With cybersecurity a critical part of Ireland’s digital economy, the University of Limerick’s Dr Lubna Luxmi Dhirani discusses how the education sector can keep up.
While the tech talent shortage is widespread across many countries and industries within the tech sector, cybersecurity is undoubtedly one of the areas with the most critical skills gap.
While a report at the end of 2022 suggested that Ireland has reduced its cybersecurity skills gap, the picture was not so positive for the rest of the world. In fact, it revealed a substantial jump in the size of the global workforce gap to 3.4m – up from 2.7m the previous year.
Within the education sector, work is being done to help build a strong cybersecurity talent pipeline.
Dr Lubna Luxmi Dhirani is a lecturer in the Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering at the University of Limerick (UL).
“The first memory I have is of visiting my dad’s research lab after school hours and seeing him working on a computer,” she told SiliconRepublic.com. “Being a four-year-old, I was fascinated and wanted to type in a few words too. Seeing my interest, Dad got me a few books for learning.
‘Cybersecurity is an integral and inclusive part of Ireland’s digital economy’
“I was 12 when I took a computer hardware apart and built it back together. Deep down, I was nervous but developed a different level of confidence.”
Now in UL, Luxmi Dhirani teaches on the cybersecurity practitioner apprenticeship programme and is course director for the BSc in Cybersecurity programme.
The apprenticeship is a level eight programme “to facilitate a blended combination of on-the-job employer-based training and off-the-job training in cybersecurity to facilitate employee upskilling and reskilling”.
“Following this programme, the apprentice will be capable of developing systems using cognitive computing, the IoT, cloud computing, computer forensics/data retrieval processes and more,” said Luxmi Dhirani.
“They will also be skilled in building security systems along with investigating and implementing key security measures, undertaking risk analysis and analysis of security breaches.”
Meanwhile, the bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity and IT forensics focuses on networking, data security, cloud computing and IoT. “With the Covid-19 situation in the world today, security of communications has become very important and is achieving lots of attention from hackers. This course teaches you the ethical side of hacking so that the hackers can be detected and stopped.”
Luxmi Dhirani has worked in and studied a wide range of areas within the cybersecurity space, from a PhD specialising in cloud computing standards to working on an industry-funded project focused on securing machine-to-machine communications in industry 4.0.
But the constantly evolving landscape means current and up-and-coming cybersecurity professionals need to keep up to date.
“One has to constantly think out of the box to mitigate these, this is what motivates me – putting my problem-solving and critical-thinking skills into practice, finding new methods and solutions for research and industry-based problems,” said Luxmi Dhirani.
“Cybersecurity is an integral and inclusive part of Ireland’s digital economy contributing towards smart manufacturing, fintech, critical infrastructures, national security, automotive industry, etc.”
She added that there have been escalating geopolitical cyber risks affecting human lives and the pandemic acted as a catalyst for increased dependencies and transitions to digital technologies.
“To mitigate these risks, it is essential to be proactive and build cyber resilience within an infrastructure. To prepare the students, industry-focused projects are offered to put their learning into practice, building their knowledge base about real-time industry problems and developing skills to solve them. This is an effective way to adapt the new trends and developments, bridging gaps between academia and industry.”
Women in cybersecurity
Outside of her teaching duties, Luxmi Dhirani is also the first Women In Engineering (WIE) ambassador from Ireland in the IEEE WIE UK and Ireland section.
Speaking personally, she said her own journey wasn’t an easy one, coming from a conservative community in Pakistan where a very small percentage of women pursued careers in STEM.
“Having no female role models and being told by the extended family that there was absolutely no future for me if I pursued a career in engineering, it was a difficult decision. The majority of jobs were outdoors and in male-dominated environments and working there was not considered culturally fit,” she said.
Now in her role as an ambassador for women in engineering, she is passionate about breaking the bias within the STEM field.
“I delivered coding workshops to children at primary schools and gave them a vision to think outside the box and encourage them to pursue STEM fields, especially girls. I have also interacted with transition students and delivered multiple technical workshops for building cybersecurity skills,” she said.
“The best way to encourage women is by building a platform where they could share their research, seek valuable insights from mentors and grow together as a community.”
Preparing the next generation
With the increasing use of emerging technologies, the cyberthreat landscape has become huge, meaning the next generation of professionals need to have different skills.
“Continuous learning is the key for this, there is no other way – upskilling, training, following technology forums and cyber reports keep me informed,” said Luxmi Dhirani.
“Every day, new threats and vulnerabilities are identified, so to keep the students up to date, the latest cyberattack scenarios and topics are discussed during the lectures and added to the e-learning discussion platform, followed by a reflective learning activity to ensure the students have developed an understanding and are achieving the desired learning outcome.”
‘There are so many possibilities and risks associated to quantum technology that are hard to assess at this point’
She added that there are particular areas of technology that will become more important for future cyber talent, including the way in which data is stored and processed, cloud security and AI.
“It is anticipated that more than 200 zettabytes of data will be stored and processed through cloud platforms by 2030, so we can see the massive increase in data requirements and foresee the threats we need to protect our digital environment from,” she said.
“With advancing AI technology and being available to everyone including malicious actors, misuse of AI in cybersecurity raises valid concerns and will potentially open new security exploits.”
However, she believes quantum security will be the real game changer. “The technology hasn’t been fully realised yet, the standards are still being developed and there are so many possibilities and risks associated to quantum technology that are hard to assess at this point.”
In order to prepare for these trends, Luxmi Dhirani said the education system will have to advance accordingly, some of which was already sped up by Covid-19.
“The pandemic transformed the conventional learning and delivery models to new e-learning platforms and assessment methods,” she said.
“Similarly, the future may present unique challenges as well and in order to keep pace with the evolving technology and security risks, there will be increased need for building programming, technical and cyber knowledge base from school years. The times will be different, so will be the challenges.
10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.