2007-11-23

An Open Letter to SANS

I have been a strong proponent of SANS and GIAC for many years. Their training is, quite simply, the best available in many of the sub-disciplines within Information Security. Their staff represent the best of the best in the industry. I am a member of the SANS advisory board, and while I have no financial incentive in the success of the organization, I feel the continued health of SANS is vital to the Information Security discipline. It is for that reason that I have become concerned about some of the decisions made by SANS over the past few years. Beginning with the decision to separate the practical from certification, and continuing through to the introduction of their Master's degree, I see decisions increasingly being made solely around financial considerations.

In August, Stephen Northcutt asked the advisory board for our thoughts on discontinuing an unprofitable certification. I am posting the bulk of my response below, as it articulates many of my concerns with SANS. It is my hope that by voicing my opinion, positive direction can be maintained in the organization and, by consequence, the industry as a whole.

This cuts right to a core issue about SANS that I have been meaning to bring to the attention of the advisory board & leadership for some time, which is this: SANS needs to decide if its primary mission is to make money, or to educate. Many decisions I've seen from the leadership at SANS in the past few years seem to indicate that it is the former. I hope, for the sake of the integrity of the organization, that this tendency can be changed. It would be rather naive of me to think that this note would begin to turn the ship, but I hope it can raise awareness of the issue. I can say with absolute certainty that it has been noticed by professionals and decision-makers outside of SANS (some of whom I respect greatly); this is a real risk.

Bringing this more to the point, I believe that the value of certifications should not be solely measured by their profitability. SANS needs to remain in good financial standing, no doubt, but costs can be reclaimed elsewhere. Other untapped profit opportunities (corporate sponsorship, linking employers with job hunters, etc.) are out there. Universities face the very same trade-offs. In recent years, a debate has grown about the cost and value of technical degrees versus liberal arts degrees. Merely charging more for some degrees than others was highly controversial for the Universities; dropping less profitable, more technical degrees would be considered unconscionable. If SANS wants to operate at a similar level, I feel it must adopt this sort of mindset.

If [this certification] is judged to be valuable as an educational tool to the Information Security community at large, and it can reasonably be afforded by SANS, it should be kept. Otherwise, you needlessly sacrifice education for a larger bottom line, which advances a financial rather than educational mission. If we feel [this certification] in its current instantiation is a bad way to vet the top of the InfoSec talent pool, then it's a different problem we're talking about and financial concerns shouldn't really play a part in our discussions - the shortcomings should be addressed and a new approach tried before the life of this certification is prematurely cut short.

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