Friday, October 30, 2009

Future Proofing an Information Security Job

One of the more interesting information security job questions that I've seen recently is "How do you future proof a security job?".

That's an interesting question - security, like much of IT has changed significantly over the past few years, and the skillsets required have changed or matured. A decade ago, there were far fewer dedicated information security positions, web security was just starting to become a visible issue, and intrusion detection was in its infancy. We've come from a world where local networks mean that copied floppies and boot sector viruses were our main threat to a world where even our phones are possible threat vectors.

How then, can an information technology security professional stay relevant?

If you want to remain a technologist, rather than enter management, there are two popular paths: specialize or become a generalist.

If you choose to specialize, your route will take you down the path of becoming ever more highly trained in one discipline, or possibly a few closely related areas. Penetration testers may become more skilled programmers, and could delve deeply into web technologies, or system kernel exploits. Network security experts might become a CCIE, or tackle high end certifications from specific vendors.

The problem is that when that technology dies, you may have to re-train. That's nothing new in the world of information technology. Banyan Vines and Netware administrators have moved on to handle Active Directory and experts in Token Ring have trained to deal with gigabit switched ethernet and Internet protocols. What it does mean is that you have to keep an eye open to avoid being outdated with the technologies that you are expert in. Specialization is a great way to get a job - if that job is in demand, and the supply is small. Cobol programmers knew this in 1999 - but that was a relatively rare opportunity for a dying technology to make a brief comeback.

The other route, of course, is that of the generalist. This tends to put you into a role that glues together security with other IT areas, and can be quite rewarding - but you may find that you're unable to operate at the same depth that your specialized peers can attain. Generalists may have a harder time justifying specialized training, and will not necessarily find that their resumes qualify them directly for the highly specialized jobs that require a single scarce skill.

Which route should a security analyst take? That's a tough call. At the end of the day, your work environment and your own preferences will likely shape your futureproofing efforts. In either case, technology will change, new threats will appear, and the job will continue to provide the challenges that we all face.

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