Talking in school

Learning by teaching

A few months ago, I was asked by a teacher at a local school to come in and talk to year 10 and year 11 students (aged 14-16 or so) about my job, what I do, my background, how I got into my job and to give any further thoughts and advice.  Today I got the chance to go in and talk to them.

I very much enjoyed myself[1], and hopefully it was interesting for the pupils as well.  I went over my past – from being “a bit of a geek at school” through to some of the stuff I need to know to do my job now – and also talked about different types of work within IT security.  I was at pains to point out that you don’t need to be a great mathematician or even a great coder to get a career in IT security, and talked a lot about the importance of systems – which absolutely includes people.

What went down best – as is the case with pretty much any crowd – was stories.  “War stories”, as they’re sometimes called, about what situations you’ve come across, how you dealt with them, how other people reacted, and the lessons you’ve learned from them, give an immediacy and relevance that just can’t be beaten.  I was careful not to make them very technical – and one about a member of staff who had lost weight while on holiday and got stuck in a two-door man-trap (which included a weight sensor) went down particularly well[3].

The other thing that was useful – and which isn’t always going to work in a C-level meeting, for instance – was some exercises. Codes and ciphers are always interesting, so I started with a ROT13, then a Caesar cipher, then a simple key, then a basic alphabet substitution.  We talked about letter frequency, repeated words, context and letter groupings, and the older group solved all of the puzzles, which was excellent.

There was time for some questions, too, which included:

  • “how much do you get paid?”  Somewhat cheeky, this one, but I answered by giving them a salary range for a job which someone had contacted me about, but which I’d not followed up on – and gave no indications of the reasons for rejecting it
  • “do you need an IT or computing degree?”  No, though it can be helpful.
  • “do you need a degree at all?”  No, and though it can be difficult to get on without one, there are some very good apprentice schemes out there.

I went into the school to try to help others learn, but it was a very useful experience for me, too.  Although all of the pupils there are taking a computing class by choice, not all of them were obviously engaged.  But that didn’t mean that they weren’t paying attention: one of the pupils with the least “interested” body language was the fastest at answering some of the questions.  Some of the pupils there had similar levels of understanding around IT security to some C-levels who aren’t in IT.  Thinking about pace, about involving members of the audience who weren’t necessarily paying attention – all of these were really useful things for me to reflect on.

So – if you get the chance[4] – consider contacting a local school or college and seeing if they’d like someone to talk to them about what you do.  Making it interesting, be ready to move on where topics aren’t getting the engagement you’d hope, and be ready for some questions.  I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll learn something.

1 – one of my daughters, who attends the school, gave me very strict instructions about not talking to her, her friends or anyone she knew[2].

2 – (which I have every intention of ignoring, but sadly, I didn’t see her or any of her friends that I recognised.  Maybe next time.)

3 – though possibly not with the senior manager who had to come out on a Sunday to rescue him and reset the system.

4 – and you’re willing to engage a tough audience.

Next generation … people

… security as a topic is one which is interesting, fast-moving and undeniably sexy…

DISCLAIMER/STATEMENT OF IGNORANCE: a number of regular readers have asked why I insist on using asterisks for footnotes, and whether I could move to actual links, instead.  The official reason I give for sticking with asterisks is that I think it’s a bit quirky and I like that, but the real reason is that I don’t know how to add internal links in WordPress, and can’t be bothered to find out.  Apologies.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but pretty much everything out there is “next generation”.  Or, if you’re really lucky “Next gen”.  What I’d like to talk about this week, however, is the actual next generation – that’s people.  IT people.  IT security people.  I was enormously chuffed* to be referred to on an IRC channel a couple of months ago as a “greybeard”***, suggesting, I suppose, that I’m an established expert in the field.  Or maybe just that I’m an old fuddy-duddy***** who ought to be put out to pasture.  Either way, it was nice to come across young(er) folks with an interest in IT security******.

So, you, dear reader, and I, your beloved protagonist, both know that security as a topic is one which is interesting, fast-moving and undeniably******** sexy – as are all its proponents.  However, it seems that this news has not yet spread as widely as we would like – there is a worldwide shortage of IT security professionals, as a quick check on your search engine of choice for “shortage of it security professionals” will tell you.

Last week, I attended the Open Source Summit and Linux Security Summit in LA, and one of the keynotes, as it always seems to be, was Jim Zemlin (head of the Linux Foundation) chatting to Linus Torvalds (inventor of, oh, I don’t know).  Linus doesn’t have an entirely positive track record in talking about security, so it was interesting that Jim specifically asked him about it.  Part of Linus’ reply was “We need to try to get as many of those smart people before they go to the dark side [sic: I took this from an article by the Register, and they didn’t bother to capitalise.  I mean: really?] and improve security that way by having a lot of developers.”  Apart from the fact that anyone who references Star Wars in front of a bunch of geeks is onto a winner, Linus had a pretty much captive audience just by nature of who he is, but even given that, this got a positive reaction.  And he’s right: we do need to make sure that we catch these smart people early, and get them working on our side.

Later that week, at the Linux Security Summit, one of the speakers asked for a show of hands to find out the number of first-time attendees.  I was astonished to note that maybe half of the people there had not come before.  And heartened.  I was also pleased to note that a good number of them appeared fairly young*********.  On the other hand, the number of women and other under-represented demographics seemed worse than in the main Open Source Summit, which was a pity – as I’ve argued in previous posts, I think that diversity is vital for our industry.

This post is wobbling to an end without any great insights, so let me try to come up with a couple which are, if not great, then at least slightly insightful:

  1. we’ve got a job to do.  The industry needs more young (and diverse talent): if you’re in the biz, then go out, be enthusiastic, show what fun it can be.
  2. if showing people how much fun security can be, encourage them to do a search for “IT security median salaries comparison”.  It’s amazing how a pay cheque********** can motivate.

*note to non-British readers: this means “flattered”**.

**but with an extra helping of smugness.

***they may have written “graybeard”, but I translate****.

****or even “gr4yb34rd”: it was one of those sorts of IRC channels.

*****if I translate each of these, we’ll be here for ever.  Look it up.

******I managed to convince myself******* that their interest was entirely benign though, as I mentioned above, it was one of those sorts of IRC channels.

*******the glass of whisky may have helped.

********well, maybe a bit deniably.

*********to me, at least.  Which, if you listen to my kids, isn’t that hard.

**********who actually gets paid by cheque (or check) any more?

Diversity in IT security: not just a canine issue

“People won’t listen to you or take you seriously unless you’re an old white man, and since I’m an old white man I’m going to use that to help the people who need it.” —Patrick Stewart, Actor

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an April Fool’s post: “Changing the demographic in IT security: a radical proposal“.  It was “guest-written” by my dog, Sherlock, and suggested that dogs would make a good demographic from which to recruit IT professionals.  It went down quite well, and I had a good spike of hits, which was nice, but I wish that it hadn’t been necessary, or resonated so obviously with where we really are in the industry*.

Of special interest to me is the representation of women within IT security, and particularly within technical roles.  This is largely due to the fact that I have two daughters of school age**, and although I wouldn’t want to force them into a technical career, I want to be absolutely sure that they have as much chance both to try it – and then to succeed – as anybody else does, regardless of their gender.

But I think we should feel that other issues of under-representation should be of equal concern.  Professionals from ethnic minorities and with disabilities are also under-represented within IT security, and this is, without a doubt, a Bad Thing[tm].  I suspect that the same goes for people in the LGBTQ+ demographics.  From my perspective, diversity is something which is an unalloyed good within pretty much any organisation.  Different viewpoints don’t just allow us to reflect what our customers see and do, but also bring different perspectives to anything from perimeter defence to user stories, from UX to threading models.  Companies and organisations are just more flexible – and therefore more resilient – if they represent a wide ranging set of perspectives and views.  Not only because they’re more likely to be able to react positively if they come under criticism, but because they are less likely to succumb to groupthink and the “yes-men”*** mentality.

Part of the problem is that we hire ourselves.  I’m a white male in a straight marriage with a Western university education and a nuclear family.  I’ve got all of the privilege starting right there, and it’s really, really easy to find people like me to work with, and to hire, and to trust in business relationships.  And I know that I sometimes get annoyed with people who approach things differently to me, whose viewpoint leads them to consider alternative solutions or ideas.  And whether there’s a disproportionate percentage of annoyances associated with people who come from a different background to me, or that I’m just less likely to notice such annoyances when they come from someone who shares my background, there’s a real danger of prejudice kicking in and privilege – my privilege – taking over.

So, what can we do?  Here are some ideas:

  • Go out of our way to read, listen to and engage with people from different backgrounds to our own, particularly if we disagree with them, and particularly if they’re in our industry
  • Make a point of including the views of non-majority members of teams and groups in which you participate
  • Mentor and encourage those from disparate backgrounds in their careers
  • Consider positive discrimination – this is tricky, particularly with legal requirements in some contexts, but it’s worth considering, if only to recognise what a difference it might make.
  • Encourage our companies to engage in affirmative groups and events
  • Encourage our companies only to sponsor events with positive policies on harassment, speaker and panel selection, etc.
  • Consider refusing to speak on industry panels made up of people who are all in our demographic****
  • Interview out-liers
  • Practice “blind CV” selection

These are my views. The views of someone with privilege.  I’m sure they’re not all right.  I’m sure they’re not all applicable to everybody’s situation.  I’m aware that there’s a danger of my misappropriating a fight which is not mine, and of the dangers of intersectionality.

But if I can’t stand up from my position of privilege***** and say something, then who can?

*Or, let’s face it, society.

**I’m also married to a very strong proponent of equal rights and feminism.  It’s not so much that it rubbed off on me, but that I’m pretty sure she’d have little to do with me if I didn’t feel the same way.

***And I do mean “men” here, yes.

****My wife challenged me to put this in.  Because I don’t do it, and I should.

*****“People won’t listen to you or take you seriously unless you’re an old****** white man, and since I’m an old white man I’m going to use that to help the people who need it.” —Patrick Stewart, Actor

******Although I’m not old.*******

*******Whatever my daughters may say.

Changing the demographic in IT security: a radical proposal

If we rule out a change in age demographic, gender, race or ethnicity, what options do we have left?

This is a guest post by Sherlock.

We have known for a while now that we as an industry don’t have enough security specialists to manage the tide of malware and attacks that threaten to overwhelm not just the IT sector but also all those other areas where software and hardware security play a vital part in our way of life.  This is everything from the food supply chain to the exercise industry, from pharmaceuticals to wildlife management.  The security sphere is currently dominated by men – and the majority of them are white men.  There is a significant – and welcome – move towards encouraging women into STEM subjects, and improving the chances for those from other ethnic groups, but I believe that we need to go further: much, much further.

There is also an argument that the age demographic of workers is much too skewed towards the older range of the employment market, and there is clear evidence to show that humans’ mental acuity tends to decrease with age.  This, in a field where the ability to think quickly and react to threats is a key success metric.  The obvious place to start would be by recruiting a younger workforce, but this faces problems.  Labour laws in most countries restrict the age at which significant work can be done by children*, so one alternative is to take the next age demographic: millennials.  Here, however, we run into the ongoing debate about whether this group is lazy and entitled***.  If we rule out a change in age demographic, gender, race or ethnicity, what options do we have left?

It seems to me that the obvious solution is to re- or up-skill a part of the existing security workforce and bring them into the IT security market.  This group is intelligent*****, loyal******, fast-moving [I’m done with the asterisks – you get the picture], quick-thinking [see earlier parenthetical comment], and easily rewarded [this bit really is universally true].  In short, the canine workforce is currently under-represented except in the physical security space, but there seems to be excellent opportunity to up-skill a large part of this demographic and bring them into positions of responsibility within the IT security space.  So, next time you’re looking to recruit into a key IT security role, look no further than your faithful hound.  Who’s a good boy?  Who’s a good boy?  You‘re a good boy.

*this is a Good Thing[tm] – nobody**’s complaining about this

**apart from some annoying kids, and well, who cares?

***I could have spent more time researching this: am I being ignorant or apathetic?****

****I don’t know, and I don’t care.


******again, mostly