The Snowden Effect

Kin Cheung/AP

Public aversion to domestic spying doesn’t seem to be hurting government’s ability to recruit cyber staff.

Revelations last year that the National Security Agency is collecting Americans’ telephone metadata soured some people’s opinions about the U.S. intelligence community, but they apparently haven’t affected the views of many computer security professionals.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that leaks by Edward Snowden, the former systems administrator and contractor with the National Security Agency, have not hindered efforts to recruit or retain cyber staff at the three-letter agencies. Instead, the disclosures actually might have helped intelligence agencies attract computer aficionados by spotlighting the agencies’ bleeding edge technology.

“We have had no indication that cyber pros have any reticence about working for the government,” says Mark Aiello, president of Massachusetts-based Cyber 360 Solutions, a staffing firm. “It is probably the opposite, and mostly for the opportunity to work with some advanced tools or techniques. The Big Brother aspect is appealing if you are the watcher, not the watched.”

Justice Department Chief Information Security Officer Melinda Rogers says the attention to agencies’ cyber activities may pique the interest of potential recruits. “And that’s our responsibility as hiring managers to make sure that they understand the importance of the mission.”

Multiple East Coast cyber recruiters say none of their prospective hires has mentioned Snowden as a factor in their career considerations. Nor have cyber headhunters, who place departing government pros in industry positions, seen any increase in federal personnel heading for the exits.

“I normally hear regularly from people who want to leave. I haven’t seen an uptick at all,” says Kathy Lavinder, founder of Maryland-based Security and Investigative Placement Consultants. “I think there’s just always a steady stream of people who want to leave after X amount of years. And I think for the NSA, there are people who go there to get the experience to have that on their resume.”

Deborah Page, a Virginia-based executive search consultant with the McCormick Group who specializes in information security job searches, says, “We aren’t seeing any challenges at the moment” with recruiting talent in the wake of Snowden, “or at least I’m not.” 

A Blow to Morale

The Snowden leaks might not have hurt recruiting or led to an exodus of talent, but the publicity they generated certainly had an impact, says Christina Ayiotis, a computer science faculty member at the George Washington University. “Morale was severely affected at NSA,” she says. “While there may be disagreement regarding whether actions were legal or not, the vast majority of employees were doing the work they always do, believing it was protecting the country. The negative impact has been in their productivity levels, I’m sure.”

While the intelligence community ranks among the best places to work in government in surveys by the Partnership for Public Service, employee satisfaction and commitment dipped from 71 percent in 2012 to 67 percent in 2013.

Nonetheless, job seekers appear undeterred. 

CIA spokesman Christopher White says more than 80,000 people applied for jobs with the agency in 2013, an increase over the previous year although he would not disclose how many people applied in 2012. “What I can tell you is that recent leaks have not impacted our recruiting efforts in any significant way,” he says.

Within the office of the Director of National Intelligence, hiring managers have seen “no notable impact to our recruitment efforts or to the number of individuals submitting applications in response to the Snowden media leaks,” DNI spokeswoman Kasey Butler says. 

Officials at the FBI and the Homeland Security Department declined to comment. 

At the Pentagon, the opportunity to join a “unique cyberspace mission,” which involves hacking adversaries, protecting military systems and cyber spying, continues to attract candidates, Defense spokeswoman Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson says. “Recent media attention to the work cyber professionals perform provides an opportunity to correct distortions and present the facts on the critical value of this work,” she adds. 

As for the elephant in the room, NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers said recently at a Reuters cybersecurity summit that the agency had seen some impact on recruiting and retention, in certain areas: “In general I would say not to the point where it’s really impacted our ability to recruit the right people,” Rogers said. 

Regarding retention, he pays particular attention to younger staff with three to five years training, “who have a skill set that is readily transferable to the outside world,” he said. “I have not seen significant loss that I would attribute to the current environment. Now, does that mean I’m going to sit here and tell you we haven’t seen any loss? 

No . . . I think it just goes to the workforce believes in what they’re doing.”