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How to become a cyber security specialist

Cybercrime is an increasing problem in our digitally connected world. It is predicted to cost the world $6 trillion in damages annually by 2021 and Symantec documents in its 2019 Internet Security Report that around 10,000 malicious mobile apps are blocked each day. Because of such high risks, the field of cyber security is expanding. It might surprise you to know that it doesn’t only require people with strong technological knowledge – transferable skills and knowledge in a range of disciplines is highly valued.

The field of security is constantly evolving and expanding to keep up with the ever-changing nature of cyber threats. While this might seem like a scary thought, it’s the reason the industry is so diverse – which Professor Min Livanidis, Industry Professor in Deakin’s School of Information Technology, says is one of the biggest benefits of the job.

Prof. Livanidis has a long list of experience in the field: from a Consultant in Cyber Security at PwC, to a Strategy Adviser at Defence Intelligence Security Group, to an Intelligence Analyst as Australian Signals Directorate, just to name a few. She knows first-hand what it takes to flourish in this field, and if you’re passionate about joining the ranks of professionals in this diverse and sophisticated industry, she offers her tips and insights here.

What are the most important skills held by cyber security professionals?

‘The common misconception is that cyber security is a field solely for deeply technical specialists. What I love about security is that it’s an incredibly diverse industry, and it’s constantly evolving. As an industry, we need everyone from network engineers, forensic specialists, policy and communications professionals – there’s a huge range of career options. AustCyber has information available on their website based on the NIST NICE framework, which does a great job of breaking down all the different roles. It’s a terrific resource for students trying to figure out what might interest them as a career pathway.

‘In terms of skills, while technical literacy and an ability to engage with technical concepts is crucial for everyone in the field, I’d say the most important attributes for professionals in cyber security are adaptability and having a continuous drive to learn, being highly inquisitive, having personal resilience, and demonstrating critical and creative thinking.’

What are a few pros and cons of working in cyber security?

‘One of the biggest benefits of the industry is its diversity. You could spend your whole career working in cyber security (or security more broadly) and get exposure to everything from architecture, engineering, privacy, incident response, policy, strategy, education – you name it, there’s probably a role for it. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I never would have expected the path my career’s taken or the subject matter I’d engage with on a daily basis.

‘Having said that, I think the broader understanding of cyber security probably doesn’t recognise how transferable skills built over a career in cyber can be – that can make it hard to transition to other professions if you want a different kind of career experience. But that seems to be constantly improving, particularly as cyber awareness generally increases.’

What are the study pathway options to become a professional in this field?

‘The most straightforward pathway is to do a degree in cyber security, which are now becoming commonplace across Australia. But I’d advise all students to do their research and get an understanding of the types of roles that interest them first, to make sure they’re choosing a degree that appeals to their interests. It might be that a degree in software engineering is really what excites a student, or a student might decide that they want to balance their learning with a double degree in cyber or information systems with law or criminology.

‘Or you could be like me and study international relations, and find your way to this industry happily but unintentionally; but even then, I’d say that international relations at its core is the study of security, and cyber issues now play a fundamental role in national security.

‘Security is also much broader than cyber, so I’d encourage students to explore all their options and choose the path that best suits them.’

'What I love about security is that it’s an incredibly diverse industry, and it’s constantly evolving.'

Professor Min Livanidis,
School of Information Technology, Deakin University

What are the best ways to start getting industry experience in security?

‘Take advantage of networking events, internships, vacation programs, student groups, competitions – you never know when the right opportunity will find you. Keep an open mind.

‘I know how stressful it can be for students trying to get their foot in the door (I graduated right when the global financial crisis hit, and it was a real struggle for a couple of years), but it really is important to be persistent, stay positive, and see all experience as valuable.

‘Just as an example, I worked in medical administration and as a medical records archivist for years as a student and while I looked for full-time work. I never would have guessed it at the time, but the skills I learned in those jobs – the attention to detail, the understanding of privacy and archiving regulations – all helped inform my later career.’

What are your tips for applying for jobs in this field?

‘Firstly, I just want to assure students that no one enjoys applying for jobs! Writing and designing CVs is hard, and I really only learned to do it well when I was working as a consultant.

‘Whenever friends ask me to review their CVs, the question I almost always ask is “what story are you trying to tell?” A CV is more than a list of things you’ve done – the real job of a CV is to make it easy for the recruiter to see that you’re a good candidate to interview, and they’ll typically make that judgement quickly.

‘So think about design, how you make important information relevant to the job you’re applying for stand out, and target the content to that role and organisation. This doesn’t mean you need to re-write the whole thing every time – keep multiple versions that you’ve tailored to certain “themes”, and adjust as appropriate. For undergraduates, it doesn’t need to be particularly long, either. Even with my years of experience and multiple roles, I don’t allow my CV to go over two or three pages.’

What other career options are worth considering if you’re interested in cyber security?

‘There’s so many options and crossovers between cyber security and other professions – it really depends on what interests the individual. Just within IT, there’s an enormous range of possibilities. More broadly areas like project management, risk management, compliance and audit, fraud and financial crime services, working in government or policing (the list goes on) are just some examples of alternative pathways.’

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Prof. Min Livanidis
Prof. Min Livanidis

Industry Professor, School of Information Technology, Deakin University

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