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9/7/2016
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Jung Lee
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Defining The Common Core Of Cybersecurity: Certifications + Practical Experience

Security certifications are necessary credentials, but alone won't solve the industry's critical talent gap.

There’s an adage in the legal community that passing the bar exam does not make you a good lawyer. But does obtaining a certification make you a good cybersecurity professional? The answer, similarly, is no. But it’s a step in the right direction.

Given the rapidly increasing cybersecurity threats facing businesses today, the need for more qualified cybersecurity professionals has never been more urgent. Recent estimates from Cisco peg the current shortfall of cybersecurity professionals at one million, and Symantec estimates that number will rise to 1.5 million by 2019. And yet, despite the rapid growth of the field over the last 10 years, cybersecurity is still very much a wild west when it comes to talent.

One of the major hurdles that the industry hasn’t quite overcome is how to define the cybersecurity field as a profession. Compared with more established fields like medicine and law, cybersecurity lacks the common core of defined knowledge and hands-on training at the level which can be typically seen in medical, legal, or other licensing-driven professions. Until a certification or credential exists that acts as a de facto license demonstrating this core knowledge, we must continue to establish career paths that can be evaluated by the stakeholders in the industry and we must apply the same rigor in defining the cybersecurity common core, as well as the specialties beyond the core.

Critics of certifications point to the lack of hands-on skills and the fact that to be effective, a credential must mean something. Efforts such as the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) initiative from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have made some headway in bringing leadership and vision to help define the cybersecurity field and increase the number of skilled cybersecurity professionals, but there is still work to be done as the profession matures. In the meantime, current cybersecurity certifications help provide guiding milestones. So while cybersecurity might currently lack a true career path or licensure component in today’s environment, certifications provide a way to objectively measure a candidate’s knowledge and skills and ensure that he or she can meet the demands of the job. It also shows that the person is committed to learning further about cybersecurity.

Much like the bar in the legal profession, cybersecurity certifications are necessary, but not sufficient. Evaluations of prospective cybersecurity professionals should include a true capability review that goes beyond passing a certification, and includes additional measurements for assessment like interviews, in house testing, and other training transcripts. As in other professions, hands-on experience and continuing education are paramount in the cybersecurity field.

Given the complexity, quantity, and evolution of cyber threats, vigilance with regard to continued training couldn’t be more critical to a well-rounded cyber professional. The industry should recognize these upcoming labor shortfalls and work together to rationalize the paths and training for the newly certified professionals that our industry so desperately needs.

For example, a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification, issued by (ISC)², has long been considered a gold standard certification within the cybersecurity industry. The CISSP certification requires five years’ experience, in addition to passing the exam. While CISSP hopefuls without five years of experience may choose to take the exam and receive an Associate designation, ultimately the hands-on experience is required. However, the CISSP – or any certification for that matter – needs to be something that tests fundamental skills and truly means something to employers who need professionals who can really get things done.

Beyond the CISSP, there’s a patchwork of other certifications like the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) or the Network+ and Security+ certifications from CompTIA. All of these certifications provide some of the fundamentals, but are still largely a patchwork rather than a comprehensive baseline to work from.

The most in-demand cybersecurity positions today require highly-skilled individuals. Whether you enter the cybersecurity field straight from school, as an ethical hacker, or an IT professional, it’s the combination of certification and practical experience that allows you to demonstrate your cybersecurity expertise and establish confidence among employers and potential employers that you’re up to the task of protecting their most critical business assets.

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Jung Lee leads test preparation products at CyberVista, a cybersecurity and workforce development company. Previously, Jung was in product development and management for a number of Kaplan Test Prep's graduate-level courses, including GRE, MCAT, DAT, and others. He started ... View Full Bio
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