Mind the gap – Invest and innovate to build future cyber security capability

AISA is collaborating with Untapped, an organisation that identifies and accesses cyber security workforce talent from the autistic community. Here, Adam Easterbrook, COO at Untapped, explains the opportunity, potential and great results of people with autism in the cyber security sector.

The challenge

As the risk of serious cyber security breach escalates for all Australians, the workforce needed to meet this growing challenge remains woefully short of current and future resources. Resources have a tendency to be extremely transient, constantly on the move between organisations removing knowledge, capability and training in their wake. It is critical to invest in the skills gap.

The opportunity

Some forward-thinking organisations are choosing to invest innovatively in the future of their cyber workforce rather than trawl the ever-diminishing pool of increasingly costly resources. The education sector is not yet delivering the volume of resources needed, so new sources of untapped talent need to be identified to help bolster capability and keep organisations from cyber-based threats.

Untapped is an organisation that is dedicated to accessing talent from the autistic community. This is new talent; talent that is raw, motivated, capable and eager to become involved. 68% of working-age people diagnosed as autistic remain unemployed with 1 in 64 men and 1 in 189 women diagnosed and rapidly increasing rates of diagnosis. There is much talent, capability and eagerness in the autism community to gain work, build careers and work to provide a meaningful contribution to society while creating and maintaining their own independence. This is a large and important untapped talent pool.

Education and typical workplaces create many barriers to learning and employment for autistic people. The way that autistic people think and react to social situations differs from the way that organisations choose to recruit and select employees. This does not mean that autistic people cannot perform the roles or become part of an effective workforce. It means that we need to adapt traditional recruitment, management methods and workplace environments to enable them to demonstrate their capability.

Unfortunately, many autistic people have poor experiences during their time at school, university and in employment. They often fall out of education and employment because they do not fit the ‘cookie cutter’ management and learning methods that businesses use. Small adjustments to working and management styles to cater for the needs of autistic people can make all the difference between an engaged, productive and valued employee and one that finds it difficult to negotiate education and the workplace; falling out of employment or failing to complete qualifications. This doesn’t mean they aren’t capable, just that organisations do not know how to manage inclusively for a diverse range of employee needs.

Untapped works with organisations to build, support and manage teams using inclusive methods that allow people to show best how they can problem solve and work together as a team. Untapped assesses autistic candidates to determine their aptitude and motivation to perform a technical role. Selection is not based on their pre-existing technical skills or education. Technical skills can be taught. Aptitude and motivation cannot, and organisations must invest in these important qualities to contribute to their future cybersecurity workforce.

The potential

The autistic talent that Untapped has identified, trained and supports for its customers is delivering important outcomes for federal government and large corporates with mission-critical needs while building workplace, life and technical skills to maintain long term careers. The autistic employment programs that these organisations implement continue to grow based upon the capability, quality and loyalty of their autistic employees in successfully delivering their technology projects.

Cybersecurity with its breadth of work types lends itself well to the autistic community. Autistic people often have strengths that are highly relevant to roles in cybersecurity and can include:

  • Good visual memory and long-term memory

  • Ability to see patterns

  • Attention to detail

  • Ability to learn rote material easily

  • Tendency to be logical

  • Perfectionism, eagerness to please

  • Taking things apart and putting them back together

  • Ability to learn routines, adherence to rules and schedules

  • Detailed knowledge of specific areas of interest

When the balance of work type, support and workplace environment is achieved, teams implemented by Untapped have been measured to deliver performance benefits in excess of 25% while maintaining high quality and also identifying innovation for organisations through the diversity of thought that they bring. This safe environment is important and creates employees that feel comfortable in the workplace that they understand and that understands them - thus generating loyal and long-term employees.

We regularly see remarkable results, performance and innovation from our autistic teams with examples such as:

  • A team in a Federal Government Department which were provided with a significant backlog of firewall security event logs. The backlog was assessed as likely to take 18 months to clear. However, the new team were able to clear it in 4 months and redesigned the process at the same time.

  • In an Australian bank, cybersecurity analysts start at a level one capability and normally progress to level two after five years of experience. In some cases, in a new autistic team in that bank, some trainee analysts were writing level two reports after only five months.

  • In early 2018, a major Australian bank commenced their Autism@Work Program. Their initial cohort of nine trainees were proficient four months earlier than expected, returning 12 months' value in five months and delivered an over 50% increase in productivity. In April 2019, the bank took on its second cohort of trainees. Within four months, this team had created detection rules in the security/intelligence tools used and moved from a process that was mainly manual to the automation of more than 78% of the process – resulting in an ongoing saving of hundreds of hours per month.

It is worth bearing in mind that the majority of these team members were unemployed or underemployed prior to starting these roles. Their only prior work experience may have been washing cars or working in fast food restaurants. Truly untapped talent!

Access to this pool of untapped talent is not through traditional means and requires knowledge and understanding of how to attract and motivate candidates to apply for opportunities.

Keeping cyber relevant

Despite having capability, a key challenge when attracting autistic people to become employed and train for cyber security roles is a lack of knowledge about the industry, career pathways and what types of roles and work are available. The result is a lack of self-advocacy that keeps them from applying for available opportunities.

Untapped have tackled this problem head on by developing the Genius Armoury platform (www.geniusarmoury.com) that is specifically designed to engage and determine the level of aptitude and motivation towards a cyber security career for an autistic person. Working with a consortium of DXC Technology, BHP, Curtin University, La Trobe University and Splunk in conjunction with AustCyber, the platform was developed over a 12 month period and launched at the 20th annual AusCERT Cybersecurity conference on Wednesday 13th May 2021. Within one month of the soft launch over 1,000 people had enrolled to learn more about what a cybersecurity career could offer.

Genius Armoury is not intended as a platform to teach cybersecurity. It is intended to ignite the interest and imagination of autistic people to start the journey to a cybersecurity career through further cybersecurity education, a supported employment program or cybersecurity traineeship.

Genius Armoury is just one way that Untapped continues to innovate to help autistic people build professional long-term careers. Underpinning Untapped’s approach to building high performing teams of autistic individuals is a solid understanding of supporting autism in the workplace that is backed by world-first longitudinal research. Untapped constantly iterate the methods used for attraction, assessment, selection and training, using a detailed curriculum of workplace and life skills training, that sets-up autistic individuals to thrive in the organisations where they work.

Elements of successful ‘sustainment’ model programs

The design and delivery of successful and sustainable employment programs for people on the autism spectrum have a number of key elements required for success which include:

  • Preparing the organisation for the inclusion of autistic employees.

  • On-boarding to ensure that the organisation and new recruits work in harmony from day one.

  • Attracting and recruiting the most appropriate candidates for the roles available.

  • Sustainment of the individuals and building technical and life skills and mental health support to deliver valuable business outcomes and create long term careers.

  • Supporting the trainees, their managers, and co-workers to understand the working style and methods that enable autistic individuals to perform to their very best.

Building the pipeline for the future

Joint effort is required by organisations and educators to build the future pipeline of resources needed to fulfil the cybersecurity needs of our organisations and government.

Developed by Untapped, the global Neurodiversity Hub (www.neurodiversityhub.org) initiative is focussed on working with universities, employer partners and service providers to implement a co-designed, co-curricular model program designed to facilitate autistic students to become more work-ready and increase their chances of securing a job and commencing a career. The model program comprises creating more inclusive entry pathways, providing programs for student success and facilitating work experience opportunities.

Ways in which employer partners can be involved in the Neurodiversity Hub include:

  • Training courses / materials to develop students’ work-ready skills

  • Contributing modest funding for adaptation of materials for students

  • Providing speakers to present on the careers available in the relevant organisation

  • Organising ‘field visits’ of students to the relevant organisation’s premises

  • Providing employees as mentors for industry mentorships

  • Providing one-week job shadowing opportunities

  • Providing multi-week internships or other work experience opportunities

  • Funding research into issues relating to adult autism in the workplace

It is recommended that employers contemplating autism employment programs join the Neurodiversity Hub and benefit from this community of practice.

In conclusion

The cybersecurity talent and skills gap isn’t going away anytime soon. Investing in a loyal workforce utilising autistic individuals to help tackle the problem is an innovative solution that benefits the organisation and demonstrates corporate responsibility. It benefits employees, customers, shareholders and Australian citizens while providing skills and building long term sustainable careers for autistic people that are capable, willing and keen to contribute to Australian society and online safety.