For an infosecurity career, get the technical basics first

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A reader recently asked me a thought-compelling question. He wrote, “I took up the Cisco Academy, thinking this will give me a strong foundation of networks and some security. Is this a good move in order to get to were I want to go?”

My reader’s question made me think of my own career and how I got into information security, years before security was cool or even recognized as a discipline at all. I’ll take the rest of the space in this month’s column to discuss this.

Learn technology, then security
The more training you can put on your resume, the more marketable you will become. Cisco Systems Inc.’s certification program supports this assertion. Only the upper crust of the world’s network engineers is skilled enough to pass Cisco’s highest certifications. And so it should be. But this isn’t my main point.

To truly understand security at the technology level, you must first gain expertise with the underlying technology.

In order to thoroughly understand the security issues of networks, you must first thoroughly understand how networks — and attached devices — work. For instance, how is someone lacking any working knowledge of TCP/IP supposed to understand a syn flood or smurf attack?

Let me also illustrate this with an analogy. Years ago, I was in the banking industry and received training on the makeup of U.S. paper currency — how it is made and composed. How is this supposed to help bank tellers discern genuine currency from a counterfeit? If a teller is deeply familiar with genuine currency, when he receives a counterfeit bill, that teller will look at it and think, “Something’s not right here.”

And so it is with security in the technology world. Without a deep understanding of the inner workings of networks, operating systems, databases, applications or whatever technology floats your boat, you can’t become a security expert in any of those fields.

Security experts are teachers

Back to my reader’s question about wanting to become a security expert in networks. I reassert that he, like others, must first become a network expert before he can become a network security expert. How else will he be able to understand — at the lowest levels of greatest detail — the real issues and what (if anything) can be done? How else can he truly understand a new threat and its consequences for his networks? How can he explain these concepts to other network experts with any degree of credibility?

This touches another point: credibility. Good security experts are still relatively rare. In my opinion, a good security expert is one who can explain — and even debate — a security issue with a fellow technologist. Only an expert can spar with, not to mention persuade, another expert. A good network engineer probably won’t be persuaded to embrace a concept if the person on the other side of the conversation doesn’t understand the craft. Would you, a technologist, put much credence in arguments made by a so-called security expert who is the jack of all trades and the master of none, even if he had letters such as “CISSP” behind his name? I didn’t think so.

Let me end with another example. In the field of medicine, there are experts such as virologists who have the deepest understanding of biological viruses and how they work. If a virologist is to reasonably discuss or debate any issue with any other medical specialist — or even a generalist for that matter — the virologist had better have baseline expertise and knowledge on par with the other specialists. Otherwise, his arguments will be passed off as heresy.

Here is the message to all aspiring security experts out there: You must first master the craft in the area that inspires you, whether that’s networks, operating systems, databases, languages, whatever. Do your apprenticeship, get to journeyman level, and be excellent. This may take a few years. Along the way, read the security books, grasp the concepts. But there are no shortcuts if you want the credibility that is so necessary to make a positive difference in this world.

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