#544: Looking to veterans for the next wave of cybersecurity experts with Nakisha Dixon, Vercara

In 2023, the global cybersecurity workforce grew 8.7%, reaching a record high of 5.5 million people, according to the 2023 ISC2 Global Workforce Study. However, the industry is still grappling with a substantial deficit of 4 million professionals to properly safeguard the world’s emerging digital threats.

As the global cybersecurity workforce continues to expand, the industry faces significant challenges in meeting the demand for skilled professionals. Today, we’re discussing an innovative solution to this talent shortage—leveraging the unique skills and qualities of veterans. Joining us is Nakisha Dixon, Vice President of Human Resources at Vercara, who has keen insights into the adaptability and potential of veterans in the cybersecurity field.


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Greg Kihlstrom:
In 2023, the global cybersecurity workforce grew 8.7%, reaching a record high of 5.5 million people, according to the 2023 ISC2 Global Workforce Study. However, the industry is still grappling with a substantial deficit of 4 million professionals to properly safeguard the world’s emerging digital threats. As the global cybersecurity workforce continues to expand, the industry faces significant challenges in meeting the demand for skilled professionals. Today, we’re discussing an innovative solution to this talent shortage, leveraging the unique skills and qualities of veterans. Joining us is Nikisha Dixon, Vice President of Human Resources at Vercara, who has keen insights into the adaptability and potential of veterans in the cybersecurity field. Nikisha, welcome to the show.

Nakisha Dixon: Thank you, Greg, for having me.

Greg Kihlstrom: Yeah. So first question for you, you know, with your background in human resources and your focus at Verkara, could you share with us how you came to recognize the potential of veterans in the cybersecurity industry?

Nakisha Dixon: Yeah, of course. So I actually was fortunate to know about the importance of veterans in the workforce, because I’m the daughter of a veteran mom, who was a yeah, it’s pretty, pretty cool. Because when she was in the armed forces, There weren’t a lot of women, especially women medics, and she was a medic. And when she transitioned to civilian life, she she originally had a hard time finding a job, even though she had the medic background. And this was in the 70s. Right. So she. eventually became a lab technician, right, at the VA hospitals working with veterans. So from a young age, I pretty much, you know, going to my mom’s job, knowing about veterans, knowing her background, having a lot of siblings that are also in the armed forces as well, I understood the importance that they give to the country and how important it is for us to assist them when they return back to civilian life. One of the things that I’ve been fortunate in my HR career, especially working in IT, is the ability to craft programs and to develop recruitment strategies and initiatives that allow me to really look at how we can best recruit a diverse workforce, especially when it becomes, when you’re thinking about veterans. So there’s so many, and I’ll talk about it a little bit later, but there’s so many skillsets that veterans have that are just amazing in the workforce discipline, the desire to do a great job. And this is so essential in cybersecurity where we’re very policy driven, especially within the operations and technology groups.

Greg Kihlstrom: Yeah, great. Well, so let’s, let’s dive in, then we’re going to explore talking about the potential of veterans and cybersecurity. And so, you know, as I mentioned at the top of the show, you know, with the cybersecurity workforce growing, yet having that deficit, definitely need to find great fits within that. And veterans with their skill, discipline, structured training, definitely represent an untapped resource here. So can you discuss, you know, what are some of the key qualities that veterans bring to the table, which align well with the cybersecurity profession?

Nakisha Dixon: Right. So here at Vercara, we’re fortunate to have veterans in pretty much all of our disciplines. We have DNA and sales within our operation and tech groups, which is typically what I see in the HR realm is a lot of our vets will transition into the operations or technology groups. But across the board, the qualities that I constantly see is the eagerness to learn and get the job done. There’s, I will say, from knowing about boot camp and training and how to That discipline that is learned and ingrained during that process, and as well as being in the armed forces, it comes to work every day. There’s amazing teamwork with our veterans, right? They want to not only do a good job, but there’s this camaraderie about, I want to do a good job with my peers. I want to do a good job together. There’s a whole mentality that it’s people-centric to do a good job. And that is amazing for any employer, the skills, tenacity. And then the one common theme that I do see at VCARA, as well as I’ve seen at other employers that have hired veterans, is that there’s always a way to get things solved, right? There’s never a problem that’s too big. There’s this real strong detail orientation and thoroughness in problem solving that is just essential, especially when you’re thinking about today where we have this blended generational workforce and skills that transcend across Asian demographics are essential for companies.

Greg Kihlstrom: Yeah. Yeah. And so what does this look like at Verkara as far as, you know, how have you been able to integrate veterans into the cybersecurity teams? And, you know, you touched on some of the benefits already, but, you know, what have you observed kind of in the process of doing this?

Nakisha Dixon: Right. So the good thing about VCARA and what we were very lucky is that we have a good amount of veterans that already that work here and they refer others or they tell us about different programs that will help in recruitment of veterans. So one thing that we ensure is that we look at not only the onboarding component where they’re learning their job, they’re learning how to get set up, but we really, really focus on orientation. So we think about things in that first one week, right? When an employee comes to work the first day, especially our veterans, they want to do a great job. And they have, again, like I mentioned, they have this need, this eagerness to exceed what is expected from them. So making sure that we give a good roadmap of what they can expect, And again, no orientation program or process is going to be without a few hiccups, right? You know, we’re all not perfect, but it’s always doing our best to ensure them. what a normal day will look like. Again, keeping in mind that they’re transitioning a lot of times to civilian life. So making sure they have a roadmap of what to expect. That’s what we do really, really well at Verkara. And also wanting to hear about their experience. I worked at a company years ago that did not understand transferable skills, right? They didn’t understand that. And I think what we do at VCARA amazingly well is that we want to hear different ideas, different skills you used in the past. that can be utilized here. It doesn’t matter what your MOS was. And if you’ve learned something or you’re thinking about something that we can implement here that will make our lives easier, more efficient, we want to hear about it. So all those things really help our veterans transition into the different teams they’re in, whether it’s sales or operations or technology or sport.

Greg Kihlstrom: I’m excited to announce an exclusive offer that will enhance your listening experience of the Agile Brand with Greg Kilsfrom Podcast. You can now listen to my show, The Agile Brand, completely ad-free on your favorite listening apps like Spotify and Apple for just $4.99 a month, giving you access to all the great conversations with top thought leaders in marketing technology, CX, and more without the ads. To learn more and sign up, follow the link in the show notes to listen to The Agile Brand completely ad-free. Check it out now. And so, you know, it definitely sounds like Verkara is really, really embraced this and benefited from, you know, from this, this way of thinking. And, you know, there, there may be though, some companies out there that are, maybe have some misconceptions or just not have not embraced, you know, some of the, some of the things that you mentioned, some of the benefits of, of what some of these veterans can really bring to the table. And so some of this might mean that there needs to be a mindset shift, again, overcoming some misconceptions or preconceived ideas. So how do you recommend that a company look at this? And you’ve touched on why it can be beneficial, but I wonder how a company, again, that doesn’t really put a focus on this, what would you recommend them doing to make a shift in this direction?

Nakisha Dixon: Yeah. That’s a great question because I remember when I started looking at doing that diversity recruitment, looking at veterans, right, there wasn’t a lot of resources as we have now. So I say this because the Society of Human Resource Management, they have a Veterans at Work Certificate Program, right? A lot of HR professionals are aware of SHRM, which is Society of Human Resource Management, but they may not be aware that they have a certificate program that is free. And the whole idea was a few years ago, SHRM put together an initiative to basically improve the number of veterans that were working or were able to transition to civilian life. And this certificate basically talks about tools and knowledge they need to build out a robust talent recruitment program for their company size, right? As of ACARA, we’re around 300 employees. So our program may not be the same program than a company that has 3,000 or 30. It’s what makes the most sense for your organization. And the good thing about the certificate allows them to really think about avenues, right? You don’t have to go and recreate the wheel. You don’t have to start from scratch. You have a proven method to start doing more of your organization. I think a lot of times when we think about recruitment, especially in today’s market, because if you think about it, the great resignation was two years ago. And us in talent acquisition, I mean, we had to really fight for every candidate. We had to go above and beyond. We needed to get, you know, we were paying more. We were we were we were overhiring because it was just a switch in how we traditionally recruit. And now the market has changed back to what the close to the traditional and the great resignation is not as prevalent anymore. But that does not mean that we just wait for veterans to apply to our jobs. We need to be going out, building partnerships. We need to not just expect them to apply online. We need to make ourselves as a company and employer a choice for veterans.

Greg Kihlstrom: Yeah, and to build on that, then, you know, what has been effective in doing that and, you know, getting in front of these veterans? I would imagine, you know, I’ve known a few myself that transitioned, you know, out of service and didn’t really know exactly where to look, had a lot of applicable skills, but weren’t really sure how to kind of, you know, start a new career. So, you know, how do you get in front of these people?

Nakisha Dixon: Yeah, that’s a great question. What we do at VCARA is when we decided that we wanted to focus on diversity hiring and specializing in veterans, we realized that there’s so many different organizations. There’s like MOA, there’s ThriveDX, there’s the DoD Skills Bridge, which is an awesome program. We’ll talk about that in a second. But we realized there was already agencies that did the groundwork for us. All we had to do was make the connection, so we formed strategic partnerships with these organizations, and we go to their recruitment events. Again, simple movements to make an impact. These organizations, they have the one-on-ones with veterans. They provide additional services, so they have the connections We just need to show up and build these partnerships with them. And quite honestly, these partnerships are free. They’re not charging a fee. They’re not charging if you hire someone, none of that. It’s just building and knowing what’s out there. We, our commitment to hiring vets is so strong that we, even as a small company, we do compete, right? We, around the summer, we try to do a targeted recruitment campaign that just focuses on our desire to continue to hire veterans, right? That might just be a LinkedIn post, that may just be an article that I write and make sure that it’s posted for our organization. But again, when you think about commitment to hiring veterans, think about developing veterans in your workforce. A lot of times, especially if you’re like me, who is type A, always wants to think big and do big. But you don’t have to do everything. You just have to do something and be consistent and track it to make sure that it’s successful.

Greg Kihlstrom: Yeah, yeah. And so let’s take a, maybe the next step is, you know, you’re, you’re, we’ve got, we’ve got veterans in, you know, applying for jobs and need now needing some, you know, training and development as well. So, you know, veterans often come with that strong foundation that you already touched on of, you know, discipline, agility, but to get into cybersecurity, obviously, there’s often some training required. So, what training and development initiatives have proven effective at Verkara for helping veterans transition successfully into cybersecurity roles?

Nakisha Dixon: That’s a good, that’s a great question because we think about hiring We think about onboarding and orientation, but we don’t talk a lot about training and long-term career development. So one thing, we’re a small company, we’re newer, so we’re learning as we go about training and development. But there’s one area in training and development that I think when we’re starting to build programs or we’re starting to ensure that we transition veterans successfully into cybersecurity roles, The one thing that we really have to ensure that we don’t pigeonhole veterans, right? We we’re lucky that we have a lot of different personality analytical tools that we use to see what employees motivations are in regards to how they like to work. Are they outgoing? Are they more focused on working with individual projects? Are they more detail oriented? Are they more big picture? what kind of rewards and recognition they like the best. And we utilize that profile to really find out what motivates the employee on an individual level. And then we think about training and development, because VCARA strongly believes that the employee should own their career development and that the manager should help guide, more like coach versus determine, we really work with our vets to help them understand what the opportunity is for them, right? We’re a small company, but we have a lot of different avenues that an employee can go into. And we have a promotion rate of about 40% at this point. And what that means is that we strongly believe in hiring from within and developing from within. When you think about training and development and transitioning successfully into these cybersecurity roles, Whereas a couple of traits that are across the board that I see, irrespective of the individual training and development that we do, but you know, our vets really want to follow the rules and they like policies and procedure. So we supply that on day one. We make sure that our vets understand company norms because again, lately we’ve been hiring a lot of that this is their first civilian role in some time. So they want to understand what are the company norms, especially working in a remote environment or a hybrid environment, what’s expected from them. And they have this strong sense of wanting to do the right thing. So they want to know what the norms are, what’s anticipated, what are those policies and procedures, and they want to go above their commitment to do a good job. That just, and that goes right back to, we get a large amount of applicants for our entry-level IT roles. And the one thing I love about the amount of applicants we get for the entry-level IT roles is we have a proven training and development role to get, and that’s within our SOC team. We have a proven training and development plan to get employees up and running. So a lot of our vets that do come through that program, they love it because it’s tested, It’s true. Every day, you know exactly what you’re going to learn. And I think it’s one thing that we do extremely well.

Greg Kihlstrom: Yeah, that’s great to hear. Well, Nakisha, as we wrap up here, what advice would you give to other HR leaders? Certainly, we’ve talked a lot. There’s a lot of great reasons to look at veteran talent for these roles and a lot of just foundational skills and things they bring to the table as well as potential. But what advice would you give to other HR leaders looking to tap into this veteran talent market for cybersecurity and maybe other technical fields as well?

Nakisha Dixon: Yeah, well, first off, thank you for having me as a guest. And to the HR leaders, make hiring veterans a commitment, right? Learn the best practices, try some new initiatives, Go out, form strategic partnerships, get the resources that are online about how to develop a program, and really commit to not just checking the boxes. Do your homework and make sure that your entire leadership team is committed to hiring veterans and what that looks like for your organization. It’s a great endeavor. It’s not just on the armed forces to find roles for our service people. It’s one of our responsibilities