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Inside the Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy

Nearly seven months have passed since the government launched an academy to reskill non-technical employees and train them to fill open cybersecurity positions across federal agencies. The Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy was announced in November 2018; at the time, federal leaders touted the program as a novel approach that could shape how agencies are staffed in the 21st century.

But that verdict is still out on that assessment as the first two cohorts work their way through the academy, which was delayed by the 35-day government shutdown between December 2018 and January 2019. If previous editions of this program are any indication of its potential success, however, the odds are favorable.

Although the academy’s future is unclear, the demand for Cohort 1’s openings suggests it might be a bright one. Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) Suzette Kent tweeted in March 2019 that the program received over 1,500 applications and over 20,000 social media impressions during a 50-day application window.

“I am thrilled to share these statistics from the inaugural Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy cohort,” she wrote. “It shows there’s a great desire from our federal employees to transition into the cybersecurity career field!”

Cybersecurity vacancies are rampant across federal agencies. Subsequently, the White House needed a reputable institution for the Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy’s curriculum before the program’s launch.

Enter the SANS Institute. SANS builds pipelines with employers for their cybersecurity reskilling programs; these pipelines potentially lead graduates to jobs with those companies. By partnering with SANS on the academy’s first cohort, America’s government can possibly fill some of the cybersecurity openings it has across multiple agencies.

“This program is informed by previous paralleled efforts in the U.K. and U.S., using the same resources,” Alan Paller, SANS’ Director of Research, said in an interview with GovLoop. “This program was not created anew. This is in fact the first U.S. government implementation.”

Founded in 1989, “SANS” stands for SysAdmin, Audit, Network and Security. The institute specializes in cybersecurity and information security programs, training, certifications, and research. Systems administration, audits, networks, and security are cornerstones of the organization’s courses.

SANS isn’t new to the federal government, however, and the institute has worked with many of its agencies. For example, SANS partnered with the Defense Department (DoD) to offer cybersecurity certifications, practice ranges and training.

So how does the Federal Cyber Reskilling Academy work?

According to Max Shuftan, SANS’ CyberTalent Program Director, the federal government’s reskilling academy features over a hundred hours of training modules and labs. Students begin with Cyber Start Essentials, SANS’ program for teaching people cybersecurity basics such as encryption and networking. After that, SANS conducts two advanced courses aimed at providing participants with certifications and skills needed in cybersecurity. The program additionally includes a cybersecurity game that students play to reinforce the information they learn.

“The key cog in this is Cyber Start Essentials,” Shuftan said. “When you’re coming in without any experience – or limited experience or knowledge from IT, much less cybersecurity – you need that kind of anatomy and foundational, immersive course.”

Paller said that the academy will train students for potential security operations center (SOC) and cyber defense analytics roles. And, although graduating from the academy doesn’t guarantee federal employment, Shuftan said that SANS’ past programs suggest that graduates might enter the public service.

“About 92% of the students who enroll succeed in the curriculum and graduate,” he said. “And of those who graduate, we see approximately 90% get jobs in cybersecurity within six months of graduation.”

According to Paller, past cybersecurity and IT experience also isn’t necessary for acceptance into the academy.

“What they’re looking for in this talent test aren’t the people who’ve played with computers before,” Paller said. “The people who are good at this have a couple characteristics.”

The academy’s Cohort 1, for instance, includes federal employees with zero cybersecurity or IT experience. The application process ran from November 2018 to January 2019; Applicants were then picked in April 2019 after completing assessments.

The academy’s inaugural class next began training that month with their studies scheduled to conclude in July 2019. Cohort 1 was originally scheduled to finish in June 2019; Their graduation was delayed a month, however, because of the government shutdown earlier in 2019.

Although graduating from the academy doesn’t guarantee a future cybersecurity job, Paller said that the program often attracts people well-suited for the field.

“They like puzzles,” he said. “They don’t get turned off by frustration. They’re tenacious or they have grit. [The] joy they get from solving the problems is much larger than the frustration you feel in not being able to solve the problem quickly. That’s the big separator.”

Shuftan added that the academy attracted a group of federal employees with diverse professional backgrounds. According to Shuftan, the applicants included project managers, privacy and operations investigators, and policy, program, budget and economics analysts.

“[It’s] those kinds of critical thinking [and] investigatory roles, managing protocols, procedures and analyzing them for operational improvement,” he said. “A lot of the students in this cohort that were selected have jobs that entail those kinds of activities.”

The academy’s Cohort 1, meanwhile, focuses on training participants foundational skills in the field of cyber defense analytics.

“If you think you can train a surgeon, you probably can,” Paller said. “But if the surgeon who’s a first-year trainee as a surgeon doesn’t know anatomy, you’re just making him dangerous. [It’s] because he knows he can cut, but he doesn’t really understand the underlying shape of the body, the anatomy, the chemistry, that allows surgery to work. And once they master the anatomy, they’ve got it.”

Four weeks of classes, exercises and exams follow this starting point. First, there’s six days of “bootcamp” followed by two weeks of studying for a certification exam. Upon passing this test, participants ultimately enter another “bootcamp” before cramming for their final exam.

Although Cohort 1 isn’t finished yet, the academy is also gearing up for round two. Cohort 2’s application process ran from April 2019 to May 2019, and students were notified of their acceptance in June 2019. The group’s eight weeks of training is now slated for July 2019 to September 2019. Cohort 2 additionally differs from Cohort 1 because it was open to all federal employees, including cybersecurity and IT ones. It’s also worth noting that unlike Cohort 1, Cohort 2 will be conducted by ComTech Telecommunications Corp. rather than SANS. ComTech Telecommunications Corp. is a telecommunications equipment company headquartered in Huntington, New York.

The federal government hasn’t stated whether the academy will continue after Cohorts 1 and 2. Despite this, Shuftan says that SANS seeks certain traits in all its participants.

“’What are your career goals?’” he said the institute asks applicants. “Why do you want to get into cybersecurity? What kind of job do you want?”

Shuftan also recommends that individuals interested in cybersecurity maintain an active interest in the topic by taking online classes and following blogs, newsletters and videos about the subject.

“That kind of self-drive is a potential success indicator,” he said. “[It’s] people already doing things on their own to learn. This is a difficult program, it’s time-consuming and requires lots of effort. [It’s] how [applicants] organize and manage their time.”

Ultimately, the academy is the latest in a long line of collaborations between the public and private sectors. In this case, the private sector trains federal employees so that they are ready for crucial government jobs. Cybersecurity constantly concerns federal leaders as agencies are responsible for sensitive citizen data.

“[Our program] doesn’t make [students] the most advanced intrusion detection analysts in the world, but it makes them ready to do work on day one,” Paller said. “They can fly the plane on day one, but don’t put them in a big storm, and don’t put them in combat with another airplane. But they can fly on day one.”

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Isaac Constans

Great article Mark! Hadn’t had an update on this program in a while and really was interested in what was going on with it. Like the idea of who is a good candidate – another job characteristic I’d heard is musician interestingly enough.