28 April, 2009

Building an IR Team: People

For some time I have been thinking about a series of posts about building an incident response team. I started in security as part of a very small Computer Incident Response Team (CIRT) that handled network security monitoring (NSM) and the ensuing security incidents. Although we were small, we had a very good core of people that helped us succeed and grow, probably well beyond anything we had imagined. We grew from a handful of people to four or five times our original size. While there were undoubtedly setbacks, we constantly got better and more efficient as the team grew.

As the first in this series, I definitely want to concentrate on people. I don't care what fancy tools, enormous budget, buy-in from management, or whatever else you have. If you don't have the right people, you'll have serious problems succeeding. Most of this is probably not unique to a response team, information security, or information technology.

Of course, hiring is where it all starts. What do you look for in a candidate for an incident response team? Here are some of the things I look for.

  • Initiative: The last thing I want is someone that constantly needs hand-holding. Certainly people need help sometimes, and sharing knowledge and mentoring are huge, but you have to be able to work through the bumps and find solutions. A NSM operation or CIRT is not a help desk. Although you can have standard procedures, you have to be flexible, adapt, do a lot of research, and teach yourself whenever possible.
  • Drive: Most people who are successful in security seem to think of it as more than a job. They spend free time hacking away at tools, breaking things, fixing things, researching, reading, and more. I don't believe this kind of drive has to be all-consuming, because I certainly have plenty of outside interests. However, generally speaking there is plenty of time to be interested in information security outside of work while still having a life. I, and undoubtedly many successful security professionals, enjoy spending time reading, playing with new tools, and more. Finding this type of person is not actually difficult, but it can take some patience. Local security groups or mailing lists are examples of places to look for analysts to add to a team. Even if they have little work experience, by going to a group meeting or subscribing to mailing lists, they are already demonstrating some drive and initiative.
  • Communication skills: Although this may be more important for a senior analyst, being able to write and speak well is crucial. Knowing your audience is one of the most important skills. For instance, if you are writing a review of a recent incident that includes lessons learned, the end product will be different depending whether the review is for management or the incident responders on the team. Documentation, training, and reporting are other examples where good writing and speaking skills are important. I think good communication skills are underrated by many people in the field and IT in general, but the higher you look the better the chance you will find someone that realizes the importance of effective communication.
  • Background: Most of the successful NSM analysts and incident responders I know have a background in one or more of three core areas; networking, programming, or system administration. A person from each background will often have different strengths, so understanding the likely strengths of each background can go a long way toward filling a missing need on the team. You do not have to come from one of these backgrounds, it is just relatively common for the good analysts I know to have backgrounds in these areas.
  • The wrong candidate in the wrong position: Do not be scared to turn down people that are wrong for the job. That seems obvious, but it is worth emphasizing. Along the same lines, if someone is not working out, take steps to correct the problems if possible, but do not be afraid to get rid of a person that is not right for the job. Try to understand exactly what you are looking for and where in the organization the person is most likely to excel.
Experience versus Potential
When filling a senior position, experience is definitely important. However, when filling a junior position I think automatically giving a lot of weight to information security experience can be a mistake. The last thing I want to do is hire someone who has experience but is overly reliant on technology rather than critical thinking skills. I don't mean to denigrate or automatically discount junior analysts that have experience, I just mean that I'd rather have someone with a lot of potential that needs a little more training in the beginning than what some would call a "scope dope", someone whose experience is looking at IDS alerts and taking them at face value with little correlation or investigation. If you have both experience and potential, great!

Information security covers a huge range of topics, requires a wide range of skills, and changes quickly. Good analysts will want training, and if you don't give it to them you will wind up with a bunch of people that don't care about increasing their knowledge and skills as the ones that do want to learn look for greener pastures.

There are many different types of training in addition to what most people think of first, which is usually formal classes. Senior analysts mentoring junior analysts can be one of the most useful types of training because it is very adaptable and can be very environment-specific. "Brown-bag" sessions where people get together over lunch and analyze a recent incident or learn how to more efficiently investigate incidents can also work well. Finally, when someone researches and learns new things on one's own or with coworkers as mentioned previously, that is also an excellent form of training. Load up a lab, attack it, and look at the traffic and resulting state of the systems.

Finally, do not forget about both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Though you may not consider them training, most people want to have the option open to either finish a degree or get an advanced degree in their off hours. There are a huge number of ways to provide training.

People versus Technology
Analysts are not the only ones that can overly rely on technology. Management will often take the stance that paying a bunch of money for tools and subscriptions means two things. One, that the systems must be what they need and will do all the work for them. Two, that the money means that the selling company has the systems optimally designed and configured for your environment. Just because you pay five or six digits for an IPS, IDS, anomaly detection, or forensics tools does not mean that you can presume a corresponding decrease in the amount you need to spend on people. Any tool is worthless without the right people using it.

Turnover, Retention, Mobility, and Having Fun
Creating and continuing a successful response team is to make sure the people you want to keep remain happy. There are a lot of things you need to retain the right people, including competitive pay, decent benefits, a chance for promotion, and a good work environment. Honestly, I think work environment is probably the most important factor. I know many analysts I have worked with receive offers of more money, but a good work environment has usually kept them from leaving. My boss has always said that the right environment is worth $X dollars to him, and I feel the same way. Effective and enjoyable coworkers, management that listens, and all the little things are not worth giving up without substantial reasons. Some opportunities are impossible to pass up, but having an enjoyable work environment and management that "gets it" goes a long way towards reducing turnover.

Bottom Line
I believe getting a good group assembled is the most important thing to have an effective response team. Obviously, I kept the focus of this post relatively broad. I would love to see comments with additional input. I hope to post additional material about building a response team in the near future, possibly covering organizing the team, dealing with growth, and a few other topics.

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