Cyber Security Analyst Interview Questions: 4 Prep Considerations

When you’re applying for a job as a cyber security analyst—such as a threat intelligence analyst—it’s important to keep in mind that cyber security analyst interview questions will require that you think fast on your feet. 

Your potential employer is hiring you to synthesize mountains of data to find those critical vulnerabilities hiding in all that noise. By finding those hidden patterns, organizations can make better risk-based decisions. 

As the volume of cyber security threats has risen over the past several years, the role of the cyber security analyst has changed, as well. A company’s typical attack surface—including the cloud, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and even wearables—has only grown. 

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions of workers into home and remote offices, meaning more and more data now flows past corporate firewalls and through unsecured home office networks. In April, the UK’s National Cyber Security Center and the U.S. Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Agency issued joint statements that noted both cybercriminals and nation-state hackers are exploiting the pandemic as part of their ongoing operations.

When you sit down to prepare for your cyber security analyst interview questions, also keep in mind that, in addition to all of these fast-changing dangers, threat intelligence is now more automated than ever, with machine-learning algorithms designed to sort through the reams of data that flow through corporate networks every minute. Even with these advances, cyber security analysts are needed to make sense of all this information and present it to CISOs and other executives in a way that allows decision-makers to act on what’s happening in a fact-based manner.

And while threat intelligence analysts occupy a stressful position, finding enough qualified workers to fill these positions remains a challenge. In February, ISACA, a professional association focused on IT governance, released a study that found 62 percent of organizations surveyed reported that their cyber security team is understaffed. 

Another 57 percent of respondents to the ISACA study reported that they currently have unfilled cyber security positions on their team. It’s one reason why recruiters and employers sometimes look outside the normal cyber security channels when it comes to interviewing and hiring cyber security analysts.

“Because information security is a constantly evolving, multidisciplinary career, the key traits to look for in analysts are less about point-in-time knowledge during an interview, and more about the capacity to acquire new information and synthesize it into new insights,” said Tim Wade, technical director of the CTO Team at Vectra, a San Jose-based security firm. “It’s a discipline that requires critical thinking and discovery skills as much as it requires the diligence to continue to grow and evolve.”

For those interested in shifting security careers or breaking into this part of security, there are various ways to prepare for threat intelligence analyst interview questions. 

How do I prepare for a cyber security analyst interview?

All job interviews in cyber security require going through the question and answer process with recruiters and potential employers. With cyber security analyst interview questions, however, there is less an emphasis on technical know-how and skills, and more on problem-solving and the ability to synthesize data. 

Interviewers are also interested in how a candidate arrives at the answer he or she gives to these questions. “Interviewing for these types of skills inevitably emphasizes thought exercise questions more frequently than knowledge inquiry questions—examples include questions focusing on trade-offs between risks and costs without obviously positive outcomes; answers here are less about the destination and more about the journey,” Wade told Dice.

Jim Morin, a senior threat intelligence manager at Digital Shadows, a San Francisco-based security firm, tends to look for cyber security analysts who can organize their thoughts quickly and draw conclusions based on their experience and knowledge of various subjects.

“I find that the most effective way to learn about a candidate is to ask about experiences they have mentioned or that are on their résumé. ‘You mentioned that you’re working on research regarding threat actors, which ones do you find most interesting?’ is a far more useful question than ‘What kind of analytical work have you done in the past?’” Morin said.

“Good candidates will quickly organize their thoughts into a response that demonstrates analytical skills and passion about their work,” Morin added.

Which certifications matter for this position?

As part of the cyber security analyst interview questions, a candidate might be asked about cyber security certifications that he or she may have earned over time. As Morin notes, these types of positions rely less on specific certifications and more on the ability to think outside-the-box and come to critical conclusions.

“Interviewing for threat analyst positions is different because there is no industry-wide degree or certification required, such as in the legal or medical fields which have governing bodies,” Morin said. “This results in a wide range of academic and professional backgrounds that need to be sifted through before interviewing can really begin in earnest. I get a variety of folks from master’s candidates in cyber security to self-taught individuals who learned to code on the weekends. Both have their merits.”

That’s not to say that certifications don’t matter. Morin suggests that he tends to favor those who have earned certifications from the SANS Institute and CompTIA, which demonstrates an understanding of the cyber security field and the evolving threat landscape.

What qualities make someone a good cyber security analyst? 

All cyber security jobs require mastery of computer science, but those heading into a cyber security analyst interview might not need to know every detail of every enterprise system and its security features.

One reason is that the field itself is constantly changing, and not every cyber security analyst has to keep up with everything in order to perform his or her job well, Wade said.

“A strong foundation in computer science may support success in this field, but is not a hard requirement. It also sometimes tends to undervalue certifications that test for a body of knowledge and overvalue certifications that are achieved through entirely practical means,” Wade said. “Given the constant evolution of this field, a candidate’s years of professional experience can have lower emphasis than their demonstrated practical mastery, which opens up opportunities for candidates from broad backgrounds. That said, candidates with practical backgrounds involving scripting, coding, or application development tend to be particularly well equipped.”

Sherrod DeGrippo, senior director of threat research and detection at security firm Proofpoint, added that, as the industry has changed over the last 20 years, so have the requirements for positions such as cyber security analyst.

“There weren’t cyber security degree programs and many organizations didn’t have cyber security professionals. Instead, we had individuals that were network admins or system admins that really loved the host hardening aspects of their job. Or they really loved putting in network filters to block services or attacks,” DeGrippo told Dice. “As a community, we had to learn networking protocols before we learned how to secure the networks. These individuals founded the industry as we know it. Because of this, it is critical that we consider each applicant beyond their direct cyber security experience and consider their personality type, as well.”

How much teamwork is involved in a cyber security analyst position?

Since cyber security analysts need to work with others and develop a team mentality, Morin will usually have candidates meet with their potential future colleagues to determine if they fit in with the larger corporate dynamic.

This also allows recruiters and potential employers to assess the skills of a potential cyber security analyst, and how those mesh with the larger group. “Assessments that are indicative of the work that the candidates would be required to do in the role let candidates showcase the skills they would bring to the team. They also provide talking points for the next phase of our interview process, meeting the team,” Morin said. 

“Having candidates interview with their potential peers is an excellent way to judge if the person will be a culture fit,” Morin added. “Hiring the most qualified candidate is no guarantee of success if they don’t trust their teammates to treat their ideas impartially. Ultimately, being able to demonstrate analytical ability and positively interact with coworkers is far more important than academic qualifications or certificates.”