Glass Seen As Half Full in Infosec Skills Search

DISA Holds its Own in Attracting Cybersecurity Pros
Glass Seen As Half Full in Infosec Skills Search

Myra Powell - as deputy for the Mission Assurance and Network Operations Program, Executive Office, Defense Information Security Agency - knows it's tough to compete with the higher paying private sector in attracting qualified IT security personnel to DISA. But when job prospects consider the entire package, the Defense agency holds its own.

"The mission is very exciting, the benefits are tremendous, the quality of work-life programs is wonderful," Powell said in an interview with "I really don't see (pay) as an issue based on the many benefits that DISA can offer to individuals compared with the private sector. I think we are very competitive, especially in today's environment."

In the interview with's Eric Chabrow, Powell discussed the

  • Skill sets DoD seeks in infosec professionals.
  • Competition among agencies and the private sector for a limited supply of cybersecurity experts.
  • Benefits of working as an IT security professional for DISA.

Powell was interviewed by Eric Chabrow, managing editor of

ERIC CHABROW: Before we get to the recruitment challenges the Defense Information Systems Agency and other agencies face, please tell us about the Mission Assurance and Network Operations Program and your role at DISA.

MYRA POWELL: Basically, at the Program Executive Office Mission Assurance and Network Operations, we have some core mission areas that we are responsible for and that includes program control and acquisition. We have network operations as a core area, computer network defense and infrastructure services, and other areas including identity management and lastly, computer network defense enclave security.

So the bottom line, what we want to do is make sure that we are supporting the agency and ultimately supporting the warfighter in having the ability to leverage the right information at the right time so that they can be successful in their mission.

CHABROW: What are the skill sets you seek in candidates for DISA's IT and IT security jobs?

POWELL: We look for individuals who have skill sets in being able to apply analytical processes to designing and implementing information systems. We also look at individuals who have worked in areas that help ensure confidentiality, integrity and availability of systems, and also with being able to design and document a development for testing and implementing of applications, systems and software. It is not just one area that we actually look at, it is the multiple areas of expertise and specialties that we try to focus on.

CHABROW: Is the pool of candidates available with those skills?

POWELL: We have been recruiting very heavily at career fairs, going out to industry trying to attract the brightest talent into our organization. I wouldn't say it is easy, but we have actually attracted some very bright and talented professionals to our organization. And not only do we go out to job fairs and other forums, we have expanded trying to grow our own through recruiting some of the bright college students through intern programs. There is also a student temporary employment program and student career experience programs, and in those particular programs what we do is attract students who are still in school and bring them on board now and ultimately hope that they will choose DISA as an ultimate career.

CHABROW: Are your competitors for qualified talent other government agencies or the private sector?

POWELL: There is a lot of competition for that type of talent in information security/cybersecurity today with us being very dependent on our communication and information systems. I see a lot of competition in private industry and in other government agencies as well.

CHABROW: What can DISA offer these candidates that other agencies or the private sector can't?

POWELL: There are a lot of benefits working here. Not only do we have a great mission, the other aspect is we try to have that continuous education. We try to ensure that individuals can get various certifications and working in an exciting Department of Defense organization where we are actually having an impact on being able to enable the warfighter with that information that they need to help protect our country. It is a great mission.

CHABROW: What kind of technical skills does DISA seek in recruits for cybersecurity positions?

POWELL: We look for individuals who have for example good engineering types of skills where they have a knowledge of information security solutions or some of the products. We look for individuals who have some knowledge in being able to protect information contained on the computer and knowledge on how to identify computer threats. Another area is just having some familiarization with security applications, and most importantly, having that desire to learn and work in an information assurance world.

CHABROW: What type of jobs do you offer college recruits versus those with more experience?

POWELL: College students have quite a bit of opportunities to come in and work as an information technology specialist in the information security arena, where they may even have an opportunity to have a specific project that they would be responsible for. There are a lot of different areas that the college student would be able to grow and take on more and more responsibilities as they become more knowledgeable as a member of the organizations. It is dependent on the individual, but there are many, many opportunities within our agency.

CHABROW: When you look at these college recruits are you looking for someone who has specific skills or are you looking for someone who has general IT and IT security smarts and that you would provide that specific training to later?

POWELL: In some cases that is the situation. Again, we would like for them to have some of that basic knowledge as far as information security, some of the products that they would obtain from some of their coursework in the college environment. I would like for the individuals to have some familiarization with the security applications, that would be important to at least have some skill sets in that area. They can't just come in with a blank slate; they have to have some course work and maybe working within the labs within the colleges and things of that nature where they would have basic understanding of information assurance and cybersecurity.

CHABROW: Are colleges producing enough students with those kinds of skills?

POWELL: I can't speak for all of the colleges but I would have to say based on some of the career fairs that we have had recently and looking at the applicants, there have been some good candidates that we have been able to recruit and bring onboard. We have been very successful with getting the right skill sets from what the colleges are producing.

Most recently ,there was a job fair/college fair in Maryland and we had quite a few students who came in and I was quite impressed with their resumes and they were very anxious to come and work and talk with us about opportunities. I would say from what I see and based on some of the career job fairs that I have seen that there is a lot of talent and we have been able to attract enough talent within our organization thus far.

CHABROW: Are you having any problems finding specific people with specific skills?

POWELL: From the college level, I would say it is not as bad. Some of the more seasoned professionals, there is more competition.

CHABROW: What are some of the cybersecurity skill sets DISA can use?

POWELL: Some of the skill sets that we would be interested in are computer network background, computer network defense types of background, program management experience, network operations experience. I would even say identity management is another area that we could use some experienced individuals. We have many today but we could use more.

CHABROW: It is a growth area I gather?

POWELL: It is a growth area.

CHABROW: Anything else you would like to add?

POWELL: Within the Defense Information Systems Agency, there are many benefits for coming here to work. I mean the mission is very exciting, the benefits are tremendous, the quality of work-life programs is wonderful, trying to find quality people, the right fit to come into organization is what we are going forward wholeheartedly with trying to recruit.

CHABROW: How does the pay compare with what the private sector would offer?

POWELL: I would say it is comparable and it depends on your level of experience. I really don't see that as an issue based on the many benefits that DISA can offer to individuals compared with the private sector. I think we are very competitive, especially in today's environment.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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