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Taking the Long Road: An Interview With Fusion Cyber’s Christopher Etesse

July 14, 2022

We visited with Christopher Etesse to learn more about Fusion Cyber, his background, his achievements and the danger of leaving so many cyber positions unfilled.

After living and working in Washington, D.C. a few years after receiving his master’s degree in computer science, Chris Etesse (MSCS 1999) informed his father, a mechanical engineer who graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology, that he was joining a 20-employee startup company. 

The news was not enthusiastically received.

“Don’t join a startup,” he counseled. “Get a job with an established corporation.”

Etesse went with the startup anyway, and that’s a good thing because the company — Blackboard — became an international leader in the e-learning industry. Etesse’s experience there prepared him to lead Fusion Cyber, a cybersecurity talent management and services company that is partnering with the University of Kentucky to fill 4.5 million open positions in the cyber industry. 

We visited with Etesse to learn more about Fusion Cyber, his background, his achievements and the danger of leaving so many cyber positions unfilled.

Your undergraduate degree is in American history. How did you go from that to a graduate degree and career in computer science?

I was originally going to go into accounting. Then I wanted to go into law. Finally, I settled on American history. As I was finishing my degree, I noticed momentum gathering behind the internet thanks to early browsers, like Mosaic a2 and a4. So, I went to the UK Department of Computer Science and talked with Jerzy Jaromczyk, who was the director of undergraduate studies. I told him I wanted to pursue graduate studies in computer science. When he asked what my undergraduate major was and I told him American history, I thought he might laugh. But he didn’t. Instead, he said it would take a year of post-baccalaureate work to catch up. Within a year, I became a teaching assistant, and eventually, I got my master’s in computer science.

How grave is the situation regarding open cybersecurity positions?  

Pre-pandemic, there were 3.5 million open cyber positions worldwide. Currently, it's 4.5 million. In the 1990s, the United States graduated about 75,000 computer science graduates annually. Today, we graduate half of that number. From a competitive perspective, China graduated 2 million high schoolers each year in cyber. So, we're really behind the eight ball. If you think about all the cyber hacks that have happened recently, from SolarWinds to the Colonial Pipeline, it only argues that we need more talent — and more diverse talent at that. The cyber workforce is 96 percent white male dominated. There is no way we are going to fill the 600,000 open positions in the U.S. if we don't open the top of the pipeline and encourage underrepresented minorities to choose cyber for a career. Finally, 75% of the workers currently in cyber positions are going to retire in the next five to 10 years. So, we’ve got a graying of the talent pool in addition to all the unfilled positions. Basically, it’s a tsunami heading right for us. If cyber were a baseball game, it would be the first inning, and the first up at bat. No offense to basketball, of course!

How does Fusion Cyber convert interested learners into cyber professionals?

Each course is eight weeks. Depending on the program, someone working with us is looking at 32–40 weeks total. They're getting certification from UK — powered by us — and then they can sit for industry certification exams. If you have the right industry certifications, most cyber positions start at $132,000 per year. If you get a security clearance and work as a government contractor, you can double that. As I look around the Beltway here in Washington, D.C., there are so many companies with hundreds or even thousands of unfilled positions. Booz Allen Hamilton has 2,500 open cyber positions. Leidos, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman — I could go on and on. These are not companies that want to hire people and then win business; these are contracts that they already have and could bill if they had the people in those positions — and you can stay in Kentucky and work virtual in a six-figure career! 

How has your career brought you to this moment and opportunity?  

When I was in the computer science program, I was also running a small consulting business on the side. One of the things I built while I was teaching CS270 was an early website that allowed students to enter a special code that let them see their grades. After graduating, I moved to the Washington, D.C. area and went to work for Thompson Publishing. Because I had built an early learning management system, I then built one for them called World Class Syllabus that was later acquired by Pearson. After about a year, I joined Blackboard and spent eight years there building products, using my right brain/left brain in legal technology negotiating with Oracle and others, helping Microsoft invest $10 million into the company and running the international services business. I stayed at Blackboard until the company went public. Since then, I’ve been building enterprise technology businesses with a focus on workforce training and education.

Who is your ideal customer?  

It's typically an employee already in network engineering or a junior position in cyber security who is looking to take the next step in their career development. With these certifications they can distinguish themselves from peers and grow into a leadership role at their current employer or qualify for a promotion in a new job. Also, adult learners or upskillers — people between 25 and 55 years old with some technical propensity. They may be someone who has worked on HIPAA privacy in health care or FERPA in higher education and now wants to move into cyber security risk management. It could be someone who handled risk and safety for mines, law enforcement, especially veterans, even gamers! The professional we envision needs to be able to think creatively and translate deep, technical matters and discoveries to executives for business strategy and continuity of operations. If you picture the cybersecurity job market as a pyramid, it's that middle of the pyramid that's so key, and that's where we focus, especially on zero-trust environments. It’s an excellent niche for veterans.

Are you seeking corporate partners for scholarships and placement?

Yes! We already have a multi-million-dollar relationship with an enterprise software company out of Silicon Valley seeking to fix the equality problem in the cyber workforce and are also looking for corporate partners to donate scholarships and get first looks at the talent going through the program, as well as attend our twice-yearly virtual speed dating career fair to fill their open positions. On average, the chief information security office turns over every 12-18 months, and 50% of their positions are open and unfilled. Fusion Cyber in partnership with the University of Kentucky can help create a steady and reliable partnership for talent now and into the future!

What is UK’s involvement in this partnership?

It’s interesting; if you look at the data over the past 30 years, people typically choose a college or workforce training opportunity based on the university or institution that's within 30-40 miles of where they live. UK was established as a landgrant institution for the commonwealth of Kentucky, so when people in Kentucky think about education and career, the UK brand stands front and center. So, we thought UK was the logical choice to be the first university in this state for a partnership. And we envision a long-term relationship with our customers. We want folks to keep coming back, earn more certification, re-up their skills and keep identifying with the UK brand. The first cohort launched in January.

How did that feel?

We’ve been working in this space for almost four years now, so it’s great to have courses underway. It’s a crazy, interesting market, and I like to help solve crazy, interesting problems, so I’m having a blast and doing it with a great group of friends — old and new alike.


Learn more about Fusion Cyber’s industry-accepted cybersecurity certifications and their programs in zero-trust risk management, defense and cyber offense at kentucky.fusioncyber.co.