So You Want to Be a Cryptographer?
What is a cryptographer? An algorithm-whisperer, a code breaker and simultaneously maker whose sole purpose in life is to secure networks and protect important data. Of course there’s a great deal more to it, but if this already sounds like you, read on.
The first thing to know if you want to work in cryptography is that it is one of the hardest areas of cyber security to gain access to. Not only does it take superior mathematical skills, a knack for coding and a lot of hard graft; it’s often about who you know and crossing paths with the right people, and opportunities at the right time.
At a fundamental level, cryptography jobs require a degree in subjects like mathematics, computer science or computer engineering. As a useful extension to one of these technical qualifications, it is often greatly beneficial to pursue a PhD in one of those subjects with a heavy slant on cryptography, which is essentially grounded in the concepts of maths, engineering and computer science. A relatively new addition to the cyber security job type, if you’re looking for certifications then the one you can do is the CES ‘Certified Encryption Specialist’.
Whether your career aspirations are directed at cryptography jobs in law enforcement, insurance, the military, government, financial services or academia; the first thing to do is decide where you’re best suited to. Understanding which workplace culture fits your personality will help streamline your job search from the outset.
In this vein, if you are positioning yourself for a career in academia and if you are on the PhD track, then contributing to others’ published research and of course having your own work published will stand you in great stead. Meanwhile, should you prefer the industry option then it pays to establish a public profile that demonstrates your security expertise. Whether a blog or a contribution to open source code; make your abilities known far and wide.
Cryptographers as a rule possess great intelligence, a brain for analysis, puzzle solving and complex number theory, as well as the ability to approach any task with both creativity and a strong sense of ethics. The job will place large amounts of sensitive data into your capable hands to evaluate, analyse, decrypt, investigate and ultimately protect from would-be cyber-terrorists threatening anything from online bank transactions and email correspondence to national security.
In preparation for a cryptography or cryptanalyst career, the best thing you can do is learn how to break things; codes, firewalls, passwords, algorithms, computer systems as it is this that will give you the depth of understanding not only of how they work but where their vulnerabilities lie. It is only in discovering how something is broken that you can begin the process of securing it.
That practical experience will go a long way in helping you achieve your cryptography career goals, though bear in mind that is not all it takes. Read and self-educate widely using blogs, news outlets and people already in the industry. To set yourself on the path to working as an encryption expert, a signals analyst, a message decoder, a data decoder, which all come under the realm of cryptography, you need a thorough understanding of the where and why of cryptography’s use, how protocols affect security and how the interconnectedness of everything makes the need for cryptanalysts so critical.
There is of course a list of technical skills which employers will be looking for, from a fluency in programming languages such as C, C++, Java and Python to an academic background in abstract or discrete mathematics concepts. A theorist of numbers, you may be skilled in probability theory, complexity theory and information theory. Then from maths to computers, you will be familiar with data structures, algorithms and technical concepts, including hash functions, message authentication codes (MAC), key exchange and digital signatures, which come under the principles of symmetric and asymmetric cryptography.
Salary expectations for cryptography or cryptanalyst jobs vary greatly depending on whether you are working in the public or private sector, which particular company you are working for and of course, the extent of your experience and expertise. However, the average salary for a cryptographer working in London tends to hit around the £70,000/annum mark, while regional cryptography roles offer around £65,000 a year.