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For an infosecurity career, get the technical basics first

By Peter H. Gregory
September 22, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A reader recently asked me a thought-compelling question. He wrote, "I took up the Cisco Academy, thinking this will give me a strong foundation of networks and some security. Is this a good move in order to get to were I want to go?"
My reader's question made me think of my own career and how I got into information security, years before security was cool or even recognized as a discipline at all. I'll take the rest of the space in this month's column to discuss this.
Learn technology, then security
The more training you can put on your resume, the more marketable you will become. Cisco Systems Inc.'s certification program supports this assertion. Only the upper crust of the world's network engineers is skilled enough to pass Cisco's highest certifications. And so it should be. But this isn't my main point.
To truly understand security at the technology level, you must first gain expertise with the underlying technology.
In order to thoroughly understand the security issues of networks, you must first thoroughly understand how networks -- and attached devices -- work. For instance, how is someone lacking any working knowledge of TCP/IP supposed to understand a syn flood or smurf attack?
Let me also illustrate this with an analogy. Years ago, I was in the banking industry and received training on the makeup of U.S. paper currency -- how it is made and composed. How is this supposed to help bank tellers discern genuine currency from a counterfeit? If a teller is deeply familiar with genuine currency, when he receives a counterfeit bill, that teller will look at it and think, "Something's not right here."
And so it is with security in the technology world. Without a deep understanding of the inner workings of networks, operating systems, databases, applications or whatever technology floats your boat, you can't become a security expert in any of those fields.
Security experts are teachers
Back to my reader's question about wanting to become a security expert in networks. I reassert that he, like others, must first become a network expert before he can become a network security expert. How else will he be able to understand -- at the lowest levels of greatest detail -- the real issues and what (if anything) can be done? How else can he truly understand a new threat and its consequences for his networks? How can he explain these concepts to other network experts with any degree of credibility?
This touches another point: credibility. Good security experts are still relatively rare. In my opinion, a



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