When feds want to hire a cyber-ninja, time is more important than money

From left: John Collins of SecureWorks, Karen Evans of the U.S. Cyber Challenge and Brian Dastur of the FBI appear Oct. 26 at Dell Technologies’ Digital Transformation Summit presented by FedScoop. (CyberScoop)

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The time it takes to actually onboard a new federal employee is a much more significant problem than pay and benefits when it comes to hiring top cybersecurity talent for U.S. agencies, former federal officials and private sector executives said Thursday.

Conventional wisdom holds that federal government jobs can’t compete with the private sector on salary, but money generally is not the issue for highly skilled cybersecurity workers, panel members said at the Dell Technologies Digital Transformation Summit produced by FedScoop.

“The challenge on the government side is time to hire,” said Karen Evans, a former senior technology official with the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush and now the national director of the U.S. Cyber Challenge.

It generally takes months — sometimes more than a year — to complete the background check and other bureaucratic procedures to start someone as a federal employee. And that, explained Evans, is more of a problem than any limitations on salary and benefits.

Time matters, explained John Collins, Dell SecureWorks’s global solutions lead for platform and threat intelligence, because companies are “competing with our customers [to hire] the same people.”

Individuals who have a relatively rare combination of formal education, on-the-job training and native talent can earn as much as several times more in the private sector. The government has a significant edge in one area, though, Evans said.

“We can win on mission,” she said of efforts to recruit highly skilled cyber-ninjas and first responders.

What the government can offer, said Evans, is the chance to actually change the equation between attackers and defenders in cyberspace — on the networks that keep the government running.

“Everyone [in the cyber mission space] is jazzed about winning,” she said, especially when it was “winning for the country.”

But when it takes so long to hire someone, she warned, they might end up going elsewhere.

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