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Disciplined Passion for Cybersecurity

By Adam Bricker, Executive Director of the Carolina Cyber Center

While discipline without passion is boredom, passion without discipline is chaos.

Passion, driven by curiosity, is a key attribute that sets apart great cybersecurity professionals. Actually, I think it sets apart virtually anyone in their chosen field. All too often, however, we emphasize passion and its corresponding traits to the exclusion of discipline. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” For many of us, passion and discipline are the two opposed ideas that must reconcile, even more so when safety hangs in the balance.

My passions, besides cybersecurity of course, include mountaineering and rock climbing. In both of these “sports,” passion carries us to new adventures while the discipline of safety brings us home.  The discipline of checklists, mutual accountability, and repetition ensure safety by habit (a great resource on this is Tiny Habits by B.J. Fogg). When belaying from above, wind and the length of an entire cliff face separate you from your climbing partner; the climber’s words “belay on?” or “on belay” from the belayer are unclear. But their audible rhythm, the things we learned through disciplined repetition, remain. Our confidence rests on a method and checklist that have proven their safety. Cybersecurity is no different. Discipline makes the difference between success and failure during a crisis for cybersecurity professionals. According to Atul Gawande, failure is not always due to ignorance. Failure due to ineptitude occurs when: “the knowledge exists, yet we fail to apply it correctly.” We fail because we are not implementing what we know. That failure to implement occurs when we try to work under pressure without a checklist. In other words, we lack discipline.

No matter what sector you work in, during a high-stress, high-pressure situation we can quickly become physically or mentally tired. Our attention shifts to making it through the crisis, such as an incident response, and we make mistakes. When repeatedly confronted with malicious actors who lack our moral or ethical framework, how do we avoid mistakes? How do we stay both passionate and disciplined in our protective measures? In these crises, when our memory and judgment prove unreliable, discipline in the form of proper checklists supply structure to ensure our energy is spent thinking freely and learning, rather than in implementing what we already know. Gawande says a good checklist is precise, efficient, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. It should provide reminders of only the most important steps, rather than trying to spell out everything—after all, a checklist can’t do your job for you.

Discipline, one of our core values at the Carolina Cyber Center, does not exist in a vacuum. It does not exist in and of itself, separate from any other value. Instead, it runs synchronously with other values, creating a structure of character as curiosity leads to discipline, while discipline regulates and even empowers curiosity. A disciplined checklist while rock-climbing doesn’t ensure safety or move you up the rock face—it aids memory recall, giving you the freedom to trust in a proven system as you employ the other necessary actions. Similarly, in cybersecurity “process saves us from the poverty of our own intentions,” in the words of Elizabeth King, and provide us with a structure to employ critical thinking, curiosity, or collaboration in the areas that need it most. Discipline working through critical thinking, curiosity, and collaboration ensures safety.

At Carolina Cyber Center, we seek to create cyber professionals of character, whether they begin as an amateur fresh out of high school, mid-life career changers, or are cyber professionals continuing their education. To learn more about what the Carolina Cyber Center offers, visit our website or call us at 828.419.0737.

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