3 responses to “Attitude, Knowledge, Opinion and Expertise; an information security career map?”

  1. Josh says :

    Thanks for this, Thom. I am in the midst of a career change into information security and this article was encouraging. I do not have a technical background but I find myself in the middle of an MS program in information systems/security and some of the technical stuff can be overwhelming.

    I try to keep a positive attitude and realize I have a lot to learn…from everyone. Do you have any suggestions on where to look for internships or entry level positions where I can learn hands on skills to accompany the theory I learn in my coursework?

    Warmly,

    Josh

    • Thom Langford says :

      Thanks for the comments and questions. Your best bet are the industry events and forums that I mentioned, because you are going to get talking to people and build relationships with them rather than just cold calling. Also social media is a good place to start to engage with people and then simply asking for referrals. Start following the infosec crowd and you will soon find that as a community we try and help as many people into the industry as possible. Goodness knows we need the help! Good luck!

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