Jumoke Dada

Project Manager, Making Space Initiative

R Street Institute

Recruit More Black Players for the Cyber Field

Early last month, Super Bowl LVII took place and, for the first time, two teams with Black quarterbacks faced off. Remarkably, it wasn’t that long ago that Black players were not allowed to play organized sports. But once the doors opened, Black players competed and excelled.

While the world of cybersecurity is vastly different from the sports world, promoting the same kind of diversity in cyber will lead to more talent—which, incidentally, is desperately needed. But some Black people who already work in cyber or who want to pivot into cybersecurity may need some inspiration to keep going or some help figuring out their career transition. With this in mind, it’s worth highlighting the accomplishments of past leaders in order to help inspire and prepare the next generation.

The History of Blacks in Technology and Cybersecurity

Most professions have pioneers—those who are the first to do something or to break down a barrier. Steve Jobs, Ursula Burns, Bill Gates and Grace Hopper come to mind. But who comes to mind when you think about Black experts in technology or cybersecurity? A LinkedIn article about African Americans in cryptology highlighted the lack of Black representation in cybersecurity, noting that it’s important to identify and acknowledge pioneers and their contributions.

Here are a few Black pioneers in cybersecurity:

  • Herman Phynes

Early in his career, Phynes was a clerk for the Internal Revenue Service. He later went on to work at the Signal Security Agency in a unit that exploited commercial coded messages. Before retirement, he became the National Security Agency’s (NSA) first Black office chief in the Operations Directorate.

  • Lillie Berrie

According to Indiana University’s Center of Excellence for Women in Technology, Berrie was the first African American woman to teach Signal Analysis through her work in cryptography. She worked for the NSA.

  • Mark Dean, PhD

Dean was part of the team that invented the IBM PC. Additionally, he led the team that developed the first Gigahertz microprocessor, which plays a foundational role in cybersecurity algorithms today. Some of his professional recognitions include receiving the National Institute of Science Outstanding Scientist Award; being a member of the National Academy of Engineering; winning Black Engineer of the Year; receiving the University of Tennessee COE Dougherty Award; being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and more.

  • Minnie McNeal Kenny

Kenny was a linguist and worked at the Army Security Agency (ASA). She worked as the Deputy Chief in the Office of Techniques and Standards and later represented the Department of Defense on a congressional task force for minorities in technology. Additionally, she received the Intelligence Community’s Distinguished Service Award from the Director of Central Intelligence.

These individuals broke barriers in their fields of expertise and showed other Black cybersecurity experts what is possible when resilience, education and opportunity meet.

Current State of Affairs

Despite layoffs and concerns about a recession, there are currently 700,000 open roles in cybersecurity. However, there is still a gap in hiring diverse candidates as the cybersecurity workforce continues to be mostly homogenous. According to a report from Aspen Digital Tech Policy, Black professionals make up only 9 percent of the cyber workforce. Other surveys of the cybersecurity workforce show similar bleak demographics: according to a 2018 ISC2 Global Information Security Workforce Study, minorities account for less than 26 percent the cybersecurity workforce. Clearly, there is much more work to be done to increase diversity in cyber.

Why We Need More Diverse Talent

A homogeneous workforce increases the likelihood of blind spots and therefore limits our ability to detect and stop cyberattacks. On the flip side, trained professionals with diverse backgrounds and experiences can help fortify the nation’s defenses against a variety of attacks.

We can look to a number of other industries to see how the inclusion of Black people sparked innovation and created positive changes. Some examples include the music, food and medical industries. In many cases, individuals were able to draw from their unique backgrounds to create solutions for problems, discover new approaches to tasks, or find ways to enhance something that already existed. The same thing can happen in the field of cybersecurity. Whether a situation arises that calls for a need for a penetration tester, a solutions architect, a hacker, or an analyst, an organization that has less monolithic talent will have the ability to apply different approaches to solve problems.

Additionally, diversity of talent can protect an organization from groupthink, burnout, lack of innovation and low morale. It also encourages dialogue and out-of-the-box thinking necessary to anticipate and proactively fend against adversarial attacks. For these reasons, filling the workforce gap with diverse talent remains one of the most—if not the most—significant challenges in cybersecurity.

How to Attract Diverse Talent

In order to attract a more diverse workforce, companies should apply the following tactics to reach their goals: find, train and hire.

If a long-term goal is to build an all-star cyber team, then an organization can begin by identifying and training future talent while they are young. Companies can partner with organizations like Black Girls Code, Coded by Kids or INTech Foundation which actively works with kids interested in technology. At the college level, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Morgan State University or Spelman College have programs for students interested in STEM fields. Companies can also partner with organizations like the National Cyber Alliance to host events or provide mentorship. To find individuals who are actively learning about cyber-related technologies, frameworks, processes, etc., one approach could be to seek to partner with reputable bootcamps or educational platforms.

It’s wise to look for organizations that promote to your target audience. Communities and platforms like Blacks in Technology, Black Tech Pipeline, Diversify Tech and People of Color in Tech are just a few. Also, it is helpful to pay attention to fields where workers are experiencing burnout and looking for career changes; nurses and retired police officers are just two examples. All in all, if you want to identify, develop and hire more Black people, it will take exposure and intentional action.

Our nation needs diversity of thought in order to fortify its defenses; pursuing black talent in cybersecurity is one way to confront this challenge. With over 700,000 job openings, now is the time to be strategic and creative in the ways we attract more individuals to the field. Our secure cyber future depends on a diverse, talented and creative workforce.

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