Everywhere I go these days, people are talking about cybersecurity and its ability to drive economic growth in the greater Washington region. While they agree on its potential, they often seem to disagree on how we are doing on taking advantage of this opportunity.
If you listen closely, some will say that our region is poised to, or has already become, the “Silicon Valley of cybersecurity.” Others say, “this region has all the attributes, if only we did X” and that until X occurs our region is doomed to have second-class status as a technology innovation community. Some cybersecurity start-ups lament that they need to look elsewhere for product and software development skills and yet others say we have an abundance of cybersecurity talent in the region.
Why is this picture so confusing, and what is the truth? How are we actually doing?
A big part of the answer is the nature of the software industry itself. It is maturing; very little software now is truly new. The industry’s tools are commoditizing, and the value is in novelty in how tools are used. Novelty is delivered in two primary ways: highly-skilled consulting or the delivery of a software product. Buyers are becoming more sophisticated with a desire for efficiency and prefer completed products that can be easily adopted, or high value-added consulting that is truly insightful.
Our region is uniquely positioned to compete and win business in both of these approaches. For example, in high-value consulting, we have recent examples of success like Raytheon’s $1 billion contract with the Department of Homeland Security and Engility gaining significant new cybersecurity businesses from the Air Force. Booz Allen Hamilton has dedicated a good chunk of its workforce to hybrid solutions, combining consulting services with recent acquisitions of cybersecurity product companies. Simply put, our high value-added software consulting and solutions businesses are well established and there is a strong ecosystem to support their continued growth — much of which is centered on national security. Our region is reaping the rewards of an established base.
Our region also the talent and capital to support broad and lasting cybersecurity start-up growth. Take ThreatConnect. It got its seed funding from local angels and the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology. It grew a product and team with help from experienced leadership from Sourcefire, an earlier successful cybersecurity software business. And it was just rewarded with $16 million in venture capital. Another example would be Tanium, a “unicorn” cybersecurity company, whose regional office is led by a veteran of Mandiant, another successful cyber firm. Homegrown talent is starting and growing cybersecurity product start-ups, and building bridges linking our region with others.
Big cyber boosters in our region are often engaged with our strong software consulting ecosystem. They look at things through the prism of a mature business model, and the accumulation of proven talent.
Conversely, people more concerned or negative worry about lack of capital for start-ups or lack of talent for designing product, because they spot the holes in the tapestry of support for start-ups. There are holes, but progress in closing these gaps is being made at an accelerating pace.
The difference between the two perspectives is reflective of the relative maturity of our two distinct cybersecurity sectors. The more we can help them adapt to each other and share resources, the faster our region will be more prominent in this domain. There is much still to be done, but to those who say cybersecurity is an opportunity for our region, I say, “you bet it is.”
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is co-host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.