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Cyber Leaders Call for Energy and Optimism to Kick off 2021

Ross Kelly

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Cyber Scotland Connect

DIGIT spoke with Stu Hirst and Harry McLaren, co-founders of Cyber Scotland Connect, to explore how the cyber community can rebound after the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

Two years on from the launch of Cyber Scotland Connect, amidst the disruption of a global pandemic, it’s been a particularly challenging time for the security community.

But the founders of CSC think that now is the time that we’ve got to rally, regroup and get the energy levels and optimism back up for 2021.

Reduced Engagement

Hirst explains that after Covid first struck, there was a push to retain engagement.

“There was an initial period of maybe eight-to-ten weeks where everybody felt we’re all in it together – so let’s get some virtual events going because it seems like a good way just to keep stuff ticking along and to keep the community engaged.”

But the initial enthusiasm was difficult to sustain. Remote events, for all the good they offer, just haven’t been able to provide the same intimate, personal nature of physical Cyber Scotland Connect meet-ups.

“I think a lot of people started off lockdown rather normally with zoom calls, quizzes, family get together and so on and so forth” said McLaren. “But then it kind of slowly went away as people became just completely worn out.

“They’re worn out with the scenery, they’re worn out with the medium.”

Hirst echoes McLaren’s thoughts, adding: “As much as we’ve tried to adapt to what this is, it’s not the same. You know, the bumping into people or having a beer afterwards, or whatever extra it is that we get from our events.

“Sadly, this doesn’t replicate it and while we’ve done the best we can, it’s not the same.”

People, he believes, just don’t seem interested in spending more time behind their computer screens, and it’s completely understandable.

“It almost feels as if everyone who’s lucky enough to have kept their day job is solely focused on it, because they don’t have the capacity to do all the other stuff,” he says.

And this has had a direct impact on engagement: “Harry created a Slack meetup recently and I don’t think anybody joined. I don’t think that’s because people are being rude or not interested, it’s simply as if nobody still has the capacity to really contribute more than their day job.”

Battling Burnout

Crucially, they both agree, the burnout and fatigue from remote working, the lack of social interaction and intense working patterns in an exceptionally challenging industry have combined to create this lull in engagement.

During the pandemic, the cybersecurity sector has been worked harder than ever before.

Increasingly, cybercriminals and state-sponsored hackers have sought to take advantage of the coronavirus disruption and launch attacks against some of the country’s most critical assets – with vaccine research and supply chains being targeted most recently.

“Of course, every job role has challenges, whether they be environmental or economic, but we are literally working in an industry where there are people plotting against us – and we’re not being paranoid when we say that” says McLaren.

“I think it’s a point that’s been underappreciated, especially during the pandemic. There are entire criminal organisations that have intentionally used the pandemic against us, our customers, our businesses.

“So, not only are you fighting against the oppressive nature of the pandemic in the global downturn, you then also have an entire group of highly motivated and funded attackers going after you or your clients or employer.”

Within this context, it’s not difficult to imagine that under a sustained period of heighted pressure, motivation is challenging and burnout becomes a real problem.

Strength in Vulnerability

From the outset, the Cyber Scotland Connect founders and wider moderator group have sought to improve awareness of mental health issues in the sector.

Previously, CSC has hosted a range of events and meet-ups where these issues have been explored, and the organisation has been keen to impress that open, honest discussion is crucial to addressing the issue. Particularly in an industry that has traditionally been reluctant to acknowledge the scale of the problem.

“A big focus for us has been mental wellbeing and promoting a kind, caring environment where you can be vulnerable and not be judged for it – and I think we’ve started down that path,” says McLaren

“Traditionally, we have an industry that doesn’t always treat vulnerability as something positive. But maybe you don’t deliver your best work after an 18-hour day, and you’re not the best husband, wife, carer and why shouldn’t we challenge that behaviour?”

Moving Forward

Despite the difficult year Hirst and McLaren and confident that things will improve, and that CSC and the wider community will keep moving forward.

Already, Hirst explains, the energy appears to be returning. With news of vaccine roll-outs and light at the end of the tunnel for society, things may start returning to a small degree of normality.

“Looking ahead, it’s going to be about getting that energy going again, because it will come back, and we will get back to what we were doing before.

“We’ve just got to try and find new ways to really engage people again and get everybody moving and motivated,” he says.

“I think we’ve only just scratched the surface with this stuff, to be honest. We’ve formed the relationships and then built the bonds and there’ll be next year and beyond, so there’s still a hell of a lot we can do.”

New Opportunities

McLaren also views the year ahead with a renewed sense of optimism and motivation, noting that some of the plans cast aside amid the difficulties of this year will be revised and rolled out.

Among these proposed changes will be smaller, more confined meet-up groups where sessions and interactions can be refined and made even more intimate and supportive.

Similarly, both Hirst and McLaren agree that engagement with the wider tech community is a key objective for CSC looking forward as well as engagement with schools and academic institutions.

As Hirst says, CSC has the relationships, the connections and the desire to make the cybersecurity sector an open industry for its practitioners, but also an appealing one for future generations.

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“We always talk in security about there being no point in just speaking to a room of 100 security people all the time because they’re not the people you need to influence. So I think there’s a chance there to look at what else is there in Scotland,” Hirst says.

“This is about supporting the next generation of leaders within cybersecurity,” adds McLaren. “We are very privileged and lucky that, at some point or another, somebody has inspired or mentored us in this industry, and this is the same with other moderators at CSC.”

Getting back on Track

After the challenges of this year, Hirst believes there has been valuable time for reflection and honest appraisal. An opportunity to re-evaluate and decide what really matters.

“With our events, it’s that social contact, the human-to-human interaction, where we find the most value,” he says.

While community engagement has decreased temporarily, he expects it to return when the disruptions subside and people have had time to regroup. There will be an opportunity to build on the foundations of the last two years, open up the organisation to even more ideas, and expand the vision.

Get Involved at Cyber Scotland Connect

The founders were keen to conclude the discussion with a call to action, and an open invitation to the wider industry to engage:

“I think for the community out there we’d say if you’re not involved, get involved. We are always asking how we can better serve the community, and while it’s nice that we’ve got ideas and are custodians of that vision, we want it to be a shared one that’s driven by the needs of the community itself,” he explains.

“We’d love for many more voices to be heard when directing the future of CSC. So if you want to lead, if you want to be a moderator or simply run a session, then reach out.”

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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