Turning a Corner: The Critical Point in Augusta’s Cyber Explosion
By Witt Wells
The U.S. Army is “open for business.”
That’s how Army Chief Information Officer Lt. Gen. Bruce T. Crawford put it at Augusta TechNet 2017. The new CIO had been appointed to the position less than two weeks prior to the massive Augusta trade show that brings together thousands of cybersecurity professionals in the military, government and private sector.
“Regardless of whether you’re a large company or a small company, we want to leverage the power of your best practices, we want to leverage the power of your innovation, we want to deliver the network that the war-fighter deserves,” Crawford said. “And we can’t do that without your help.”
Outside the walls of the huge conference room, hundreds of booths featured cyber technology in many different forms – from the latest virtual reality combat training to the kind of robots meant to attract middle-schoolers to computer programming – made by many of the entrepreneurs who make TechNet happen.
Their innovation is only going to become more crucial. According to Crawford, the U.S. Army, as far as information technology goes, is going to “start acting like a customer, and it wants to be treated like one.”
Such demand has manifested itself in an ever-growing collection of cybersecurity and information technology companies, both big and small, that have set up shop in Augusta. EDTS. Cape Augusta. Unisys. Rendition InfoSec. Zapata Technology. The list goes on, and more will come. The question is how they’ll respond to a growing need.
As it turns out, the city of Augusta and the Army Cyber Command aren’t just happy to have them anymore. They’re relying on them.
As successful as cybersecurity companies in the CSRA have been over the last few years, research suggests that we haven’t seen anything yet. A recent study conducted by the Augusta Cyber Institute at Augusta University stated that “there are simply not enough individuals going into the field of cyber security to meet the demand.”
According to the study, the percentage of millennials interested in a career in cyber increased from 33 percent in 2015 to 43 percent in 2016. In 2015, labor market analytics company Burning Glass reported that cybersecurity jobs in the U.S. grew 3.5 times faster than any other IT job and 12 times faster than all other jobs from 2010-2014.
The trend has held true in Georgia. In 2015, Burning Glass reported 121 percent growth in cybersecurity positions in the state compared to 2010-2014. The Georgia Department of Labor also expects big growth in cyber-related IT positions.
“There needs to be a lot of value placed on the engagement between academia in the local communities and … the regional capability they’re developing,” Crawford said after his talk. “Where are those workers going to come from?”
Crawford says he’s been pleased to see institutions like Augusta University get ahead of the game and start implementing technical skillsets into curricula. But he suggests that road should begin even earlier, and that “If we’re starting in high school, we’re starting too late.”
EDTS CEO Charles Johnson also stresses that Augusta has a long way to go in preparing the city for future infrastructural, educational and social needs. Over the summer, his company launched EDTS Cyber, a new, 100-person unit focused on cybersecurity solutions including network threat analysis and security monitoring.
I want people to take action,” Johnson said. “I think we’re two years behind right now. Unless we’ve got plans to support all this growth, we’re behind the 8-ball.”
Johnson’s sense of urgency is clear. He says Augusta needs to get ready for the demands already beginning to present themselves for a burgeoning cyber community that is getting an influx of military professionals, cybersecurity contractors and entrepreneurs. That creates a huge need for the community to step up technologically, academically, in infrastructure and more. Or, as The Alliance for Fort Gordon puts it, make Augusta a better place “to live, work and play.”
“Anything you can do to bring the entrepreneurs and innovators together with the business folks that have capital is important,” Johnson said.
Investing in Augusta
Enter Invest Augusta. What TechNet is for the global cybersecurity industry, Invest Augusta wants to be for the expanding cyber world in the CSRA.
“Augusta’s turned a corner,” said Tony Lever, the organization’s founder. “There’s going to be an explosion of small companies selling cyber (products).”
The purpose of Invest Augusta is to merge Augusta’s cybersecurity and business sectors by showcasing and developing top talent. Lever’s vision for it is easy to state but difficult to execute: harness the growing cybersecurity industry in the CSRA by bringing all of the industry’s local movers and shakers together.
These are the business leaders making it happen for Augusta, Lever said. He envisions an expanding web of cyber innovators and leaders in Augusta, a need he says will only grow as the city becomes an increasingly important cyber hub in the U.S.
That’s essentially why Lever launched Invest Augusta; he wants the cyber businesses in the Garden City to flourish. He expects a boom in small cyber and technology businesses, and he wants to be ahead of the curve.
“Cybersecurity never really made it to the boardroom level until recently,” Lever said. “Bringing the business skills and the technical skills together – this is how you form small businesses.”
Lever is wasting no time in his second year running the organization. In less than a month, Invest Augusta will hold its first annual cyber conference, where cyber professionals, business leaders, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists will gather to share ideas and become familiar with the local cybersecurity scene on a personal level. Johnson will speak at the conference, as will Dale Dye, executive director of global information technology company Unisys.
For Lever, Johnson, Crawford and many others, the formation of a tight network of cyber professionals to make meaningful progress at a critical time in Augusta is a necessity. Brandon McCrillis, CEO of Augusta-based cybersecurity firm Rendition InfoSec, agrees. He said that cybersecurity companies “largely operate in a vacuum.”
“If we band together, Augusta will be transformed because of this cyber district movement,” McCrillis said.
McCrillis’ outfit, a lean team of 15 (up to 35 during bigger projects that require a large number of contractors), established new headquarters in Augusta in July. McCrillis says Rendition InfoSec has roughly doubled in size over the course of 2017 (the company began in 2013).
“We’re loving the fact that we get to hire locally,” McCrillis said.
The company has also found a niche in Augusta’s blossoming cyber community. To McCrillis’ knowledge, it is the only one in the area doing digital forensics.
“This was a great spot,” McCrillis said. “It was a no-brainer.”