Demand for security skills is ballooning: So can former hacker hotbed Romania help?

With a past mired in malware, today Romania's widespread tech skills and low salaries are helping to turn the country into a cybersecurity hotspot.
Written by Andrada Fiscutean, Contributor

Romanian techies are choosing plentiful, well-paying jobs in the cybersecurity field.

Image: Sergey Isaev

Three months ago, developer Gabriel Cirlig gave up a career in gaming to pursue one in cybersecurity. Openings for gaming jobs are drying up in Romania, while demand for security professionals is on the rise, with a million unfilled jobs worldwide, according to Cisco.

"It's a more dynamic area, and your only option as a professional is to become better and better every day," Cirlig says. After five years in gaming, last fall he decided it was time for a change.

Other developers are taking a similar career path, which is not surprising, given that the workforce shortage in cybersecurity might reach 1.5 million by 2019, according to Symantec CEO Michael Brown.

Companies such as Bitdefender, Avira, and Heimdal plan to increase their Romanian teams by up to 20 percent this year. They already employ hundreds of professionals in the country, because security officers are easier to find there, compared with Western Europe. Plus, skills are competitively priced.

A junior security monitoring engineer starts at €500 ($548) a month, take-home pay. Mid-level specialists earn monthly net pay between €1,500 and €2,500 ($1,645 and $2,740), while monthly salaries for senior security professionals goes as high as €3,500 ($3,840), according to Maria Hostiuc, ICT recruitment consultant at agency Brainspotting.

"Although companies are actively searching for security experts, many of these jobs aren't listed on the web," she says. HR professionals prefer to hire based on referrals.

Many engineers are self-taught, building on top of the computer-science knowledge they acquired in school. Developer Gabriel Cirlig says cybersecurity was a hobby he had during high school.

Old stories about hackers from the region have inspired many locals like him to seek a legitimate career in cybersecurity. "I feel I can make a difference," he says.

Platforms such as Cybrary, a free cybersecurity massive open online course, are used by those determined to learn more.

Cybrary co-founder Ryan Corey says Romanian users have a grasp of the basics but come to training providers to hone more advanced, niche security skills.

"While US and UK users tend to take more beginner-level, general-interest courses such as Network+, CCNA and Linux+, Romanian users tend to take higher-level, more advanced security offerings like Malware Analysis and Advanced Penetration Testing," he says.

A survey conducted globally by Cybrary during the last three months of 2015 has shown that more than 80 percent of the 435 senior-level tech professionals questioned admit they have trouble recruiting skilled cybersecurity specialists.

"The top reasons given were lack of skilled cybersecurity talent in general (40 percent), lack of resources to properly find and attract talent (18 percent), and location of talent (14 percent)," the study says.

The largest security company in Romania is local firm Bitdefender. It has more than 900 employees worldwide, with most of its R&D professionals located across Romania.

But finding the right people is sometimes a challenging task for the antivirus vendor. "Recruiting a cybersecurity specialist takes one to three months on average," Elvis Popovici, Bitdefender's head of global talent acquisition, tells ZDNet. "The process includes the interview and technical testing."

To expand the talent pool, Bitdefender has signed several partnerships with tech universities and organized training sessions for those wanting to build a career in this field.

Another antivirus company, Avira, has over 100 IT engineers working in Romania. "Most of our security experts are programmers in charge of developing security applications, for both desktop and mobile, but we also have employees responsible for analyzing malware samples," Avira HR manager Elena Nastasa says.

She adds it's becoming increasingly difficult to recruit people because of the number of new companies entering the Romanian market. They often hire young professionals and then train them locally.

Danish security company Heimdal has also set up shop in Bucharest. "We have around 10 employees working on developing our security products," communications manager Andra Zaharia says.

Heimdal CEO Morten Kjaersgaard had two things in mind when he decided to open the Bucharest office. He knew he would find people in the city with "the right skills and the right attitude", Zaharia says. "The choice was made with the human resources in mind."

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