Cybersecurity is a rapidly growing field that specializes in securing and defending operating systems and servers, devices, networks, and data from malicious attacks. On a personal level, we know that our email can be hacked or our social media accounts can be compromised. On a corporate level, there has been an alarming number of data breaches in recent years. On a national scale, even our government and civic infrastructure are vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Perhaps the biggest threat to maintaining our way of life involves the need to secure our country’s citizens, online infrastructure that’s directly tied to physical infrastructure, pipelines, and more.
The way to accomplish securing the cyber world is through skilled workers. The problem, though, is that there are not enough skilled cybersecurity workers to do the work. And the gap that exists between the number of cybersecurity needs and the number of skilled professionals able to do the work is growing (not shrinking) as the growth in demand outpaces the growth in supply.
While there are many factors contributing to the cybersecurity gap and there is no single-faceted solution to closing that gap, one component of solving the problem is simply letting young people know that this is a field and perhaps encouraging them to explore it. There are some common stereotypes about people that work in cybersecurity (typically involving males sitting in dark rooms with hoodies on), so it may be easy for young people and parents alike to overlook this as a future career option. But how might young people know that they are gifted to succeed within the realm of cybersecurity? What are some things that parents can identify as natural abilities in their tweens and teens that may be a good fit for working in cyberspace? While not an exhaustive list, young people and parents may consider the following as they think about exploration in the cyber world and cybersecurity…
Strong Math Skills
There are a few obvious paths that young people often are encouraged to pursue if they like math or display strong math skills—careers like finance, accounting, statistician, and teacher to name a few. What is likely a less obvious career path for young people with mathematical minds is cybersecurity. Yet strong math skills can be parlayed into strong technical and cyber skills.
Curiosity for How Things Work
Most young people (and adults alike) don’t stop to think about how computers work or how the internet works. Technology and the cyber world are so integrated into our lives that we take their existence for granted, almost as if we consider it to be like magic. But some young people show an interest in digging deeper into how things work. They may like to build robots or wonder how computers work. They may have taken an introductory programming class and enjoyed it. If a child displays a curiosity for how things work and a willingness to dig a little deeper, it may be good for parents to pique that curiosity through encouraging them to further explore.
I recently spoke with a father whose son was suspended from school as a teenager for a cyber incident. While this particular event was not necessarily positive, the father recognized that his son had a gift. He became more involved with his son’s education and encouraged him to take more technical classes, and now his son is in a very successful career in cyber.
Cybersecurity is needed because of cyber adversaries—real people who are trying to do malicious things. Real people can make our computer crash, install malware (malicious software) on our computer and monitor our interactions, turn on our webcam, and more--all without us even knowing about it.
As parents, we don’t typically view conflict or opposition with our tweens and teens as a strength. Point, counter-point conversations between children and parents may not feel particularly valuable or meaningful in day-to-day interactions. But the ability to anticipate another’s words, actions, and motivations—when framed in the right context—can prove to a be powerful asset both personally and professionally.
One crucial component of cybersecurity work is called adversarial thinking. Adversarial thinking is basically a mindset in which one attempts to figure out what an opponent is thinking, why are they thinking it, and how to anticipate their future thoughts and actions. AT is not like studying the mathematical or technical side of cyber security, it’s more psychological. Adversarial thinking is used not only in cybersecurity but in strategy games like chess and the sports world (pre-empting player moves, countering opponent’s moves, etc.). Encouraging young people to develop a greater ability to think in this manner serves them well in many ways.
Though cybersecurity is not the optimal career fit for everyone and certainly requires highly technical skills and training, there are doubtless many young people that may have great success in it who have yet to consider it as a path for them. It is an area of great need and importance. As parents and young people are made aware of it and consider exploring what it looks like to specialize in it, and eventually perhaps join the global cybersecurity powers that be, our cyber world will become a safer place.