WASHINGTON -- In the Washington area, the concentration of government agencies and contractors brimming with computer geeks rivals any cyber defense area on the planet. And in this age of growing cyber threats, those firms are engaged in a cyber-hiring competition so fierce that one expert called it "fratricide on the parkway."
In suburban Maryland, The National Security Agency at Fort Meade -- the center of the cyber galaxy -- has thousands of computer scientists, mathematicians and engineers gathering foreign intelligence electronically and defending the government's classified computer systems.
Working for the government can have its benefits, including the gratification of public service in national security, job security and good benefits, but private industry tends to pay more. A technical whiz with two years' NSA experience and a security clearance might have started at NSA at $60,000 but could easily command $100,000 in the private sector firms near NSA, industry officials said.
The CIA, Department of Homeland Security and FBI -- whose offices are scattered throughout the Washington region -- are also recruiting people who can write code, reverse engineer malware and probe computer systems for vulnerabilities.
"They're all stealing from each other," Alan Paller, research director of the SANS Institute, a cyber training organization, said about all the private and government agencies chasing after the same talent pool. "There's a head-to-head battle between CIA and NSA for every new cyber employee," he said. "Now, DHS is in the fight, too."
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said she is seeking to hire 600 new cyber workers. DHS is responsible for securing the unclassified federal civilian computer networks and coordinates with the owners of the nation's critical systems -- water, energy, transportation and other vital networks that need to be protected. DHS also can provide forensic aid and help a company recover after a network intrusion.
Four years ago, DHS had 40 people in cyber, and today, it has 400. Now it is seeking to build a far larger government cyber squad in addition to the 1,500 cyber contractors who also work for the agency, officials said.
"We don't have signing bonuses, unfortunately, we are not the NBA," Napolitano said. "But if you want to be in an area where the national mission is absolutely key, where it's fast-developing, where you can be in on the ground floor on something of major significance to the public interest and use skills that you have developed in cyber, you need to come work with us, because that's exactly what we are doing every day."
Napolitano is so concerned about the issue that in June, she formed a task force on cyber skills to foster development of a national security workforce with cyber capabilities and to help DHS better recruit and retain talent.
One key task force recommendation is that the government reserve for government employees the most technically demanding jobs, such as "penetration testing," or probing networks for vulnerabilities, and "incident response," or the cyber SWAT team for emergencies.
"In other words, stop giving cool jobs to contractors," Paller said.
Another recommendation included training military veterans for mission-critical cybersecurity jobs.
DHS also just created the Secretarial Honors Program, a two-year program for recent college graduates designed to develop technically skilled cyber professionals through rotational assignments in the department.
Starting government salaries generally range from $60,000 for new college graduates to $115,000 or so, depending on experience.
"Yes, we are all hiring away from each other," said one cyber contractor. "I'm doing it myself. They're all going to the highest bidder."
Another private contractor, KeyW Corp., formed in 2008 with 60 people to help "our customers achieve cyber superiority over our adversaries" has grown to 1,100 employees. Most hires come from other companies that may not offer opportunities to do "some of the fun, creative stuff," such as turn ideas into real software products that can be marketed or used in government, said Leonard Moodispaw, the firm's chief executive officer. The majority of the firm's clients are U.S. intelligence agencies, he said.
KeyW's typical hire is someone with five to 10 years of experience and a security clearance whom they will pay $110,000 to $120,000. The top starting salary for a real pro with clearance is $200,000, he said.
The competition is so stiff that the Hanover, Md., company gives employees a $5,000 fee if they refer someone who ends up getting hired. The employee who refers the most eventual hires wins a free trip to Key West, Fla., at year's end.
"When I'm out talking to investors, they sometimes ask me, 'What keeps you up at night?' " Moodispaw said. "The answer is finding the talent for all the work we've got."
The military is a great source of talent because it builds discipline, he said."We would much prefer to have somebody in the military or right out of the military than a born-again hacker" who might get frustrated when a hacking attempt fails, Moodispaw said. "If you're some kid sitting around a coffee shop and think it's easy to get into a network, you get bored and frustrated if it doesn't go the right way."
Richard George, until last year NSA's technical director for information assurance, who did a lot of talent scouting and recruiting, said NSA experience will give a person a 50 percent rise in salary in the private sector. But, he said, in his experience, most computer scientists hired by NSA stay. "Most of them are there for the mission," said George, now the senior adviser for cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.
NSA expects to hire more than 1,200 individuals this year, about 45 percent in the science, math and cyber fields. INSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said in particular, the agency is looking for cyber professionals in computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering and mathematics.
The FBI is also beefing up its cyber capabilities to investigate and stop the theft of data, money and intellectual property. FBI Director Robert Mueller has said cyber threats may soon surpass terrorism as the nation's top national security concern.
The FBI is seeking to hire 50 new computer scientists -- to have at least one for each of its 56 field offices, said Richard McFeely, the executive assistant director for the criminal, cyber, response and services branch, in an interview. Currently, the cyber division has 20 computer scientists, McFeely said.
Cognizant of the growing need for cyber specialists, American universities have begun to set up new programs or expand existing ones. One top school for NSA recruitment is the University of Tulsa. During the past 10 years, Tulsa's Cyber Corps program has trained more than 260 students, and NSA has hired about 160 of them, George said.
"We train them to be like the special agent on the television series 'MacGyver,' " said Sujeet Shenoi, director of the Tulsa program. They also learn the need for security clearances and how not to blow a promising career with, for instance, a drug charge.
"We have a U.S. Secret Service facility on campus, where we actually work on real cases," Shenoi said. The Secret Service has long been one of the premier investigative agencies working cybercrime cases.
Dartmouth College, Carnegie Mellon University, Northeastern University, Dakota State University and Naval Postgraduate are other top cyber schools.
There are more than 150 schools designated by DHS and NSA as Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education and Research, and the number is growing. Students who attend one of the programs may apply for federal scholarships and grants.
"We're all looking at the same resumes," said George, who is recruiting cyber personnel for the Applied Physics Lab."It's a small pool and there are a lot of people hiring from it."