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How To Hire The Right IT Security Pro

Want to hire the best security team for your company? Understand your security needs, focus on specific skills (including people skills), and don’t worry too much about certifications, advises security expert Michael Davis.

Recent reports show that demand for security staff is rising faster than the available supply of workers. At the same time, the No. 1 hiring priority for U.S. companies is beefing up the ranks of competent security staffers, according to a recent InformationWeek staffing survey.

Twenty-four percent of companies polled said they plan to increase the number of security staff positions during 2013, the report found.

But it won't be easy. 39% told InformationWeek that people with the right skillsets were difficult to find.

There are ways for hiring managers overcome a skewed demand/supply curve. The first thing to do is reconsider your requirements without lowering your standards, according to Michael A. Davis, CEO of security consulting firm Savid Technologies, who wrote the InformationWeek security hiring report.

"Most security teams fail for one of two reasons," he wrote. "A lack of proper funding and bad hires. Funding is becoming less of a concern...but making the right hire is always a concern."

The most important things are for your company to understand its specific security needs, and make sure the hiring budget matches the actual requirements, Davis wrote. Security plans often founder because a company hires only one security professional when three are required, or a company assumes that a person who only spends part of her time on security is just as effective as a full-time, dedicated hire.

Companies may also overlook qualified candidates because they think they need a "security ninja;" that is, someone who is expert in white-hat hacking, IT architecture, network engineering, policy administration, social engineering, training and every other potentially relevant skill.

Even companies desperate to overcome a serious shortage of infosec skills don't necessarily need to hire a person with mythic skills. "Usually when a company thinks it needs a ninja, we find it really just needs a plan and someone to execute it," Davis wrote.

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The first step, then is to identify the specific projects, tasks and roles a new security hire would fill during the first six to 12 months. "Specific," by the way, means something like "analyze and bring up to spec all firewall rules and anti-virus systems," not "stop all the hackers."

In addition to expertise, some organizations may require a security professional with softer qualifications, such as good people skills that will allow him or her to balance security demands with the productivity needs of business units.

Security pros with experience as a security evangelist should be able to act as a go-between and translator for IT and business units, making clear to business-unit managers and executives the importance of security and what that means to both their budgets and business procedures.

Finders, Keepers

It's one thing to want to fill a security position, but another thing to find someone to do it. Of the companies surveyed by InformationWeek, 21% said they prefer to retrain existing staff to fill new security roles. Only 16% said new skills would come exclusively from new hires or contractors. The other 63% planned to mix and match retraining, contracting and new hires in various combinations.

For new hires, the job description should be as detailed as the resumes you hope to review. Listing "Windows 2008 experience" as a requirement is not the same as "analysis of Windows 2008 event logs to determine if a login event was legitimate or not," Davis wrote.

Testing candidates in an interview is a fine technique, but whiteboarding a situation your company actually faces will also show more accurately how a candidate would approach the problem than inventing a theoretical problem, Davis wrote.

It's reasonable that companies would want to hire qualified candidates, including those with industry certifications. According to a report from Burning Glass, a developer of job-search and resume-parsing software, the number of job ads requiring security candidates hold a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certificate is 52% higher now than in 2011.

However, while potential employers may regard a security certification as a validation of a candidate's ability, organizations may not want to put too much stock into it. "We look at most security certifications as worthless," Davis wrote.

The problem with certifications is that they help recruiters identify candidates, but don't identify for hiring managers whether a candidate has a passion for security, or analytic problem-solving skills. Hiring managers have to go further to establish a candidate's bona fides, Davis maintained.

Davis' final hiring tip is to establish specific criteria and a consistent evaluation process before interviewing candidates. If more than one hiring manager interviews a candidate, it's more useful to have metrics against which to compare their impressions rather than the just gut feeling of each interviewer.

Hiring the right person takes time, but Davis says the time invested is worth it. If an organization cuts corners in the hiring process, it raises the odds that it will have to go through the whole rigamarole again in six months when a new hire isn't up to the job, or a good hire goes looking for another job with managers who might understand and appreciate their genuine skills. Kevin Fogarty is a freelance writer covering networking, security, virtualization, cloud computing, big data and IT innovation. His byline has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CNN.com, CIO, Computerworld, Network World and other leading IT publications. View Full Bio

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