Women and people of color may fill the gaps in cybersecurity

When I was a teenager in the early ’90s, "internet" had just become a household word. People would sit in front of their computers, which were big enough to take up an entire desk, and wait five minutes for America Online (AOL) to connect with their modem, eager to explore unlimited possibilities — even if there were relatively few websites available at the time.

The internet was the next new wave of technology. I felt somewhat adept; my dad used to work for IBM and the University of Utah as an engineer, programming and writing DOS commands in those early days. He ensured that his children understood the language of the next frontier.

When I tell this to younger folks — whose lives exist on their smartphones — they often look at me as if I’ve grown a second head.

The world of cyber intelligence evolves by the nanosecond, perpetuating the desperate need for cybersecurity professionals. Part of the problem is the learning gap: There are few young cyber professionals who would choose to teach for a salary in the neighborhood of $37,000 when they could make more than six figures working for a cutting-edge corporation. Their absence, in part, contributes to a growing chasm between the number of qualified educators (confident enough to teach the subject) and the number of young, brilliant minds who are passionate about this field.

According to cyber resource site Cybrary, by 2021 there will be more than 3 million jobs available in the field of cyber intelligence, and that number is expected to rise 28 percent by 2026. These are jobs that provide a level of financial security to the tune of more than $75,000 — and that’s starting pay.

Thomas Russell, a former Indy columnist, retired Army Signal Corps soldier and founder of the nonprofit organization SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology), is looking to change all of that. “We [in the military and private sector] are in a situation where we are so short of people, it puts us in danger. We’re about to have an election and there [is] all kinds of stuff that will happen,” Russell says.

[pullquote-1] In order for the U.S. to maintain its status as a global leader, Russell says everyone needs to be trained. Cyber literacy is no longer an option. He also believes it’s a fine time for those underrepresented in the field to enter in droves.

In the fall of 2018, after 10 years, Russell retired as the Information Technology teacher at District 49’s Falcon High School and began to work for the National Cybersecurity Center as a cyber education program manager. Here, Russell is able to run programs and camps for middle schoolers, high schoolers and adults to help broaden diversity in the field, particularly for women and people of color. He is also creating courses that will provide the proper support for educators in other disciplines to be able to jump in and help teach at high schools and middle schools, which often don’t offer cyber courses.

Students who complete Russell’s free, six-month courses receive computers and certification in A+, IT Fundamentals, Security Plus and Network Plus. He also works with companies that will allow his students to intern, apprentice or be paired with a mentor to get the practical experience necessary to be hired after certification. Russell says that while having a degree is never a bad thing, companies are looking to hire professionals with certifications and experience above all else.

Russell knows his programs are only one solution to the problem. But he says leaving corporate America to teach was the best career decision he’s ever made.

Achieving cyber literacy and security training isn’t easy work, but the knowledge is obtainable, says Russell. Now, his great mission is to… ”certify more people than any other organization in the country.”