On Friday, January 20, 2023, Google announced it would lay off 12,000 employees. Amazon and Microsoft have laid off a combined 28,000 people; Twitter has reportedly lost 5,200 people; Meta (Facebook, etcetera) is laying off 11,000… This is just the tech giants, and almost all the staff looking for new positions are, by definition, tech-savvy – and some will be cybersecurity professionals.
Layoffs are not limited to the tech giants. Smaller cybersecurity vendor firms are also affected. OneTrust has laid off 950 staff (25% of employees); Sophos has laid off 450 (10%); Lacework (300, 20%); Cybereason (200, 17%); OwnBackup (170, 17%); OneTrust (950, 25%) and the list goes on.
SecurityWeek examined how this layoff-induced influx of experienced professionals into the job seeker market is affecting or might affect, the skills gap and recruitment in cybersecurity.
The skills gap
The skills gap is a mismatch between the skills available in the workforce, and the skills required by employers. Required skills are continuously evolving with new technology and business transformation. People can learn how to use computers, and many staff currently being laid off will already have done so. But it is far easier to learn how to use computers than it is to learn how computers work. It is in the latter area that the skills gap becomes a talent gap for cybersecurity.
So, the first observation is that current large-scale layoffs may slightly reduce the skills gap at the computer usage level but will likely have little effect on the cybersecurity-specific talent gap where employment requires a knowledge of how computers work. The talent gap is simply too large, and layoffs in these areas are likely to be readily absorbed by new security startups and expanding companies. Many of the companies involved in cybersecurity reductions will almost certainly need to rehire next year or soon after.
Mark Sasson, managing partner and executive recruiter with the Pinpoint Search Group, agrees with this. “Maybe it’s going to be a little easier for organizations to recruit, because you’re getting an influx of experience into the market. However, I don’t think that’s a fix for the talent gap – it’s not going to have a mid to long term discernible impact. There are too few people that have the skills that organizations need today. And so, people are going to get scooped up and we’re still going to have the same situation with the talent gap.”
Cyber threats are still increasing and the demand for cyber defenders is still growing. Criminals are recruiting, not contracting.
Reducing the talent gap in cybersecurity will more likely depend on changing attitudes with employers than adding numbers from those that have been laid off. You could almost say that the cybersecurity talent gap is a self-inflicted wound: employers want experience plus certifications plus new university degrees – which rarely exists in the real world.
Michael Piacente, managing partner and co-founder at Hitch Partners recruitment firm, takes a similar view. “The internal definition on scope and goals often varies greatly resulting in shifts, time delays, and often rendering the position ‘unfillable’,” he told SecurityWeek. “Perhaps it is time to stop focusing so much on resumes and job descriptions. We see these tools as outdated and too often used as a crutch resulting in bad habits, and inconsistent behavior – and they are horribly unfair for under-experienced or diversity candidates.”
He takes this to the extreme and has never supplied resumes with his candidates. “Instead, we build a storyboard about the candidate created as a result of multiple meetings, interactions, and back channels in order to focus on the candidate’s journey, the human character elements as well as their matching and gaps for the particular role.” In short, the talent gap will more likely be reduced by redefining the gap than by seeking to match unrealistic demands to the existing work pool.
Dave Gerry, CEO of Bugcrowd, has a specific recommendation based on diversity candidates. He believes organizations need to be more open to the diversity pool – including neurodiversity (see Harnessing Neurodiversity Within Cybersecurity Teams). “Organizations,” he said, “need to continue to expand their recruiting pool, account for the bias that can currently exist in cyber-recruiting, and provide in-depth training via apprenticeships, internships and on-the-job training, to help create the next generation of cyber-talent.”
However, even if the influx of laid-off experience will have little overall or lasting effect on the macrocosm of the skills gap, it will almost certainly have an immediate effect on recruitment in the microcosm of the cybersecurity talent gap.
Recruitment in cybersecurity
Cybersecurity is not immune to the current round of staff trimming – and it includes security leaders as well as security engineers. Ultimately, it’s a cost cutting exercise; and organizations can save as much money by cutting one leader’s position as they can by cutting two engineers. “Organizations are asking themselves if they can survive letting one person go but still get the job done with the remaining team,” explains Sasson. “If the answer is yes or even maybe, they’re tending to let go of the more highly paid and highly skilled people because they think maybe they can do more with less.”
That’s a top-down approach to staff reductions, but the same argument is used in a bottom-up approach. Joseph Thomssen is senior cybersecurity recruiter at NinjaJobs (a community-run job platform developed by information security professionals). “A company that is not security focused may feel like they can rely on their senior employees to pick up lower-level responsibilities,” he said, “and this can be detrimental to a security team.”
The overall result is that we now have laid off cybersecurity engineers looking for new employment, and we have employed cybersecurity leaders looking for alternative and safer positions. “Many of these layoffs in cybersecurity seem to be short-term attempts to save money,” adds Thomssen – but he fears it may backfire on companies reducing their security workforce. Expecting fewer staff to take on more responsibility will likely have a detrimental effect – it may cause burnout. “I call it the layoff/quit combination,” he said.
Piacente also notes the cuts are not simply targeted at weeding out under performing employees. “There are great candidates impacted due to them being in the wrong place at the wrong time; and we are seeing this industry wide.”
Of course, there are many cybersecurity experts who believe this is a false and dangerous approach, and that cybersecurity is a necessity that should be expanded rather than cut. But that is an argument put forward by every business department in times of economic stress.
One effect of the cybersecurity layoffs and the accompanying increase in the number of experienced people seeking employment is that the recruitment market is moving from a candidate market toward a hirer market – just like home buying fluctuates between a buyer and a seller market depending on supply (properties available) and demand (money to buy). For many years, experienced cybersecurity engineers have been able to pick and choose their employer, and demand somewhat inflated salaries and conditions; but that is no longer the case.
This is beginning to be apparent in the salaries offered. “They’re leveling off,” says Sasson, “maybe even going down. But this needs to be taken in the context of pretty dramatic increases from just a few quarters ago, during the candidate-driven market.” Sasson thought at the time that these were unsustainable. But now, “Folks that are looking for those massive compensation packages from just a year ago are going to have to adjust their expectations.”
Sam Del Toro, senior cybersecurity recruiter at Optomi, has seen a similar growing misalignment between compensation expectation and realization – especially in the more senior positions. Because of the layoffs, there are now more mid to senior level candidates looking for new opportunities.
“On the other hand,” he said, “over the past couple of years we have seen cybersecurity compensation rise significantly. Now, as organizations are tightening their budgets and being more fiscally aware, it is making it tough to align candidate and client compensation.”
Thomssen sees another and different effect of the evolving hirer’s market. “I have seen security staff recruitment switch from direct hires to roles based on shorter term project contracts. In the past you would not see security professionals entertain such contracts, but the security staff recruitment landscape has seen a shift that way.”
It’s not clear whether this will develop into a common long term approach to cybersecurity recruitment or will just be a short-term solution to economic uncertainty. Is the gig economy coming to cybersecurity? It’s been growing in many other segments of employment, and perhaps the current economic climate will boost an existing trend just as Covid-19 boosted remote working.
One visible sign might come with an increase in the employment of virtual CISOs (vCISOs). This would retain access to high level expertise while reducing costs. Another might be an increased use of managed security service providers (MSSPs). “We’re seeing more and more security operations outsourced to consultants and contractors, or to vCISOs and Global CISOs, or whatever you’d like to call it,” comments Mika Aalto, co-founder and CEO at Hoxhunt. But he adds, “This can work with smaller companies, but it’s risky. Security should be looked at as a competitive advantage and a growth strategy, not a luxury.”
Piacente’s firm has seen a 20% increase in the new candidate flow. While the primary cause is the economy, the detailed cause is difficult to isolate. Cybersecurity has always experienced rapid churn with staff from all levels regularly moving to a new company for promotion or improved remuneration. This churn continues, but is complicated by employed people just looking around – not because they are being laid off, but just in case they will be laid off.
At the same time, some people who might normally be on the lookout for better opportunities are choosing to keep what they have until more stable conditions return. “One other observation in these cycles,” adds Piacente, “is that candidates who fall into the diversity category tend to be more resistant to making a change. Since there are already significantly less candidates in this category it makes it more difficult for companies to achieve their goals of creating a more diverse organization or program. This is when companies really need to place care, attention, and a dose of reality into their change initiatives.”
Bugcrowd is a firm that has actively sought to recruit from the ‘diversity’ pool. “Employers need to take a more active approach to recruiting from non-traditional backgrounds, which, in turn, significantly expands the candidate pool from just those with formal degrees to individuals, who, with the right training, have incredibly high-potential,” comments Gerry.
It could be expected that with some companies laying off experienced staff and others simply not hiring new staff, breaking into cybersecurity for new, inexperienced or diverse people will become even more difficult. After all, companies reducing staff levels to save money are not likely to spend money on in-house training for new inexperienced staff.
Del Toro doesn’t see it quite like that – it has always been almost impossible. “I do not think that the influx of [experienced] candidates on the market has much of an impact on newcomers finding opportunities because there are simply not enough entry level cybersecurity roles in general,” he said. “Organizations are almost always looking for mid-level candidates and above rather than bringing on competent and excited newbies, because the latter takes much more than fiscal resources.”
Recruitment going forward
It’s difficult to determine the actual number of experienced cybersecurity professionals being laid off among the overall staff reductions, but it is likely to be substantial. Although boards have become more open to the idea that security is a business enabler, there is nevertheless no discernible line between security and profit. There is, however, a direct line between security and cost. It is almost a no-brainer for security to be heavily featured among staff reductions. But this may be bad thinking.
For all layoffs, companies should proceed with caution. When large numbers of staff need to be cut for economic reasons, those same economic reasons may cause it to be done swiftly and perhaps brutally. These suddenly unemployed people will have inside knowledge of the company and its systems; and some will have thoughts of retaliation. At the same time, the company may have reduced the effectiveness of its cybersecurity team to counter a new threat from malicious recent insiders.
“Layoffs are affecting much of the tech industry and cybersecurity isn’t immune,” comments Mike Parkin, senior technical engineer at Vulcan Cyber. “While no department should really be immune when companies have to tighten their belts, the threat from losing skilled personnel in security operations can have a disproportionate effect.”
Overall, we’ve had a candidate market in cybersecurity recruitment but we’re shifting toward an employer market. Del Toro offers this advice for security people laid off and looking for a new position: “I would tell job seekers to be prepared for longer interview processes and longer time before offers are extended. Hiring managers are under more pressure to be diligent so candidates will need to be more cognizant of interview etiquette. Most importantly make sure you are keeping your skills sharp – use your time off to find passion projects and get better at your craft, not only to stay relevant in the security space but to renew your love for what you do!”
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