Filling the Cybersecurity Talent Pipeline

Kyle Wilhoit, Senior Manager, Threat Research Unit 42

Kyle

It’s been widely reported that there is a global cybersecurity workforce shortage. Those of us working in the industry are seeing the tremendous growth in the industry firsthand and seeking ways to add to our pool of available talent. One such idea, the Secure the Future Academic Competition, has proven useful in identifying qualified, early-in-career individuals who have what it takes to work in this booming industry. 

Developed in 2019, Secure the Future enables students who are currently enrolled in Palo Alto Networks’ cybersecurity curriculum at colleges and universities around the U.S. to participate in a four-phase competition to demonstrate their research, analytical, and presentation skills. Candidates select an industry sector and, over the course of four months, conduct in-depth research in order to identify potential security threats in their chosen industry and recommend an array of security solutions that leverage threat intelligence and a thorough understanding of business platforms. 

The competition requires exceptional skills in time management, research, organization, problem-solving, and presentation, as students must complete independent study while completing a series of assignments and preparing a video and slide deck presentation, all outside of their regular school work. And at the end, the top three competitors receive cash prizes as well as internships and/or full-time employment at Palo Alto Networks. 

At Palo Alto Networks’ Unit 42 and Threat Analysis Unit (TAU), we frequently seek interns for a few reasons. Interns often expose us to new concepts that are being taught at the university level that could enhance what we do. Most importantly, it provides us with a future job candidate who will have good foundational skills and may wish to join us full time when their formal university education ends. 

Early this year, as I was looking to hire a summer intern for the TAU, a member of our University Recruiting team reached out to let me know about a young man named JR who had recently taken one of the top three spots in the Secure the Future competition who seemed like a good candidate for the internship. He told me that JR stood out both from an interpersonal skill perspective as well as technical capabilities — he could bring a lot to the table in terms of different ways to think about and visualize data. The TAU requires a very diverse and unique skill set: a combination of technical know-how as it pertains to malware analysis and threat hunting, along with an understanding of the business rationale behind what we’re hunting for, as well as geopolitical sensitivities that may be occurring in specific regions around the globe.

We conducted several interviews with prospective interns, and we decided pretty quickly that JR had an ideal skill set as an early-in-career candidate that I knew we could benefit from. He accepted the summer internship, and during those three months, he demonstrated a lot of valuable assets. Interpersonal skills are really important for our work — we have to not only be able to understand and convey sensitive and highly technical information but then we have to be able to explain it in writing clearly and effectively. What struck me about JR was his ability to speak and write very well. Additionally, we have to think analytically, to have a strong ability to reason, and form conclusions based on data and evidence. 

A lot of the technical aspects of what we do can be taught, but those skills — interpersonal and analytical — in particular, need to be quite strong, and JR fits that mold really well. The Secure the Future competition, with its emphasis on research, analytical thinking, and clearly presenting information in a variety of mediums, only served to strengthen his abilities in those areas. It became a direct way for him to experience what’s involved in information security from a corporate perspective, and it placed him into our “hopper” of job candidates, which was beneficial for him and our team. In fact, he was such an asset as an intern that after the three months were over, we offered him a full-time position with the company.

For those who might be considering a career in cybersecurity, it’s clear that participating in the Secure the Future Academic Competition can provide you with an edge by honing crucial skills and introducing you to potential employers and experts in the field. For these reasons, it’s a worthwhile investment in your future.