Friday, November 24, 2006
Digital Security Lessons from Ice Hockey
It occurred to me today that we are witnessing the sort of change that happened to the National Hockey League in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During that time the player pictured at left, Bobby Orr, changed the game of ice hockey forever. For those of you unfamiliar with hockey, teams field six players: one goalie, who guards the net; two defensemen, who try to stop opposing players; and three forwards (one center and two wings), who try to score goals.
Prior to Orr, defensemen almost never took offensive roles. (Forwards didn't pay much attention to defense, either. Only in 1978 did the Selke Trophy, for best defensive forward, start being awarded.) When Orr began playing, he wasn't satisfied to control the puck in his defensive end and then hand it off to one of his forwards. He jumped into the play, sometimes carrying the puck end-to-end, finishing by scoring himself. Twice in his ten year career he even lead the league in scoring -- scoring more goals than forwards. He didn't neglect his defensive duties, either. He was named league best defensement eight years straight.
What does this mean for digital security? It's easy to identify the forwards in our game. They discover and write exploits. Some of them can play defense, while others cannot. Many of us are traditional defensemen. We know how to impede the opposing team, and we know enough offense to understand how the enemy forwards operate. A few of us are goalies. Aside from clearing the zone or maybe making a solid pass to a forward, goalies have near-zero ability to score goals. (Yes, I remember Ron Hextall.) That's the nature of their position -- they can't skate to the other end of the ice!
Anyone who plays a sport will probably recognize the term "well-rounded." Being well-rounded means knowledge and capability in offense and defense. I think it applies very well to ice hockey and basketball, less so to soccer, somewhat well to baseball, and not at all to football. I see well-roundedness as the proper trait for the general security practitioner, i.e., the sort of person who expects to work in a variety of roles during a career. This is the ice hockey model.
I do not recommend following what might be called the [American] football model. Football players are exceptionally specialized and usually ineffective when told to play out of position. (Could you imagine the kicker playing on the defensive line, or the center as a wide receiver?)
Returning to the hockey model, remember that there are three positions, with varying degrees of offensive and defensive responsibilities. Goalies focus almost exclusively on defense, but they try to make smart plays that lead to break-outs. Defensemen concentrate on defense but should contribute offensively where possible. Forwards concentrate on offense, but help the defensemen as well. How does this model apply to my position in digital security? I consider myself a defenseman, but I'm trying to develop my offensive skills. (At the very least, better knowledge of offensive tools and techniques helps me better defend against them.) I have no interest in being a goalie. Being a forward would be exciting, but I'm not sure I'll have an opportunity or job responsibility to fully develop those skills.
I suppose it's even possible to become a coach or trainer (like skating guru Laura Stamm). You don't have to actually play the game, but you quickly become irrelevant if you lose touch with the game.
Does the extreme specialization of the football model apply? I think it may for large consultancies (or perhaps for the security market as a whole). In a large consultancy, you can be the "Web app guy" or the "incident response gal" and make a living. Outside of that environment, perhaps at a general security job for a company, you're expected to be good at almost everything.
I've written before that it's unreasonable to be good at everything, despite the unrealistic desire of CIOs to hire so-called "multitalented specialists." I recommend choosing to be a goalie, defenseman, forward, or coach/trainer. Be solid in your core responsibilities, but remember Bobby Orr's example.
How do you fit into my hockey model?