Turning military veterans into cybersecurity experts

In this Help Net Security interview, James Murphy, the Director of the TechVets Programme at the Forces Employment Charity and member of Fortinet’s Veterans Program Advisory Council, discusses the challenges that military veterans face when transitioning from military to civilian life. One significant hurdle is the difficulty they often encounter in articulating their skills in a business-oriented language.

To overcome these challenges, veterans should have a clear plan, network effectively, choose a specific career path, seek guidance from the veteran community, and engage with prospective employers. With the right preparation and resources, veterans can leverage their unique skills and experiences to excel in cybersecurity.

military veterans cybersecurity

What key factors make cybersecurity a good transition for military personnel?

First and foremost, those who have served in the military are hardwired with an ingrained sense of security, and, therefore an ability to understand threats to our systems. The sheer volume of learning one goes through when joining the military includes technical equipment such as communications and weapon systems. This, coupled with the regularity in which they move from one role to the next, results in them consistently learning new processes, capabilities, and more throughout their career in the forces. As a direct result, we have noticed that those from military backgrounds tend to learn technical skills quicker than their non-military peers.

According to Mckinsey & Company, there are numerous skills that will be critical in the workforce of the future – particularly those associated with cognitive, interpersonal, and self-leadership. We often find that many businesses are in high demand of cybersecurity skills, but additionally lack the soft skills that many from a military background can offer. The Ministry of Defence is very good at developing the soft skills of those in service. This includes building strong relationships, teamwork and team development, adapting to change and uncertainty, accountability, logical reason, problem solving, and asking the right questions.

We are regularly informed by companies employing TechVets members, that the soft skills are incredible, and we have seen a pattern of companies coming back again and again once they have employed someone from a military background and they have expreienced the value they can bring to their business.

For the ex-Forces individuals, cybersecurity offers a wide range of career paths, offering military service leavers a diverse range of careers for them to move into. The idea that they are replacing their role defending the UKs frontline and national security with that of the cyber frontline, also ensures they can take on careers that offer significant impact and importance – both operational and strategic.

Are there specific areas within cybersecurity where you believe veterans excel due to their military background?

Cyber threat intelligence (CTI) is a specialism within cybersecurity that has been built upon traditional military intelligence processes and theories and because of this, any who have served in a traditional intelligence role in the military will have a solid coverage of some of the hard skills needed for these roles. With support upskilling, they build their knowledge of IT networks and some CTI tooling and platforms, so this career path can be very accessible.

Information security management careers also require people to know how to manage and lead, which is to manage people more often than tech. While a grounding in the technical aspects of cybersecurity is very important, ex-Forces commonly possess management and leadership skills and experience, often developed over years during their military careers, which is evidently useful the moment they step into a cyber team. To enhance this further, most have worked with sensitive data, stored and processed on sensitive systems, shaping or at least adhering to policy, and sometimes even managing large IT accounts.

This, in concert with a focus on risk which is integral to a career in the military, also means that so many are great candidates for roles in cyber risk and / or assurance.

How can companies better position themselves to recruit from the veteran space and leverage the diversity it brings?

The challenge for many companies is either that they do not understand the value that the Forces community adds to their teams and business, or that they have unyielding recruitment policies that are built on archaic practices chasing unicorns!

However, it is far less often that we come across a company that has zero experience of working with ex-military. There has also been a marked difference in the number of companies that are actively seeking ex-military talent – often with specific employment programmes in place that run parallel to graduate schemes, returners to work initiatives and other similar programmes.

Those that have been successful have implemented a more suitable recruitment process which more readily supports those from a Forces background. As so many do not truly know what role that are most suitable for, allowing a military service leaver to be able to have a chat with the talent acquisition team before their CV is rejected will afford them the opportunity to explain what they do. This often helps the recruitment team to learn more about their valuable skills and should they not be suitable for the role they are applying for, direct them to other parts of the business where they would be a perfect fit.

How does the “band of brothers” mentality from the military translate into teamwork in cybersecurity?

I witnessed first-hand, the difference in culture between a military and non-military team. In the military you are taught to look out for the people around you – to support them where they are struggling, and to help them deliver as a team.

One saying I remember is, “you are only as strong as the weakest member”. This is not about calling people weak, but in practice is about emphasising the multi-skilled make up of a team and how different skills compliment others – ie if someone is great at ironing their kit, and another is brilliant at polishing boots, then from day one as new recruits you are encouraged to help eachother develop.

When you use your strength to help someone else in your team develop, it raises the capability and delivery of the entire team.

When you put that in context within a business, you tend to find the ex-military person always first to volunteer to take the burden off others. They will be accountable so as not to throw others under the bus for work they are responsible for. They will not think twice about staying late to finish priority work or to give a team member their time to help them.

As managers and leaders, they will use a Servant Leadership style taught to them during their military careers. This is all about putting the needs of their team and organisation first.

In our own TechVets online community, we have literally hundreds of veterans in cyber careers who are on our Discord server everyday simply to help others on their journey into cyber… purely to give back.

Can you share any challenges veterans might face while transitioning and how they can overcome them, given their training?

There are numerous challenges for those leaving the military, the significance and even severity of these challenges will be relative to the time served and the role(s) the individual took on during their military career. The common challenges are:

Veterans have valuable transferable skills which are too often discovered late in civilian life, to the detriment of the veterans themselves, their families, businesses and the UK economy. After years of service, those leaving the military struggle to articulate their skills and experience attained through service, with roles, capabilities, organisations, and technologies spoken of in a language that does not align with modern business.

There is additional pressure when resigning from the military too, where an individual hands in their resignation before serving a year’s notice period – a timeline not commensurate with hirers timelines, resulting in heightened anxiety, stress, and uncertainty with a fear of being unemployed if they are not able to secure a job before they leave.

A final issue impacting service leavers is that they have not been exposed to the incredible range of different roles across all industries, especially with little to no standardisation on careers outside the military. Thus, a service leaver is more likely to follow those who have left before, into more traditional employment paths, where they often end up taking a lower risk pathway into underemployment.

TechVets’ four co-founders came together with substantial experience in the tech sector as well as first-hand experience of military service. They each recognised that the main industries and trades attracting veterans were to be significantly affected by automation and robotics over the coming years, while there were huge and growing employment opportunities for veterans within IT – particularly within cybersecurity. It was time to bridge the gap between underemployed veterans and the tech industry.

For veterans considering a transition into cybersecurity, what advice would you give them to prepare and position themselves best?

There are some very simple recommendations:

1. Have a plan. This helps you structure your approach and achieve more as well as being a more efficient way of starting your careers change.

2. Network properly. Many see networking as finding a job; however, it is far more than that. If you network properly, it will allow you to gain all the information about what you want to do when you leave the military, what industry you want to work in (as cyber is across all industries), what type and size company do you wish to be part of.

3. Choose a career path and then plan your training and upskilling accordingly. This way the training plan will be focused and will help you to build stronger skills relevant to the role rather than a far too broad of a skill set that is very shallow.

4. Lean on the veteran community to learn from those who have already moved into cybersecurity from a military background.

5. Engage with the companies you wish to work in. Speaking to a person will yield far greater success than relying on a CV.

To ensure that those in the Forces community are prevented from taking just any job, and are empowered to make the most of their skills and experience by accessing IT careers, Forces Employment Charity has the responsibility to lead the way through the TechVets Programme – supporting the Forces community to understand the value of their military skills and experience, to learn about digital careers, and providing them the tools to upskill to access information technology careers for the future.

Our members can access a unique online community which is home to all of those we support. This allows us to connect people seeking careers in information technology with veterans who are practitioners and professionals already working in IT.

We have more than 4,000 members within our online community. Without this community we would never be able to offer accurate and useful advice for the huge volume of varied careers across the full IT employment market – at best we would be able to offer generic, less-informed support in an employment environment with very little standardisation. However, approximately 20% of our community members are people already experienced in IT careers. By harnessing the strong military community spirit, our members can engage directly with people in the specific career paths they wish to move into, getting support from each other with no financial motivation.

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