Information Security Careers: The Merits Of Going In-house

Job hunting in information security can be a confusing game. The lack of any standard nomenclature across the sector doesn’t help in this regard. Some of the terms used to describe open positions can be interpreted in wildly different ways. “Architect” is a good example. This term can have a non-technical connotation with some, and a technical connotation with others.

There are plenty of pros who came into security, perhaps via the network penetration testing route, who only ever worked for consultancies that provide services, mainly for businesses such as banks and telcos. The majority of such “external” services are centered around network penetration testing and application testing.

I myself started out in infosec on the consultancy path. My colleagues were whiz kids and some were well known in the field. Some would call them “hackers”, others “ethical” or “white hat” network penetration testers. This article does not cover ethics or pander to some of the verdicts that tend to be passed outside of the law.

Many Analysts and Consultants will face the decision to go in-house at some point in their careers, or remain in a service provider capacity. Others may be in-house and considering the switch to a consultancy. This post hopefully can help the decision making process.

The idea of going in-house and, for example, taking up an Analyst position with a big bank – it usually doesn’t hold much appeal with external consultants. The idea prevails that this type of position is boring or unchallenging. I also had this viewpoint and it was largely derived from the few visions and sound bytes I had witnessed behind the veil. However, what I discovered when I took up an analyst position with a large logistics firm was that nothing could be further from the truth. Going in-house can benefit one’s career immensely and open the eyes to the real challenges in security.

Of course my experiences do not apply across the whole spectrum of in-house security positions. Some actually are boring for technically oriented folk. Different organisations do things in different ways. Some just use their security department for compliance purposes with no attention to detail. However there are also plenty that engage effectively with other teams such as IT operations and development project teams.

As an Analyst in a large, complex environment, the opportunity exists to learn a great deal more about security than one could as an external consultant.  An external consultant’s exposure to an organisation’s security challenges will only usually come in the form of a network or application assessment, and even if the testing is conducted thoroughly and over a period of weeks, the view will be extremely limited. The test report is sent to the client, and its a common assumption that all of the problems described in the report can be easily addressed. In the vast majority of cases, nothing could be further from the truth. What becomes apparent at a very early stage in one’s life as an in-house Analyst, is that very few vulnerabilities can be mitigated easily.

One of the main pillars of a security strategy is Vulnerability Management. The basis of any vulnerability management program is the security standard – the document that depicts how, from a security perspective, computer operating systems, DBMS, network devices, and so on, should be configured. So an Analyst will put together a list of configuration items and compose a security standard. Next they will meet with another team, usually IT operations, in an attempt to actually implement the standard in existing and future platforms. For many, this will be the point where they realize the real nature of the challenges.

Taking an example, the security department at a bank is attempting to introduce a Redhat Enterprise Linux security standard as a live document. How many of the configuration directives can be implemented across the board with an acceptable level of risk in terms of breaking applications or impacting the business in any way? The answer is “not many”. This will come as a surprise for many external consultants. Limiting factors can come from surprising sources. Enlightened IT ops and dev teams can open security’s eyes in this regard and help them to understand how the business really functions.

The whole process of vulnerability management, minus VM product marketeers’ diatribe, is basically detection, then deduce the risk, then take decisions on how to address the risk (i.e. don’t address the vulnerability and accept the risk, or address / work around the vulnerability and mitigate the risk). But as an external consultant, one will only usually get to hand a client a list of vulnerabilities and that will be the end of the story. As an in-house Security Analyst, one gets to take the process from start to finish and learn a great deal more in the process.

As a security consultant passing beyond the iron curtain, the best thing that can possibly happen to their careers is that they find themselves in a situation where they get to interface with the enlightened ones in IT operations, network operations (usually there are a few in net ops who really know their security quite well), and application architects (and that’s where it gets to be really fun).

For the Security Consultant who just metamorphosized into an in-house Analyst, it may well be the first time in their careers that they get to encounter real business concerns. IT operations teams live in fear of disrupting applications that generate huge revenues per minute. The fear will be palpable and it encourages the kind of professionalism that one may never have a direct need to have as an external consultant. Generally, the in-house Analyst gets to experience in detail how the business translates into applications and then into servers, databases, and data flows. Then the risks to information assets seem much more real.

The internal challenge versus the external challenge in security is of course one of protection versus breaking-in. Security is full of rock stars who break into badly defended customer networks and then advertise the feat from the roof tops. In between commercial tests and twittering school yard insults, the rock stars are preparing their next Black Hat speech with research into the latest exotic sploit technique that will never be used in a live test, because the target can easily be compromised with simple methods.

However the rock stars get all the attention and security is all about reversing and fuzzing so we hear. But the bigger challenge is not breaking in, its protection, but then protection is a lot less exotic and sexy than breaking in. So there lies the main disadvantage of going in-house. It could mean less attention for the gifted Analyst. But for many, this won’t be such an issue, because the internal job is much more challenging and interesting, and it also lights up a CV, especially if the names are those in banking and telecoms.

How about going full circle? How about 3 years with a service provider, then 5 years in-house, then going back to consulting? Such a consultant is indeed a powerful weapon for consultancies and adds a whole new dimension for service providers (and their portfolio of services can be expanded). In fact such a security professional would be well positioned to start their own consultancy at this stage.

So in conclusion: going in-house can be the best thing that a Security Consultant can do with their careers. Is going in-house less interesting? Not at all. Does it mean you will get less attention? You can still speak at conferences probably.

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