Here's how to harness the Top Gun effect to find the next generation of cyber talent

Cybersecurity, struggling for personnel, is in need of the Top Gun effect.

Cybersecurity, struggling for personnel, is in need of the Top Gun effect. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Alexander Riabov
Senior Communications Advisor, DAI Digital Frontiers
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This article is part of: Centre for Cybersecurity
  • The global shortfall of cybersecurity workers has reached 4 million.
  • This talent gap speaks to an urgent need to use innovative methods – ranging from hip-hop stars to bug bounties – to recruit cybersecurity talent.
  • Leveraging pop culture can expedite cyber awareness, while showcasing the community aspects of the cyber industry and embracing non-technical skills can bring in newcomers.

Top Gun, the classic tale of fearless test pilot turned hero Maverick, pushed cinema boundaries with audiences back in 1986 – so much so that, in the year following the movie’s box-office success, the US Navy claimed their recruitment swelled by a massive 500%. How does this translate to cybersecurity where the global shortfall of cybersecurity workers has reached 4 million?

We need a spark – with an energy equal to that iconic 80s flick – that could inspire future leaders to guide citizens and businesses alike on how they can mitigate cyber risks, implement comprehensive cybersecurity strategies, and increase their cyber resilience. While there is no silver bullet to solve the talent gap issue, the global shortfall speaks to a more urgent need to implement fresh and innovative methods that can inspire, encourage, and foster a new generation of cybersecurity talent.

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As tomorrow’s cyber challenges beg for tomorrow’s pros, here are a few suggestions on how to inspire those with a passion for protecting their communities to pursue cybersecurity as a viable and (cool) gig:

1. Harness pop culture to prove why cyber matters

Cybersecurity in popular media – whether it be through creative live-streamers broadcasting via the likes of Twitch, social media influencers, or features on Primetime can frame societal problems into clear arguments for why cybersecurity matters.

Take the Only Mine campaign as an example. In efforts to make cybersecurity more relatable to young minds in Mongolia, USAID’s Digital Asia Accelerator, implemented by DAI’s Digital Frontiers, worked with recording artists GangBay and Hishigdalai to release Miniih, a hip-hop track emphasizing the need to respect online privacy in loving relationships. Capitalizing on Mongolia’s mainstream music scene, this anthem generated an audience reach of over 1.7 million views on YouTube.

Around the same time, the Ransomware Task Force, a coalition of stakeholders across industry, government and civil society working to counter the ransomware threat was making its debut on HBO’s John Oliver – a foray into late-night television that reinforced how ransomware is no joke.

As pop culture continues to drive discourse, concepts and views, organizations and technology experts can seize new media opportunities to distill digital issues while profoundly connecting with new audiences – inspiring others to tackle cybersecurity challenges.

2. Showcase a cyber community with open arms

Lockpicking, coffee wars and scavenger hunts: How did these things become synonymous with hacking? Founded by then-18-year-old Jeff Moss as a farewell party for one of his fellow hackers, DEF CON – which features all of the above – has grown to be one of the biggest and most influential cybersecurity conferences to date. DEF CON Youth Villages, where adolescents can dive into reverse engineering, soldering, cryptography and other tech themes, are particularly critical to getting more young people interested in digital technology.

And it's not only here where these engagements happen. Examples like the Asia-Pacific Cyber Security Challenge (APCSC), which brings together young enthusiasts into cybersecurity-related e-sports competitions and the Hack The Box International Capture the Flags (CTFs), online events that mimic real-world cybersecurity scenarios, highlight the cybersecurity community’s global reach. Meanwhile, more specific communities like Women in Cyber and Blacks in Cyber directly address under-representation within the industry. Most importantly, these gatherings and platforms highlight that cyber professionals and others interested in digital technology are in fact a community. We just need to stress these venues exist, and that there is always a place for newcomers.


3. Demonstrate you can be one of the good guys and still make money

Imagine spotting an app vulnerability and getting paid for it. The expansion of corporate vulnerability reward programs – which not only cover company products but ensure high-risk free software applications and libraries are included too – create new possibilities for young software novices to enhance their skill sets. By spotting bugs and reporting them to an application’s developer through these programs, ethical techies can simultaneously make some hard-earned cash for their efforts.

Yet, it's not only about the software aspect that can allow rookies to get a taste of what it means to be in cyber. University programmes like the Wai Kid Digital Challenge in Thailand allow students to rub shoulders with leading digital technology companies and gain valuable professional skills. In this case, student teams created captivating video content with Facebook around digital safety concerns in the country. With six selected teams showcasing their work at the 2021 Wai Kid Digital celebration summit in Bangkok, many participants testified to gaining the skills, credibility and confidence to apply for their next role.

4. Insist that it’s not just about technical skills

It’s a common misconception that cybersecurity professions require a computer engineering degree. Yet, a skills-first approach that values a person’s skills and competencies – rather than degrees, job histories or job titles – can democratize access to new technology opportunities previously considered unreachable by many professionals worldwide.

From the World Economic Forum’s Bridging the Cyber Skills Gap initiative to a recent call by the White House to ease education requirements for federal cyber contracting jobs, there is a tremendous hunger for welcoming new and diverse groups of professionals that traditionally haven’t been recruited. With hunger comes incentives for both companies and job-seekers alike.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to address the cybersecurity workforce gap?

With the Top Gun sequel having generated palpable excitement to its 1986 predecessor almost 40 years later, can the cybersecurity industry do the same: create a lasting impression in the minds of today’s learners and tomorrow’s experts that cybersecurity is meaningful? As cybersecurity threats continue to exploit vulnerabilities in our digital spaces, experimenting with new recruitment approaches, deploying creative outreach methods, and pushing boundaries on what it means to inspire, discover, and retain cyber talent will help us find our own Mavericks.

This blog was inspired by insights drawn from a joint DAI Digital Frontiers-World Economic Forum-led roundtable titled Thinking Out-of-the-Box to Inspire a New Generation of Cybersecurity Talent during the 2023 Global Conference on Cyber Capacity Building (GC3B) in Accra, Ghana.

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