Thursday’s opening keynote addressed an issue that has become front and center for the security industry over the last year—mental health.
Last August at Black Hat was the first time a specific conference track had been dedicated to the infosec community to present on stress, burnout and mental health. Fortunately, that has carried over to RSA which featured a stimulating conversation between Josh Corman of I am the Cavalry and Christina Maslach, a Professor of Psychology (Emerita) and a Researcher at the Healthy Workplaces Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
As Maslach stated, Silicon Valley has always encouraged and rewarded burnout. In the ’90s during the dot-com boom, it was seen as a badge of honor to work for days on end and sleeping (when you could) underneath your desk. You would do this for a couple of years with the reward being some sick stock options.
Workforce shortage exacerbates burnout
The skills shortage in the cyber industry has been a common topic for years now and most vendors use it as a talking point by claiming their AI/ML infused products will augment this issue. This skills shortage has another effect though—increasing the chance of burnout.
As Maslach mentioned to Corman on-stage it’s hard not to react to every single little sound or vibration whether it comes from our phone or computer. However, that is just an everyday human problem, now think about this in the context of a security operations engineer.
Organizations typically use dozens of different tools on a daily basis—CSO reported in 2016 that the average company uses 75. I installed a Google Calendar extension into Slack this week and am overwhelmed just from those notifications, it’s hard to picture that x75.
Culture and managerial structure can be a differentiator
I particularly enjoyed Corman’s personal anecdotes from his infosec career and how different managerial structures and company culture can either help combat or unintentionally encourage burnout.
Companies should be mindful that certain managerial decisions or even reward systems can directly contribute to burnout. Organizations that ask all members for feedback on ways to treat each other better can help be proactive given our resources are people and as stated previously those are already in short supply.
Incident responders are the digital equivalent of first responders in the medical field. At times we have to hold secrets about our work which can add additional stress. Unfortunately, there are times when coworkers are showing signs of burnout and instead of empathy and compassion they are called weak and told they aren’t cut out for the industry.
Stay in your lane
It was refreshing to listen to Corman and Maslach given earlier drama this week as SOAR upstart, Swimlane, attempted a tone-deaf stunt that backfired as RSA banned the vendor from the conference at Moscone.
Swimlane staged a fake protest to promote its product which relies heavily on automation and positioned itself as helping combat analyst burnout and stress. (See a picture of the protest from Tom’s Guide security editor, Paul Wagenseil.)
To make matters worse, Swimlane issued a press release claiming it was wronged by RSA. Whatever buzz they hoped to generate at the show ended up rubbing many the wrong way.
I for one enjoyed my time with the adoptable puppies at the ThreatQuotient booth. This was a cuddlier and friendlier way to generate attention at a packed Moscone Center rather than playing the victim after poking light at mental health to promote a product.
Building a safe and inclusive infosec community
At the end of the day we’re going to get the culture we invest in and it’s important to work for an organization that encourages feedback and ideas from every member.
During a conversation with a data scientist colleague this week he remarked, “the greatest minds of our generation are trying to get people to click on ads.” This was top of mind as I took in Thursday’s keynote.
While it won’t happen overnight, hopefully raising the issue of mental health in our industry and fostering an inclusive and safe environment can counteract the very people who are trying to make us more glued to our screens.