With over half of the world now connected to the internet in some way, cybercriminals must be rubbing their hands with glee as their list of potential targets grows by the hour. It’s no surprise then that industry experts predict that between 2017 and 2021 spending on cybersecurity services will exceed $1 trillion as companies struggle to stay one step ahead of hackers.
The problem is that every new technology brings with it new vulnerabilities and, inevitably, a new wave of cybercriminals prepared to exploit them. It's the role of cybersecurity specialists to stop cyberattacks from causing irreparable damage to a company or even better, find vulnerabilities before the hackers do.
But what does it take to join this growing army of security experts? And more importantly, how do you stand out from the crowd and build a successful career in an already saturated market?
Ability and desire to learn continuously
Cybercrime is constantly evolving. Criminals are forever developing new ways to attack user accounts and disable networks, so cybersecurity specialists must stay up to date with any new information on when, how, and why these attacks are taking place.
Of course, before embarking on a career as a cybersecurity professional you’ll need to ensure your knowledge is as current as it can be. There are lots of cybersecurity courses available that will provide you with the fundamentals required to get started.
You will need a vast repository of technical knowledge to understand the existing threat landscape, but you must also be prepared to continue learning throughout your career.
When a new device hits the market, research it. If a new article proposes an emerging attack methodology, read it. There's no substitute for knowledge, especially in a crisis, and in the event of a cyberattack you need to be an expert.
A creative and curious mind
Curiosity is an essential trait for a cybersecurity professional. In many ways, your job is that of an online detective tasked with following any clues that lead to a potential entry point for hackers or to the vulnerability enabling an attack in progress.
As well as being a committed learner, if you want to match the pace of the criminals determined to outsmart you, you’ll need to be curious too. You can't rely solely on others to provide you with the information you need to be successful. You have to actively seek it.
One of the key weapons in a cybersecurity professional’s arsenal is the penetration test. Using this methodology, you can delve deep into the inner working of a client’s network and seek out vulnerabilities before they are exploited. To undertake a penetration test with the surgical precision required, a curious mind is a must.
Another important trait that goes hand in hand with curiosity is creativity. Hackers are constantly revising the way they operate, and to catch them out you need to think outside the box and adapt to this evolving landscape. Instead of following the rule book, in many instances, you’ll be required to write it.
In essence, you’ll have to think like your adversary to beat them. That’s why cybersecurity professionals are also called ethical hackers.
A willingness to collaborate
Even as a freelance cybersecurity specialist, you’ll probably find yourself working alongside other members of a security team. Protecting a company’s network is by no means a one-person job, and you’ll need to be flexible and willing to collaborate.
A cybersecurity department is made up of professionals with specialisms in different areas. For example, a security team might be headed up by a chief information security officer (CISO), but below this position are many others, including security analysts, penetration testers, incident responders, security architects, security auditors, and more.
The general traits of a cybersecurity professional are the same, but as with any profession, you'll quickly find your niche.
The bottom line is, the fight against cybercrime is multifaceted and requires a wide range of talented people with acutely honed skills to work collaboratively.
Acceptance of anti-social hours
Don’t expect regular nine-to-five working hours as a cybersecurity specialist. Attacks can happen at any time of day or night, and criminals always hope to catch the people defending the information they want off guard.
Still, one of the major draws for many cybersecurity specialists is the ability to work remotely. Cybersecurity is the ideal industry for remote workers as it's usually possible to access a company's network without having to visit the office in person. Thus, many cybersecurity companies can hire the best talent regardless of physical location.
But with this flexibility comes a commitment to being on-call more often than you would be in other IT-focused professions.
A freelance cybersecurity expert could have clients across the globe and, as previously mentioned, there’s no telling when a business could become the target of a cyberattack.
The same is also true for in-house security teams who are required to respond to a serious breach regardless of when it happens.
Always analytical and alert
The ability to analyze data in great detail without bypassing any significant information is probably the most important trait a cybersecurity professional can have.
In the majority of cases, cybercriminals succeed because somebody else isn’t being appropriately fastidious in their approach to security. This situation could manifest in numerous ways.
For example, an employee could jeopardize the security of a network by using login details involved in a previous data breach or fall victim to a phishing scam by opening a suspicious email.
A developer could inadvertently allow a vulnerable piece of code to go unnoticed, enabling hackers to carry out a zero-day attack. In a hack like this, criminals exploit the fact that the security vulnerability is unknown and an instant fix isn’t available, giving them more time to inflict damage.
Even CEOs can make mistakes. A password stored unsafely could give a malicious hacker access to a company’s most sensitive data.
As a cybersecurity professional, you are responsible for countering these risks. You need to be meticulous, analytical, and alert. Your attention to detail must surpass that of both your adversaries and the people you work for.
To conclude, in order to succeed as a cybersecurity specialist, you’ll need to hone all of the skills we’ve discussed. Employers and clients seek out well-rounded experts that can adapt to the unpredictable nature of this threat landscape and in the event of an emergency, there won’t be a moment to lose.
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Kieron is a freelance science and technology journalist with more than a decade of experience writing for magazines in print and online. Today, his focus is on cybersecurity, blockchain, and emerging tech.