Investment in the Savannah River region has put Georgia on the map when it comes to cybersecurity, but can the area really compete with the likes of California’s Silicon Valley?
(TNS) — There's no doubt the information security industry is strengthening the regional economy, infusing techie trendiness into the Southern culture and making downtown Augusta, Ga., a hipper place work.
But can it transform the Savannah River region into cyber's "Silicon Valley"?
Augusta's inclusion last year in a Fortune magazine story as a "dark horse" in the running for "World Cybersecurity Capital" was based largely on the Pentagon's ongoing relocation of Army Cyber Command to Fort Gordon and Georgia's then-$60 million (now $100 million) investment in a multi-use cyber facility at Augusta University's Riverfront Campus.
Jeffrey Wells, a cyber consultant for San Jose, Calif.-based InnoVacient and Maryland's former director of cyber development, does not dispute Augusta's inclusion on the list. But he doesn't put much stock in lists, either.
"I can name 12 places around the world that have said 'We're going to be the Silicon Valley of cyber,'" Wells said. "Nobody is going to be the Silicon Valley of cyber. There's only one Silicon Valley, and that's where all the money is."
Still, Augusta's inclusion is notable considering that several tech meccas, including Seattle, were not among the seven. Just as remarkable is that Augusta was given consideration over San Antonio – a city whose decades-old cyber industry has been studied by locals as a model for Augusta's future.
"Cyber City U.S.A.," as the Texas city calls itself, is home to the sprawling Joint Base San Antonio, the Air Force equivalent of Fort Gordon.
Another high-tech military town to notably miss the cut was Huntsville, Ala., whose Redstone Arsenal houses the military's Missile Defense Agency and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
That city's Cyber Huntsville organization has pledged to make the "Tennessee Valley region a nationally and internationally recognized cyber leader." Huntsville, already known for having more than a third of its residents holding advanced degrees, launched the nation's first K-12 cyber-education program while competing for Army Cyber Command in 2012.
The Defense Department announced in December 2013 that Army Cyber Command would move from Fort Belvoir, Va., to Fort Gordon by 2019, occupying a 324,000-square-foot spot next to the National Security Agency's 600,000-square-foot cryptologic center. The nearby Army Cyber Center of Excellence will keep the three-star command supplied with 6,000 digital warfighters trained in the most advanced tactics and technology.
With more than 24,000 military, civilian and contract employers, economic development officials say Fort Gordon has a $2.4 billion annual impact on the local economy.
Building a sustainable local industry, or "ecosystem" as tech consultants call it, will require the region to do more than attract cybersoldiers and defense contractors.
"In order for an ecosystem to thrive, it has to live on its own – you can't keep importing people," said Wells, who served on the advisory board of the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence in Gaithersburg, Md. "At first you're going to have to attract them, and then you're going to have to self-generate. That's how ecosystems work. They don't grow overnight, and they don't grow just because of what's been printed in a magazine."
G.B. Cazes is well aware of the challenges ahead.
The president of Metova Solutions, an Arkansas-based cybersecurity contractor, was hired earlier this year to develop a cyber ecosystem strategy for metro Augusta's chief military liaison, the CSRA Alliance for Fort Gordon.
The alliance's seven-county regional initiative, the Fort Gordon Cyber District, was unveiled in August and seeks to make the metro area "the ideal environment for technology professionals to live, work and play."
Cazes, a former vice president of Bossier City, La.'s Cyber Innovation Center, said success will require all parts of the region – particularly the population centers of Richmond, Columbia and Aiken counties – to make improvements that will better attract, retain and develop a diverse cyber-based workforce.
"This community is going to be successful and grow just because of the very fact of what's going on at the fort," he said. "But what it can also be – if we do it the right way – is be transformative. We can really leverage that growth to span across all aspects of life here."
A top priority in creating an "ideal environment" for tech workers is improving the region's spotty public school performance. Cazes said cyber professionals are typically well-educated and expect their children to have a similar, or better, education.
Augusta University's two-year-old Cyber Institute will gain more cachet when it receives the NSA's Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations designation, a gold standard held by some two dozen universities nationwide.
Colin Comfort, Metova's vice president of client services and head of the Fort Gordon Cyber District's education strategy, said STEM curriculum in area K-12 schools should demonstrate how lessons are applicable to cyber-related jobs. Math proficiency is needed by everyone from high-level software developers to the entry-level technicians who run fiber optic lines and install hardware.
Ultimately, individual schools will have to determine programs that are best suited to their student populations, Comfort said.
"Every school district will have to pick what is right for them," said Comfort, who spearheaded similar cyber education efforts in Louisiana. "There's not a one-size-fits-all solution. That's not how education works."
Aside from nearly $2 billion in construction programmed at Fort Gordon, Cazes said the Augusta region is fortunate to already have a "tremendous" number of high-tech draws – such as the Savannah River National Laboratory and AU's Medical College of Georgia.
"You already have assets that most communities would die for," Cazes said. "If you were playing cards, you couldn't ask for a better hand than the one you got."
Shortcomings, however, include the region's lack of venture capital and an entrepreneurial culture that historically skewed more conservative than creative.
Like many mid-sized Southern cities, Augusta's economy has generally been dominated by risk-averse, rather than innovative, industries.
"The culture is probably the hardest to create," noted Cohen, who also is a fellow for New America, a Washington-based tech-focused think tank.
The Georgia Technology Authority is banking that the $100 million Hull McKnight Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center, which is under construction on AU's Riverfront Campus, speeds the transition.
If Augusta parlays its enormous military cyber presence into a self-sustaining tech industry, the evolution may follow a path similar to San Antonio.
The home of the Alamo already has what Augusta wants: a thriving downtown innovation center, organically grown tech companies and a best-in-class university cyber program.
"If we're a 10-year-old, then San Antonio is like our cool, 21-year-old brother," said Charles Johnson, the president of Augusta-based IT and cybersecurity firm EDTS.
Johnson was one of a dozen people who went on a field trip to San Antonio last year organized by the Augusta Metro and Columbia County chambers of commerce to give local leaders a chance to learn about that city's successes and missteps during the past two decades.
Johnson, who spoke on behalf of his company and not as chairman of the Augusta chamber's cyber committee, said he believes Augusta can become a healthy regional cyber hub. But it will need to have a laser focus on its natural strengths.
"You can't be all things in the tech industry any more than you can be all things in the medical industry," he said. "This is why we have specialties in medicine. You wouldn't want a heart surgeon doing brain surgery."
Health care, it just so happens, is a cyber sector where Augusta should be able to establish itself as a national leader. The region's eight acute-care and specialty hospitals – including an AU-affiliated academic medical center – provide fertile ground for innovation.
"It should be one of our fortes," Johnson said.
Joanne Sexton, the dean of AU's School of Computer and Cyber Sciences, concurs. She said Augusta can be a leader in the movement to safeguard electronic medical records and web-enabled medical devices, such as heart monitors, which hackers have been able to exploit to gain entry into larger networks.
Sexton, a Navy veteran who served as the first commanding officer of Fort Gordon's Navy Operations Information Command, said partnerships with the region's diverse manufacturing base and Augusta Technical College could yield innovations in the protection of industrial control systems.
AU's shared space at the Hull McKnight facility with Augusta Tech provides a unique opportunity to design and test devices used in advanced manufacturing.
"When you think about our new center, I don't think others have brought academia and a tech school and industry together in the way that we have," said Sexton, who also serves as director of AU's Cyber Institute. "One of the things I know we'll produce is the national model of how a university and a technical school should be working together in this field."
Economic development officials say a large percentage of the 150 people who separate from the military service each month at Fort Gordon have IT network experience and some form of security clearance.
That's a gold mine of talent for companies who provide network operations and network security. Access to such workers is one of the reasons why technology giant Unisys selected Augusta for its client service center, which is ramping up to employ more than 700 people by 2019.
"Imagine 20 more Unisyses here each with hundreds of people defending networks for Sony, J.P. Morgan, PricewaterhouseCoopers, you name it," said Robert Ford, a principal with McLean, Va.-based Booz Allen Hamilton. "That's the game changer. You could transform this place and make it viable for the next century, beyond whatever the government does at Fort Gordon."
Ford, a retired Navy officer, said Augusta's place in the cyber ecosystem will likely be rooted in providing services, not products and applications.
The type of person who could engineer a program or device to hijack a cellphone, for example, is already accustomed to high wages and cosmopolitan lifestyles offered in major tech cities.
Software engineers "won't even consider coming to Georgia unless it's Atlanta," Ford said.
"Now, if you can get someone interested in visiting – especially if you can get them to consider the quality of life aspects here – you have a high degree of success," Ford said. "But if they've never been here and they just start Googling, it does not go well."
That's why the overwhelming majority of Booz Allen's 150-person Augusta operation is staffed with "mission-driven" veterans, such as senior associate Christina Latham Purkapile. They are familiar with military programs and protocols and are cleared for doing classified work.
But demand for talent is growing so rapidly that contractors are increasingly seeking people without military backgrounds, providing they are intelligent, motivated and have a blemish-free criminal record.
"One of the best analysts I ever worked with had a master's degree in theater," said Purkapile, a Savannah native. "So many veterans think the same way because they grew up just like me. I grew up in the Army and that's all I ever knew. So you bring someone in who's not a veteran, and it's amazing. You get a diversity of thought."
Successful tech clusters, including the vaunted Silicon Valley, transcend geopolitical boundaries.
The Augusta metro area, which is bisected by a state line and sectioned into counties and municipalities, understands the need to work together as a region, which is why the Fort Gordon Cyber District was created.
"One county cannot support what we're trying to do here; there has to be a regional approach," Ford said. "This 'you guys suck and we're great' attitude isn't going to do anybody any good. Industry sees that and says, 'This place doesn't get it. We're not making an investment there.'"
Kenneth Ferderer, Wells' colleague and InnoVacient's managing partner, said Augusta has a solid foundation upon which to build and appears to be taking the right steps to promote the geographic area. The key to long term success will be avoiding complacency and stagnancy.
"How bad does the city itself want to get in and play in this space?" he asked. "It's going to be a long haul, and you've got some challenges ahead of you."
Cazes echoes Ferderers' sentiment that tech-cluster development is a marathon, not a sprint. He also said the metro Augusta area, with its unique assets and attributes, should not obsess over emulating other markets, be it San Antonio, Atlanta or Silicon Valley.
"You'll never duplicate what others have done because you may not have those assets," he said. "You have to look at what you have and improve and build a plan to turn those areas into opportunities. You've got to go with what you have. You've got to be who you are."
An eight-part series examining how cybersecurity and other tech industries are transforming Augusta's urban core.
April 15: The city's future can be seen at a 19th century textile mill becoming a 21st century "tech citadel."
Monday: Tech entrepreneurship is new to Augusta. A downtown "innovation incubator" aims to change that.
Tuesday: Programmers are writing code for corporate clients around the world in a space where noisy machines used to churn out fabric.
Wednesday: TaxSlayer's suburban office is practically brand new. But the software developer is planting its flag downtown.
Thursday: The Hull McKnight Cyber Center is a bold investment in the state's burgeoning data security industry.
Friday: Success wasn't assured when Unisys came to downtown Augusta. Four years later, there's no place it would rather be.
Saturday: In the cyber world, Augusta is a major player – not a "capital." Yet.
TODAY: Augusta's path to cyber preeminence is challenging, but conceivable.
©2018 The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.