The Navy is preparing to experiment with an exam aimed at predicting the types of sailors capable of grasping cybersecurity skills without ever having picked up a book or keyboard.
The hope is that finding diamonds in the rough will help the branch, along with the rest of the Pentagon, build a 6,200-person departmentwide Cyber Mission Force.
The "Navy Cyber Aptitude and Talent Assessment" will function not unlike an existing Defensewide exam that screens a recruit's knack for picking up foreign languages.
The University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Study of Language, a research institute that developed that test, the Defense Language Aptitude Battery, will be designing the "Cyber DLAB," as the Navy calls it.
Both exams aim to reveal raw talent.
The Navy is in "the early stages" of working with the university's center "to pilot a test that aids in identifying individuals who have the right traits to succeed and thrive in our most demanding cyber work roles," Vice Adm. Jan Tighe, head of U.S. Fleet Cyber Command, told Nextgov in an email.
The resulting assessment should be able to discern "critical thinking skills and discrete cognitive skills” suitable for cyber operations positions, she said, adding that the tool will help grow the Fleet Cyber Command's Cyber Mission Force teams.
"We need to know that the workforce we are building has the aptitude to grow and succeed in the cyber mission arena," Tighe said.
A former top Navy IT official said experience should still factor into information security hiring and recruiting, especially as practical training begins happening in childhood.
It will be "crucial to recruit sailors with keen skills in problem solving, critical thinking, pattern recognition and hands-on cyber experience," said former Navy Chief Information Officer David Wennergren, now a senior vice president at the Professional Services Council, a contractor industry group.
"Children are honing their technology skills at a young age nowadays, and the military should be positioning itself to provide cutting edge technical and leadership opportunities for young people to harness these skills to help defend the nation," he added.
On Monday, the Air Force and UMD's language center publicized a similar effort to construct an exam for spotting naturals within that branch.
The Air Force Cyber Aptitude and Talent Assessment will be able to "identify candidates who are cognitively equipped to succeed in cybersecurity,” as well as determine the right position for each service member, and suggest training paths, university officials said in a statement.
Open to New Experiences? You Might Prefer IT over Engineering
Several academic groups, including UMD's center, have dabbled in research on personality traits and cognitive styles that signal cyber potential.
In 2013, the center announced a partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology, to screen for certain attributes that influence performance in cyber jobs. The traits they wanted to assess included cognitive abilities, motivation and personality factors.
Separately, Turkish researchers in 2007 found that those who scored highly on tests of math, cognitive, verbal, spatial and psycho-motor abilities -- such as space perception -- performed better in tasks involving computer programming. Marmara University researchers Yavuz Erdogan and Emin Aydin, along with Tolga Kabaca of Usak University, said it was "not surprising" students' broad "general ability scores are reliable predictors of their programming performances."
Another unsurprising finding: Masters of arithmetic tended to excel in software development.
"This could be that computing as a subject requires a structure and approach with which students have some experience, and similar cognitive skills used in the study of mathematics,” they wrote in a 2007 World Scientific and Engineering Academy and Society conference paper.
Earlier, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia researchers Khairul Mastor and Abd Ismail discovered that people pursuing IT were more open to new experiences than prospective engineering students.
"Openness to actions is seen behaviorally in the willingness to try different activities and a preference toward novelty and varieties, which is also one of the characteristics of information technology students," the Malaysian researchers observed in a 2004 World Transactions on Engineering and Technology Education study.
The same research showed engineering attracted more "field-independent students," who like to gain knowledge on their own, whereas IT drew more "field-dependent students," who tend to prefer following instruction.
Mastor and Ismail wrote that "field-independent students tend to choose academic majors that require cognitive-restructuring skills," and field-dependent learners "tend to choose areas that require greater social and interpersonal involvement, such as information technology, law and the humanities."
The Navy's predictive test would work in conjunction with an established SAT-like career placement test, according to the Fleet Cyber Command. The branch has proposed adding a section to that exam, called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, that would measure prior cyber learning.