The right stuff

I recently read an article in The Washington Post about how the US government is having a hard time finding qualified information security people. One of their proposed solutions is to take existing government employees and retrain them to make them information security specialists. This is almost certainly a bad idea.

When I worked for the government, we had a similar staffing problem at the end of the Cold War. At that time, we had lots of Russian linguists but not enough people in technical fields. To solve this problem, the government decided to to retrain the Russian linguists into engineers and other technical jobs. It didn't work very well.

Imagine you're a government employee who has been translating Russian for maybe 10 or 20 years, and you're suddenly told that you need to retrain to become an engineer. You probably became a Russian translator because of your particular skills and aptitudes, and those skills and aptitudes are very different from those needed to succeed as an engineer. You may have the right stuff for a particular job, but that right stuff doesn't necessarily translate into the right stuff for another job.

I taught some of the classes that were supposed to do this retraining, and it didn't seem to me that this effort was going to work very well. This really shouldn't have surprised anyone.

Your typical cryptographer, for example, has probably spent several years studying the math that you need to understand the foundations of cryptography. In the government, our rule of thumb was that it took about three years on the job before a person with that background could make significant contributions on the job. This is definitely not the sort of training that you can fit into a class or two, and it's definitely not the sort of thing that you can easily pass on to mid-career Russian linguists who are stressed about losing their job if they can't learn material for which they have absolutely no aptitude.

Let's hope that the government remembers how well the previous attempt worked, and doesn't try it again today. Our attempt at cross-training people didn't work very well at the end of the Cold War, and I'd expect a similar attempt to fail today.

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