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Five Ways to Hire an InfoSec Consultant

Five Ways to Hire an InfoSec Consultant
By: Bill Mathews

This is not a nice post. This is not a post about posing great interview questions or how to tell if someone can actually do the job. No, this is a post about how to watch out for people you want to hire to help your company. You know the ones – the con-sultants, the slick ones, the rockstars, the ones you should fear. Some of these guys can be worse than the actual bad guys and here are five things to look for when you’re trying to spot them.

1) Shortcuts?

Are they promising you the world? One thing about information security that you should know upfront: there are absolutely no magic bullets. Anyone promising you one from a product or a particular process is lying to you. It requires a blend of products and a blend of methods, no shortcuts will help you – period.

2) Rock Out with Your NOC Out

Are they rockstars? So-called rockstars happen in every industry, it is just human nature and cannot be helped. The problem I’ve seen with most rockstars (almost universally in infosec) is that they are not the least bit interested in your problems. They are interested in getting paid and increasing their already big, and in most cases, undeserved reputations. You really have to be careful with these folks – a lot of them are just naturally talented public speakers so they get it on at various conferences and accumulate massive Twitter followings, making them think that those alone qualify them to dispense advice on applications and networks. In most cases, and sadly I’m not overgeneralizing here, they’ve never had any operational roles so they don’t really know what works and what doesn’t. So if it isn’t in the buzzword dictionary sitting in their blazer pocket, it just isn’t valid in their world. You’ll know these people by their insistence that whatever you’re currently doing is wrong – you should be using the method they developed or their tool they wrote because that is the only way to solve your problem. They won’t really listen to you, usually just nodding along with whatever you say until you hit the keyword they need in order to tell you how cool they are. Of course there are some “good” rockstars, so if you’re set on hiring an allstar look for one who has had operational roles in the past and actually appears to listen. Chance are though if they do that then they are very bad rockstars.

3) Lazy Web

Watch the website. Does it ever change? Chances are if they don’t have time to devote to their own website they’ll never get time to devote to protecting yours. Avoid the companies that never update their website or only list their products and services. Try to find one that offers practical advice and is active in the security community. When you’re looking for an outside company to help with your information security, try to find one that has something of their own to protect – a web service or their own network, many do not. This is a really self-serving one because, well, this is how our website is set up and we have a fairly sophisticated network of our own that we protect.

4) Agree to Disagree

Are they really just that agreeable? Good security people are contrarians, they just are. It is either the industry that attracts them or it creates them, either way few people in it are described as agreeable. If you’re in a pre-sales meeting and the sales person or consultant is constantly agreeing with everything you say, ask them what you need to hire them for if everything you’re doing is so right. I use this technique on a lot of our vendors because they are constantly nodding along and agreeing with everything we’re doing. They’re usually taken aback by that question but it really tells you who you’re dealing with. You need to know, upfront, what they are going to really be able to help you with. It is dangerous to have a security person agreeing with you all the time. Conversely, they shouldn’t be disagreeable for the sake of being disagreeable, you have to strike a balance. This is a tough one because, as I said, the industry is filled with both contrarians and slick-haired salespeople. You need the former but should forego the latter. Someone can be a skeptic or a contrarian without being completely disagreeable or being a miserable person to be around.

5) Auditors in Disguse

Beware the auditor in a security person’s clothing. There are literally thousands of information security consulting companies out there. There are probably as many ways to categorize them as there are letters in the alphabet but let’s take a look at just two. The technical group and the auditor group. Now let me say upfront that I’m not denigrating real auditors here, the people that really do the audit job, I’m denigrating the pretenders here. You will find this very prevalent with companies that do penetration testing or vulnerability assessments. For a proper penetration test you really need a good technical person that can communicate both the technical risks and the business issues associated with that risk or exploit. You’ll be hard pressed to find this in just one person, so you want to hire someone with a penetration testing team as opposed to just some solo testers acting as a team. You’ll have a rough time finding the right team and you’re bound to make a few mistakes, but you really do need the best of both worlds.

Now penetration testing service companies come in two flavors – again the very technical and the not-so-technical auditing tester. Penetration testing is difficult and is very technical, so you cannot rely on a person just checking boxes to call your network well tested. You need someone who is doing more than just running a scanner and calling it done, you need a person who can actually exploit the vulnerabilities found. This is a skill that requires some sophistication and usually doesn’t lend itself well to “normal” people. You never want an auditor performing a penetration test and, vice versa, you would never want a penetration tester performing an audit. Why these two things are fused together so much is beyond me. If you’re hiring for a penetration testing company then hire for that, if you just need some audit work then hire for that – but do not hire one set of people and think you’re done, they are entirely different skills.

Of course, there is no 100% guarantee when it comes to the hiring process – you almost never see their true colors until it’s just too late. Be sure to keep sharp and use a little common sense when following these guidelines. If there’s anything else you think you should look out for, leave it in the comments!

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Christina O’Neill has been working in the information security field for 3 years. She is a board member for the Northern Ohio InfraGard Members Alliance and a committee member for the Information Security Summit, a conference held once a year for information security and physical security professionals.