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PAUL GREENBERG: Room at the top

The latest in vocational ed

Thanks to a half-million dollars in We the People's tax money, the latest thing in trade schools is being established at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, better known as UCA. Dubbed a Cyber Range, this computer system is designed to let students become specialists able to spot a cyber attack, fend it off, and predict or prevent other cyber assaults. This state's governor, ordinarily the most cautious of leaders, seems barely able to contain his enthusiasm for this newest form of vocational training.

"The threat from cyber crimes is very real," explained the Hon. Asa Hutchinson, who in another life was an under-secretary of Homeland Security in the nation's capital. He rightly calls cyber warfare "a threat to our country" and to "every industry group." So he proposes to mobilize this state's whole educational system against it. And raise a new youthful army of students to defend Arkansas and the rest of the country against the cyber-savvy enemy. To arms! Or rather to your computers!

Allow us to raise a question--or several of them--before taxpayers, school patrons and all concerned are trampled in the rush to man the electronic barricades: Just who amongst this coming generation would like to take on this high-risk occupation of cyber-security expert? The high risk is that of being summarily dismissed when the latest security breach is uncovered and somebody is made to pay for it. As has been happening with alarming frequency of late, exposing citizens' confidential data to cyber-thieves or just mischief-makers. Confidential data like Social Security and credit-card numbers. Which is what happened at Equifax Inc., one of the country's biggest credit-reporting services. And somebody or maybe a whole slew of somebodies had to be held accountable in order to appease Congress and the rest of the country.

It's an old question dating back to Plato's time: Who will guard the guardians? And the answer these days is anybody willing to risk immediate dismissal when the electronic walls are breached by an enemy that never sleeps.

It was a red-letter day at UCA when this cutting-edge tool in high-tech security training was announced and the usual swarm of highly certified dignitaries gathered to celebrate the august occasion. After all, when a governor who exercises such influence over a state university's budget invites educators to a press conference, it's less an invitation than a command. So there they all were, gathered for the photo op like the prudent college administrators they are--President Houston Davis of UCA, Dean Stephen Addison of its College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, et many al. For UCA says it hopes to begin offering a bachelor's degree in cybersecurity as soon as next fall.

Dean Addison displayed his fluency in cyber-speech the way scholars of a different age lapsed into Latin: "We proposed bringing a cyber range here to UCA in support of our developing a cybersecurity degree program. With the cyber range, we will be able to inject viruses onto the range without putting a free-roaming virus on the Internet. Students will be able to learn cybersecurity in real-time systems." Some of us hadn't been so assured since scientists told the American public that there was no danger of radioactivity being spread by the nuclear test explosions in the far Pacific.

"This is another opportunity for students at UCA to gain real-world experience and to develop and enhance skills needed in today's ever-changing technological world," proclaimed President Davis. How many folks can still remember a time when undergraduates could receive an education, as opposed to training, before being hustled off to graduate programs in specialized fields? Why train people for highly specialized jobs before assuring that they first get an education? Or would that be unspeakably responsible?

By some accounts, there are half a million job openings in cybersecurity today; but what happens when nine-tenths of those jobs become obsolete, as is bound to happen in our "ever-changing technological world," as President Davis calls it? What has the recipient of a B.A. in cybersecurity got to fall back on when the job he or she trained for is automated? Does UCA require its students to demonstrate proficiency in algebra or a foreign language as a step toward becoming broadly educated? Does it require history or economics so that graduates have a sense of business cycles or the perspective necessary to anticipate change in demand for specialized jobs?

Do stay tuned, Gentle Reader, for further equally impressive or rather equally depressing developments if you can stand it.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 10/11/2017

Comments

RBBrittain says...

This sounds like just enough academic garbage to cover up someone's far-right opinion that the whole program is a boondoggle. Fact is, not only is cybersecurity a hot field right now; but unless EMPs from, say, a nuclear war between Trump & Kim Jong-Un wipe out the Internet entirely, it will be VERY important for the foreseeable future. (Even fired bosses mean constant upward mobility.) And even if it cools off, going back to school to learn something else is all too common nowadays. (I know that first-hand; I'm in my 50's writing this from the student lounge at UALR Bowen School of Law. Part of my undergrad degree was in COBOL programming; it's not exactly a hot field today, but from that I still know more about IT than a lot of folks.)

Posted 11 October 2017, 10:03 a.m. Suggest removal

PopulistMom says...

RBBrittain,

Yes. There are many programs in cybersecurity across the country--usually at universities with big computer science and engineering programs. U of A might be a better place for such a program. I don't know how many computer/engineering people go to UCA.

Posted 11 October 2017, 3:43 p.m. Suggest removal

Shearload says...

RBB, one need not be a conservative to believe that vocational training and a college education should be distinguished.

My first real job after college (BA, English) was with IBM as a systems engineer. Few schools had computer science programs at the time; IBM tested applicants for aptitude and trained new hires intensely for a minimum of two years. I call your COBOL and raise you FORTRAN, APL, RPG, BASIC, assembler, and machine language. And I can "lapse into Latin" or a couple of other modern languages. A few weeks ago, during a conversation with my daughter, I found that I could still recite Chaucer's prologue to his Canterbury Tales in Middle English.

IBM dominated their market for decades. Now, not so much.

I retired a few years ago from a multinational aerospace company as a senior engineer, but did many other interesting things during my working years. I picked up a law degree from the school you attend in the 1980s.

I'm with Paul on this one. UCA graduates will compete with software specialists from around the world. Indian engineers, for example, are fairly good, relatively cheap, and speak English. And soon enough, these graduates will be competing with AI.

Most students get only one shot at a liberal arts education. They should not throw away that shot.

Posted 11 October 2017, 4:05 p.m. Suggest removal

DoubleBlind says...

Ok, I read this about 5am today but resisted responding until I stopped laughing roughly 5mins ago. I'm actually willing to give PG a pass on his embarrassingly geezer-eyed view of the topic and merely attempt to better inform him. Cyber security is not a 'trade' or 'vocation.' These are 6figure STARTING salary jobs. He doesn't realize how far reaching and devasting cyber attacks can and will be. We're not talking merely credit or SS card theft. Virtually everything we do, use and rely on is now 'connected' and subject to attack. I'm guessing he doens't realize there are 6.5 MILLION lines of code behind the avionics and support systems of a Boeing jet. The nations entire power grid could be taken out. Those are just a couple of examples. The UCA stunt is small potatoes but should encourage all schools to adopt programs to prepare students for jobs in this very important field.

Posted 11 October 2017, 4:50 p.m. Suggest removal

DoubleBlind says...

Shearload - Impressive CV. I don't disagree with you re the value of a liberal arts education. I would certainly prefer to sit next to a LA grad at a dinner party; although, I'm somewhat partial to physicists as well. The problem is the COST of a liberal arts degree vs the VALUE in terms of employability. To your point, you didn't go on to make your living in your initial field of study. Whom today can afford to obtain multiple degrees other than those with wealthy parents. If one has to choose, liberal arts no longer has the edge - assuming the graduate wishes to eat after graduating.

Posted 11 October 2017, 5:40 p.m. Suggest removal

PopulistMom says...

My youngest is more of a STEM child, but he still has to take English and History etc. in high school and at college. He also has expressed an interest in teaching history, but his real strength seems to lie in engineering. There still is a severe shortage of computer engineers etc. so I am all for this plan. My neighbor who is high up in cybersecurity for a contractor seems to be doing very well.

Posted 11 October 2017, 5:40 p.m. Suggest removal

DoubleBlind says...

So Pop, let me engage you in a topic which may initially annoy you but will hopefully merit your thoughtful feedback.
*Given the cost of an education and the importance of ensuring people 'find' their path to gainful employment earlier (since a gap year or years, multiple degrees, etc. are increasingly cost prohibitive) I posit that big data analytics across the education lifecycle of students could play an important role in positioning them for success. For ex, you mention your son hews toward STEM but is proficient in liberal arts subjects. Would you object to having his results in each heuristically profiled throughout his term to determine his, theoretically anyway, most beneficial path?

Posted 11 October 2017, 6:07 p.m. Suggest removal

DoubleBlind says...

To be clear, I'm not suggesting the 'state' could then 'force' your son's track. They may finance it (perhaps with support by an employer with jobs in the space) if chosen, however. But you would certainly be free to self finance another path.

Posted 11 October 2017, 6:44 p.m. Suggest removal

GoBigRed says...

DB - there actually are services that can do that. Even 20 years ago they steered my brother-in-law to a career that he would never of considered and made a career of it.

Posted 11 October 2017, 9:51 p.m. Suggest removal

DontDrinkDatKoolAid says...

Shearload, thank you for a beautiful explanation mark behind Paul's column.

Posted 12 October 2017, 5:30 a.m. Suggest removal

PopulistMom says...

Doubleblind,

Thanks for teaching me a new word! Heuristically. I'll have to remember it. It is important that every person learn history, government, and economics so as to be better able to vote. Bernie Sanders understands the history of political oppression, but seems to lack an understanding of economics. Trump seems to have no understanding or appreciation for the United States Constitution. Engineers should be able to write a bit; I once had an engineer screw up a scope of work by using incorrect language. I am sure that I screwed up some telecom contracts because I did not have enough base knowledge of the technical aspects. Knowledge of business and finance is important to so many as business really does make the world go round. Personal finance is important for individual quality of life issues. Health knowledge is important for everybody.

In some ways, the schools do determine what it is you will do. If your grade is not high enough in an introductory subject, you will not get into the honors program above it etc. Colleges will look at your grades and scores to determine whether to let you into their programs. People do need to do much soul searching as to what they want to spend their time doing and how much the world will pay them to do that when they make career decisions. I know so many people doing things other than what they thought they would do.

Posted 12 October 2017, 6:36 a.m. Suggest removal

DontDrinkDatKoolAid says...

"I have a pen and a phone." Who said that?

Posted 12 October 2017, 7:06 a.m. Suggest removal

RBear says...

I resisted responding to this column also to give it a little time to bake. To start with, it's always interesting when a non-technology columnist launches into a topic as technical as cybersecurity, especially to one who has worked in or around the field for the past decade. The comments to the column are also interesting. Since this is day after, my comments probably missed the read cycle but I feel the need to throw in my two cents.
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Cybersecurity is a growing field of technology that every company needs today in some shape or form. Heck, every person needs cybersecurity if they expect to do anything on the Internet. While most of us can get by with basic tools, hackers are becoming more and more sophisticated in launching larger scale attacks that reap enough value to sustain and grow. No hacker expects to be a millionaire off your finances, but some do hit the lottery (which is probably a good analogy to their attempts).
...
But, regardless how often they do hit the lottery when it impacts you it usually can hit you hard. It's like having to deal with a catastrophe at home as you try to pull your life back together. In some cases, the money is gone and with changes in FinTech today it'll be gone much faster. So we really do need people helping look out for us an combating the bad guys.
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The challenge is training people in this field. It's highly specialized and requires a unique set of skills. It requires practice to learn the tools and techniques. You don't just walk in tomorrow and pick up a Wireshark dump and discover the attack. You don't just read through a SIEM dump and figure out the correlation of events. AI will help in the future, but that is about a decade away.
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These are not skills that get offshored easily. They require people at the seats working with you daily. The only real offshoring is for the Security Operations Center, but they only do the incident detection and not the remediation. So it's important to have people trained in the field and trained quickly.
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That being said, technologist, especially cybersecurity professionals, require a multitude of "liberal" skills to do their job. They must be communicators, fact finders, and employ a LOT of critical thinking. Few STEM classes teach these skills. What we really need in cybersecurity are polymaths who have skills in many disciplines.
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I hope UCA sees that in their program and, as one recruiting in the field, will be looking at their program to see how it shapes out. But those students also need to hands on experiences to understand how to outsmart the bad guys.

Posted 12 October 2017, 7:57 a.m. Suggest removal

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