Proactive Approach to Soft Skills Gap Needed in Security Industry

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Like many who fit the stereotype of the introverted technology person who wasn’t especially interested in social interaction, I wanted to be a computer programmer because I figured I wouldn’t have to spend much time dealing with people. I was sorely mistaken.

As my career in IT and what we now call cybersecurity progressed, it turned out that I enjoy those communication and leadership components of the workplace – what is often referred to today as “soft skills” – but it took time and intentional effort to develop those skills. Looking back on the early stages of my career, I could have accelerated my value to my organizations if I had prioritized honing soft skills earlier.

This challenge remains highly relevant. According to ISACA’s recently released State of Cybersecurity 2021 report, soft skills are the biggest skills gap for today’s cybersecurity candidates, ahead of others such as knowledge of security controls and software development.  In fact, communication skills have become even more critical in the industry now that cybersecurity has emerged as an enterprise-wide priority that requires professionals to have cross-functional leadership skills and be well versed in business-vernacular that resonates with executives.

It stands to reason, then, that the earlier security practitioners develop those communication and leadership skills, the better they will be at their jobs, and the quicker they can advance their careers. However, the challenge is that those abilities don’t come naturally to many IT and security-minded people, and you generally don’t obtain them in an academic setting. So, how can industry newcomers pick up those soft skills more quickly?

The most important method is to practice communicating, and that includes presenting. If you can’t effectively present your ideas to others, it won't be easy to succeed professionally. Joining organizations like Toastmasters and volunteering through industry organizations that provide collaboration opportunities – or student groups for those still in school – are great ways to gain confidence in communicating and leading.

That’s not to let companies off the hook – they also have an important role to play in developing employees into more well-rounded professionals. Companies should make acquiring and polishing soft skills part of performance plans for newer employees and ask them: how will you improve your soft skills, and what type of external organizations will you be part of to grow beyond your day-to-day responsibilities? Inevitably, employees that take this challenge to heart will find great value in branching out and make significant strides that will translate nicely to the workplace.

One of my ISACA colleagues is a fabulous example of prioritizing these skills. Veronica Rose, of Kenya, was recently appointed to ISACA’s global board of directors. Veronica has quickly made a name for herself in the industry, in no small part due to her exceptional ability to communicate and build relationships – “social skills,” as she terms them. Veronica didn’t start out as a confident communicator, especially when it came to verbal communications, but she made developing those skills a priority.

“I started with recording myself on video while practicing my speeches or presentations,” she said. “After reviewing the video, I could improve on where I didn’t feel OK or natural, and later on, I volunteered by training fellow staff on topics related to cybersecurity, cyber hygiene, data protection hygiene and risk management. From then, I started training for different organizations and speaking at cybersecurity events. I became used to the practice, which used to give me butterflies. The more I practiced, the better I became.”

Veronica also did a great job building her leadership skills through volunteering with ISACA, taking on external projects (like authoring a book!) and becoming an active participant in industry dialogues on social media. While not everyone has the drive or ambition to write a book, everyone can find ways to become more effective at communicating, persuading and collaborating. Even as a longtime industry veteran, I’m still working on my skills in these areas because the soft skills gap is never-ending. As your career progresses, you are likely to encounter new gaps based on the evolving demands of new roles and shifting responsibilities. And for those fortunate enough to be naturally strong communicators, keep working at it and magnify the strength, like a professional athlete who takes a skill and amplifies it with sustained, disciplined effort.

Cybersecurity is a terrific field to pursue. As the State of Cybersecurity report reinforces, skilled professionals remain in hot demand. There is plenty of room for newcomers to the field to thrive, but the opportunity is auspicious for those willing to grow their skill sets beyond the classroom and virtual lab settings. Take it from an introvert like me: they might enjoy it more than they think.

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