We need to teach our young to be explorers and sceptics

At some point, every child will be asked what they’re going to do when they grow up. Few will declare themselves set for the life of a software engineer, or a hacker. But technology is the beating heart of most modern organisations, and partly due to this reason, the current GCSE exam format is subject to much debate in the UK. 

On the one side are those that argue it should be scrapped in favour of a complex testing process to produce stronger candidates; others believe this disadvantages youngsters who buckle under the pressure of examination conditions. Both sides have valid points but the bigger picture is being ignored: making sure that future graduates leave school with the skills needed for their working lives.

Blue sky thinking

In a classroom environment, children who question teachers are labelled as troublemakers, and those who take things apart are “delinquents”. But isn’t that exactly what’s needed in today’s world?

Rather than a workforce of followers, I like to hire people who think outside the box, question everything and challenge the rulebook (as long as it’s legal). If Columbus hadn’t sailed out on a mission to establish trade routes, wouldn’t we still believe the world was flat?

As a hacker, my instincts tell me not to try what I know works but to look for ways so that it doesn’t. As a businessman, I recognise that just because something’s always been done a certain way, it doesn’t make it right. I need to constantly evolve and ensure my business does too, if we’re both to survive.

What about the box?

The same is true for technology – it continually evolves. Employees who are scared of change are going to hinder the utilisation of advancements.

In the classroom, children need to embrace exploration and excite in the discovery, not run from the prospect. As we continue to rely on technology for even the most basic of functions in the workplace, the ability to look at a problem from every conceivable angle and discover a working alternative, is a necessity.

Does this mean we need to shake-up the examinations our children take? Who knows – I certainly don’t claim to be informed enough to make that judgement. What I do know is that the curriculum and teaching practices need revolutionising to ensure technology isn’t just used for other subjects, but learned in its own right.

Play to your strengths

When playing video games as a child, I would always look for ways to break the code to secure additional ammo, extra units or create different guises. Some will see it as cheating, but is it? Surely I’m just using my skills effectively. For me, the fun of the game is beating the game designers.

Transferring this to my career, I wouldn’t have gone far if I had given up at the first hurdle. Similarly, I wouldn’t have made as many sales if I had stopped with the first “no”. What we need our youth to value is tenacity, not just an A*.

Learning from living

I’d be the first to put my hand up and say I dropped out of university, but that doesn’t make me a failure. In fact, quite the opposite. I have a fire in my belly and a passion for security that I’ve used to get where I am today. As an employer, it means I don’t just look at CVs to see a person’s grades when they left full-time education, but what they’ve done with them since.

As parents we become fixated on the grades our children achieve and, yes, they are important, but they’re not everything. What we also need is a “common sense” examination. I’ve interviewed a few Grade A/1:1 students over the years who struggle to function in the working world. Had the education system failed them?

While I wouldn’t advocate that every primary school child be given a computer and taught how to break into government databases – although I don’t see the harm as it would certainly keep these establishments on their toes – I think inquisitiveness should be actively encouraged rather than seen as an evil that needs to be quashed. If a child has a natural talent, be it football, mathematics or breaking code, then this should be the focus rather than the elements of the subject likely to appear on the examination paper.

We need employees who are willing to stand up for what they believe and question what they think is wrong. Perhaps then rogue bankers won’t cripple our financial institutions, nor think it’s a valid defence for doing so. In my experience, the best person for the job is someone with passion. For example, the best security professionals are those passionate about security. Of course, the basics are important, but so is creativity and flair.

Just like I recognised my skills as a hacker from an early age, as an employer I recognise the skilled individuals within my workforce and deploy them appropriately. What I think is important is passion, creativity, morality and tenacity. As long as these values score an A*, that’s the main qualification I’m looking for from future employees.

Dominique Karg is the Chief Hacker at AlienVault.

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