ABOUT THE SERIES The goal of this series is to explain what cybersecurity is and why Colorado Springs is becoming a hub for the industry. What we found is that cybersecurity evolving and is not easily defined, but it touches nearly every aspect of life in a digital world, and industry is trying to keep pace with hackers who adapt as rapidly as technology changes. What that means to Colorado Springs remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: The city is poised to become a key player in a global industry.

“It was one of those peripheral things the operators didn’t pay much attention to,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Wes Clark, who worked in the mountain during the classified dawn of the Internet age.

In the decades that followed, computing power in the Pikes Peak region grew exponentially and the military technology that built the Internet came into widespread public use.

The dawn of the computer age and the networks that later became the Internet brought an army of defense contractors to build, operate and upgrade computer and communications systems first for the North American Aerospace Defense Command and later for Air Force Space Command and Northern Command.

That work brought software engineers, network engineers, computer scientists and others to the Springs to work for giants that would become Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co., Northrop Grumman Corp., Raytheon Co., Harris Corp. and dozens of subcontractors long before the term cybersecurity came into common usage. While those employees might not have spent their workdays defending computer networks against hackers, spies and other intruders, keeping their employer’s computer systems and networks secure was a key part of their job.

The computer security industry grew from the expansion of the technology industry in the 1980s and 1990s with the arrival of major software or technical support operations. Network security also played a huge role in the data centers — which store critical customer and company information and complete online transactions — that opened in recent years.

It took nearly 30 years for the military to recognize that the Internet could become a battlefield. In 1997, retired Air Force Gen. Tom Marsh wrote a paper that predicted a computerized version of Pearl Harbor.

In January, Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed building the National Cyber Intelligence Center as part of a strategy to make the city a national hub for cybersecurity. The center is scheduled to begin operations this year and would help businesses, nonprofits and government agencies nationwide combat and recover from cyberattacks; help business executives, public officials and bureaucrats learn more about cybersecurity; and conduct research into cybersecurity threats.

Room to grow

While all parts of the cybersecurity industry are growing, the commercial market for such services holds the greatest potential for growth in Colorado Springs by attracting outgoing military personnel who have cybersecurity expertise, Wenstrand said. That has made the Springs fertile recruiting ground for cyber talent, say cybersecurity companies like Imprimis and root9B.

“Awareness of the cyber threat has never been higher,” root9B CEO Eric Hipkins said. “People are beginning to realize the amount of chaos that can be caused with a true cyber event. We have clients across the Fortune 500 and the retail, financial services, industrial control and Department of Defense industries.”

The availability of workers likely will be what limits the cybersecurity industry’s growth, since job openings outnumber job candidates worldwide by hundreds of thousands or even millions, Merritt said.

“We have about 2,000 unfilled information technology openings, according to monthly statistics (by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment). That is fewer than our competitors,” Wenstrand said.

Entry-level workers with a relevant college degree can earn annual salaries between $55,000 and $65,000, and workers with five to 10 years of experience in the industry can earn between $80,000 and $100,000 a year. Add a security clearance to that level of education and experience and salaries in the industry can easily approach $200,000.

“Our workforce will drive our success with this industry as we compete with other communities for corporate expansions,” Wenstrand said. “The opportunity is there for this industry to help replace the (thousands) of manufacturing jobs we have lost in the past 15 years. This industry pays above-average wages, and the employers who are looking at Colorado Springs are aggressively expanding.”

While the alliance is recruiting cybersecurity companies of all sizes, Wenstrand is putting his focus on small and mid-sized companies that will be based in Colorado Springs and be less likely to shut down their headquarters than a branch office when the industry inevitably faces cutbacks.

“Companies based here will be general revenue and profits from all over the world,” from cybersecurity operations, said Backes, the Braxton CEO who authored a paper in November for Mayor John Suthers on the industry and its potential for growth in the Springs. “Revenue comes from where the work is done. But if headquarters are here, profits stay in the community and are reinvested. Braxton is a good example. We have offices all over the country, but the profits come back to Colorado Springs, so the economic impact is greater.”

Backes believes the local economic impact of the cybersecurity industry could exceed the economic boom of the 1990s launched by the arrival of a manufacturing plant for Apple Inc. and a software development operation for MCI Telecommunications and accelerated by the opening of a semiconductor plant by Intel Corp.

“The market is as big or bigger than the markets were at that time for those companies and none of them were headquartered here, so when times got tough they either left Colorado Springs or significantly reduced the size of their operation. We have the opportunity to not just have companies headquartered here, but for the industry to be headquartered here,” Backes said. “We need to talk about a brand for Colorado Springs like Silicon Mountain was in the 80s and 90s. We need to make sure that the headquarters of the industry is here.”