12 March 2012

The Times and the cyber techies (a techie gets tetchy)

From the online Oxford English Dictionary:
techie, n.
3.colloq. (chiefly U.S.). An expert in or enthusiast for technology, esp. computing; (also) a technician. Cf. techy adj.
techy, adj.1
Forms: 19– techie, 19– techy
Technologically sophisticated or complicated; characterized by expertise in or enthusiasm for technology, esp. computing. Cf. techie n. 3.

Pauline Neville-Jones’ opinion piece in The Times (£) on 9 March about cyber-security, Wanted: workers to fill half a million jobs, was subtitled In retail, defence, business and the police the hunt is on for ‘techies’. Could you be one? I will come to the rest of her article later, but the use of the term 'techie' intrigued me. I apply it to myself in this blog’s Profile, but I didn’t recall seeing it in The Times very often, if at all. So I searched the Times online database to derive the statistics for its use since 1 Jan 2011:

Bear in mind that over this period there will have been about 60 issues of the Sunday Times and about 360 of The Times, so you would have come across “techie/techies”, in one sense or the other, twice in 28 issues of The Times or in 6 issues of the Sunday Times. As an adjective, it’s often used to describe people: techie types, techie blokes, or even techie nerds. In fact, there is almost always a hint of deprecation about it (yes, by me too!).

The purpose of Neville-Jones’ article was to emphasise the importance of cyber-security and the consequent need for people with the skills needed to combat theft and espionage carried out against IT-based systems. Reading it, the prospects don’t look too good:
Government figures show that we will need more than half a million new IT professionals over the next five years. … The number of British students applying for IT-related courses is going down year on year, while foreign nationals fill the places. …
How can it be that in a field so central to this nation’s future and so potentially rewarding to those in it, we should be staring at a skills gap of daunting proportions and significance? …
The skills gap, which has its roots in the catastrophic decline in the teaching of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths) over the past decade, is at last being gripped. The current inadequate ICT curriculum is being radically upgraded and new courses being developed. But will these courses be taught? Today, half the teacher training places in maths are unfilled and far too few British students are filling the centres of excellence in computer science at our universities.
In posts over the last 18 months I have touched on some of the underlying issues. For example: the way the terms engineer and technician are abused in the UK; how different things are in China; the realities of STEM training – the “math-science death march”.   Neville-Jones almost gave the game away when she remarked:
IT jobs are widely seen as being “techie” and dull. Not all of this is wide of the mark.
but then recovered with:
There is a real job to be done by existing professional bodies, universities and the Government to tell people just how broad, varied and rewarding a profession this is.
The Rt Hon. The Baroness Neville-Jones, DCMG (as Wikipedia indicates she should be styled) is a former diplomat who occupied important intelligence and national security posts, became a Conservative politician and then Minister of State for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office, and is now (as The Times article stated) “Special Representative to Business on Cyber Security”. Her own degree (Modern History from Oxford) was far from techie, and although she has no children of her own, I would be surprised if any of her godchildren, nieces, nephews and so on have pursued STEM-based occupations. To understand why that is likely to be the case when talking about the offspring of the UK’s elite, it’s helpful to return to the examples from Times online because these reveal their underlying attitudes towards “techie” types:
Who says techie types can’t connect? The Times 7 Feb 12
often the techies are not so hot on writing Sunday Times 20 Nov 11
a proper techie with thick-rimmed glasses The Times 30 Apr 11
Even the techies got excited The Times 19 Mar 11
sounding as emotional as a techie can get The Times 19 Mar 11
which shows that, in techie terms, I’m relatively up to speed The Times 16 Mar 11
(The Secretary of State for Education’s wife, that one)
we had an interval while the techies fiddled around with the communications systems Sunday Times 13 Mar 11
the sort of scientific language beloved of techies The Times 12 Mar 11
some slightly less chic techie types on the mezzanine The Times 19 Feb 11
Not greatly encouraging. But as I pointed out a year ago:
… “high achievers from poor families” don’t just lack material resources, but also … face a shortfall in “social capital” including access to networks, contacts and internships. In these circumstances, taking STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths), where what you know matters rather more than who you know, may be a better strategy than taking softer options with a more uncertain access to employment.
Meanwhile in China, a chemical engineering graduate from Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, Xi Jinping, is about to become President. While Baroness Neville-Jones probably doesn’t read the New Scientist very often, or even The Times’ monthly Eureka supplement, she is almost certain to be familiar with the prestigious US journal Foreign Affairs. She might then have found Adam Segal’s Feature article, Chinese Computer Games in March/April 2012’s issue, interesting, if a little depressing:
In February 2011, weeks after Google publicly announced that hackers had tried to steal its sensitive computer codes, security experts traced the attacks back to Shanghai Jiao Tong University and a vocational school in Shandong Province. Both schools denied any involvement, and it is possible that their computers were hijacked by others, but U.S. intelligence officials claim that 20 groups associated with the People’s Liberation Army and several Chinese universities are responsible for the majority of the attacks on Google, RSA, and other U.S. targets. Attributing responsibility is often hard. Some hackers drift in and out of Beijing’s orbit over time, whereas others are independent criminals with no links to the state. Overall, however, much of the hacking originating in China can be classified as government-sponsored or government-tolerated. Beijing sees such hacking as a good way to eke out economic and military advantage …
Segal would like to see a consensus built up between the US and Chinese governments, both sides recognising their common interests in an interoperable and high integrity internet. This is more a job for diplomats than techies:
Diplomats should take their cues from the planned dialogue on cyberspace between the United States and Russia, which is to include discussions about how each side’s military views the Internet and an effort to establish a hot line that could be used during a cybersecurity crisis. Washington and Beijing need to have a clear communications channel in case of emergency. To build trust over the longer term, the two sides should also discuss some common threats, such as the potential for terrorist attacks on power grids.
Nonetheless, he concludes:
Assembling an international consensus on norms about cyberspace, however, is a strategy that will probably take a long time to pay off, if it ever does. There is little the United States can do to alter China’s conception of cyberspace, a vision it is actively promoting abroad. With a growing population of 500 million Internet users, it is easy to see why the Chinese believe that the future of cyberspace belongs to them. In the meantime, the most pressing tasks for the United States are to raise the costs incurred by Chinese hackers and to improve the security of networks at home. Yet U.S. officials should be realistic: Chinese-based cyberattacks will not disappear anytime soon.
which all suggests that if you embark on a career as a cyber-security techie, it should last for years.


Anyone who has read all above will probably find this article interesting, particularly the different national perspectives, as were identified by Segal.

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