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Florida wants to build a cybersecurity sector. The question is how?

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Published Apr. 27, 2018

TAMPA — In 2014, the Florida Center for Cybersecurity was established by the Legislature with several purposes in mind:

Lawmakers tasked "FC2" with bringing high-paying jobs to Florida, attracting companies in industries such as defense, health care, finance and transportation, and educating and training a cybersecurity workforce.

So how many companies has the center brought to Florida? FC2 can't quantify that. How many college graduates has it helped place at local companies? The agency can't say that, either.

Instead, executive director Sri Sridharan said it's time to set new benchmarks for his taxpayer-funded agency that better reflect the field's changing landscape.

"Cybersecurity is an evolving science," he said. "It's extremely dynamic, fast-moving, changing and evolving all the time.

"What was described four years ago, many of those things have evolved in terms of the mandate from the Legislature."

The industry is changing and growing so fast, it seems, that there's no lack of ideas for how to make Florida a player in cybersecurity.

FC2 and its staff of 12 offers funding and support for cybersecurity programs at state universities, expanding educational offerings in the field and hosting conferences and events to raise awareness about the industry.

Sridharan said FC2 takes an education-first approach to help grow local talent in the field and train workers to acquire degrees and certificates based on the cybersecurity needs of each sector, such as health care.

In fact, Sridharan said what Florida does best is educate a cybersecurity workforce. By the end of 2017, he said, there were more than 100 undergraduate, graduate and training-level programs across the state.

And by the end of this school year, USF's cybersecurity program alone will graduate about 400 students.

"We don't hear about unemployment for them," Sridharan said of the state's cybersecurity grads.

FC2 also partners with universities for "seed" funding for such programs and research initiatives, he said, that will help the state become an academic research hub in the space.

But there's no data that shows that approach is working yet. FC2 can't directly track whether the state is retaining its cybersecurity graduates, or where they go after school.

It relies on voluntary survey responses from graduates, Sridharan said, who often provide incomplete data.

It has the same problem when it comes to tracking whether it is attracting new companies to Florida. While the center works with local economic development entities to entice companies, FC2 cannot say how many companies it has attracted through its efforts.

"We're not tracking those specifically," he said, "nor do we have the ability to track those."

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Despite FC2's efforts, industry leaders say Florida is lagging in the cybersecurity field. One big issue has been attracting and developing a skilled workforce.

"Every community is complaining that there isn't enough of the right build of talent, whether it's security or virtual innovation," said Fritz Eichelberger, CEO of HotSpaces, a recruiting firm that hosts networking events for the tech community in Tampa Bay.

But other stakeholders say public agencies can only do so much. Brian Murphy, the CEO of Tampa digital security company ReliaQuest, said education alone isn't enough.

The companies themselves must also attract, groom and motivate the workforce it wants.

"I really think there's more of a responsibility on industry, especially companies like Relia-
Quest," he said. "We've got to be able to show a growth trajectory and continued training and development. It can't just be get a degree at a university, come to work and (then) be happy."

His company, he said, is an example of how to do that. Relia-
Quest's approach is to look for candidates with qualities that would mesh well with the company, even if their experience doesn't fully line up with an opening.

"We can't expect any university system to produce exactly what we need," Murphy said. "It needs to be a university system and corporate industry partnership."

The firm also said it pulls many of its new outside hires from Florida's university system and within Florida. Since January, ReliaQuest has hired about 50 people, Murphy said, and about 75 percent of them are headquartered in Tampa (the rest are in Las Vegas.)

And while ReliaQuest does hire graduates from cybersecurity programs from schools such as USF, it doesn't require graduates to focus their studies on cybersecurity. So new hires go through a rigorous in-house training program before they begin their jobs.

But not all companies have the luxury of grooming their own workforce.

Eichelberger said many are struggling to find candidates that possess the skill sets they need.

"Everyone is under so much pressure to deliver …" he said. "There's little time to train highly skilled people that could learn it, and so you're seeing the competition for the same talent go up."

Contact this reporter at mcarollo@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.