What’s Under the Hoodie?
Expert urges students to consider cyber careers, dispels stereotypes
All her work was gone.
Valecia Maclin had just spent 14 hours in a Duke University computer lab, working on a model for her mechanical engineering class. And then it disappeared – the model, the files, the data, everything. She popped the floppy disk in and out – this was back in the early '90s – but it didn't work.
“My data wasn't coming back,” Maclin said. “I was devastated.”
And that's how Maclin got into cybersecurity. It was too late to switch majors, so she did an independent study in computer science, where she learned about programming and hardware.
“I needed to find out what went wrong and make sure it never happened again,” Maclin said.
Today, Maclin is director of cybersecurity programs at Raytheon’s Intelligence, Information and Services business. Her story shows how many paths there are into the information-security field – an area that critically needs new talent as the Internet expands to all manner of devices, appliances and aspects of everyday life. Growing that talent is among the goals of the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, which is sponsored by Raytheon and takes place this week in San Antonio, Texas.
“I only lost a homework assignment 25 years ago, but, today, when data is lost – with the interconnectivity of our lives – the stakes are much higher and it has a much more significant impact on our way of life,” Maclin said. “We need tools and resources to get ahead of the threat, but we need to recognize the human element. Humans are the ones interacting with the technology, and talent is where we need to put our emphasis. Cyber competitions, like NCCDC, help develop that talent pool.”
The world will need more than a million cybersecurity professionals by the year 2020, according to a 2015 report by the IT and networking firm Cisco. A separate report from the IT security nonprofit (ISC)2 says it has certified only about 75,000 people in the United States as information systems security professionals.
“That’s our reality…we won’t be able to out-hire the threat,” Maclin said. “Unfortunately, many kids don’t even know what a cybersecurity professional does.”
Maclin cited an October 2016 survey by the National Cyber Security Alliance and Raytheon that polled 3,800 young adults, age 18-26, in the U.S., Europe, Middle East and Asia-Pacific and found only 37 percent had considered careers in cyber. About 50 percent said they got their career advice from their parents; only about a third of parents mentioned careers in a computer-related field; and only about a quarter had ever met a cybersecurity professional.
Instead, Maclin said, their image of the cybersecurity crowd comes from TV shows and movies.
“That image is of a goth-looking young man in a dark room who is isolated, wearing a hoodie, sipping on an energy drink and eating corn chips,” she said.
That might make for fine drama, Maclin said, but she'd like parents and teachers to change perceptions of what cybersecurity professionals look like.
“They look like you and me,” she said. “They aren't introverts, well some might be, and they don't all hate their parents. They hike, bike and have a wide range of interests.”
A diverse pool of talent is the best defense against a diverse threat, Maclin said. And the industry has some catching up to do. Women make up only 11 percent of the cyber workforce, (ISC)2 reports. Most of the young women surveyed in the Raytheon research said they thought they lacked the skills to pursue cybersecurity careers, Maclin said.
“But these same girls told us they liked jobs that require problem solving, teamwork, creativity and were people-oriented and solutions-driven plus provided a good salary,” Maclin said. “That screams cyber.”
Hiring is one of Maclin's biggest challenges. Private companies, universities and government agencies are all competing for the same group of candidates. That means those entering the workforce earn high starting salaries and have many opportunities for growth.
Maclin said cyber competitions, like the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, help college grads hit the ground running.
“The talent present at NCCDC and the capabilities that these young people already have is amazing. We want to make offers to these students before they even leave the competition floor,” she said. “They’re just not technically skilled, but they communicate and collaborate, leveraging each other’s strengths. They’re all skills that we want and use every day.”
And very few look like the central-casting Hollywood hackers you see on TV, she said.
“Personally, I'd rather wear a dress than a hoodie, and prefer a fruit cup over corn chips,” Maclin said. “But I'd take peanut M&Ms if I could get them.”