The 24th Air Force, also known as the Cyber Command, is based at Lackland Annex. The mission protects the integrity of military computer systems worldwide against cyberattacks. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.

Without much fanfare, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce has entered the economic development space with a new initiative to grow the city’s cybersecurity industry outside the traditional channels of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.

The City of San Antonio and Bexar County have joined the effort with funds to help pay for a Chamber economic development executive to focus full-time on the cybersecurity initiative. Will Garrett, previously the Chamber’s vice president for economic development, is leading the new effort, named Cybersecurity SA.

San Antonio, which bills itself as Military City USA, is among the top U.S. cities for military and defense cybersecurity work with the presence of the 24th and 25th Air Force and NSA Texas, which account for 7,000-10,000 military and civilian jobs, according to different estimates. The stealth nature of the work and the classified missions make cybersecurity and intelligence gathering an important if seldom publicized sector of San Antonio’s tech economy.

Another cyber executive said the National Security Agency, based in Fort Meade, MD, is highly centralized and tends to regard NSA operations here, in Georgia, and In Hawaii as “field offices,” despite their size and growing missions. Thus, little is said locally even as thousands of employees go to work every day here at NSA Texas, live in the community, and put their children in local schools. Headquarters does the talking, insofar as anyone does.

The National Security Agency building in San Antonio. Image via Google Earth.
The National Security Agency facility’s workforce continues to grow. Image via Google Earth. Credit: Courtesy / Google Earth

“People in San Antonio can describe the Toyota plant and the supply chain, people can see those jobs and economic impact, and the Tundras and Tacomas on the roads here, but the nature of the missions in the cybersecurity world is that the best stories are classified and don’t circulate,” one official involved in the new effort said.

One San Antonio CEO recalled meeting the director of NSA Texas at a business breakfast. The military commander introduced himself as an officer assigned to “a local DOD (Department of Defense) mission.” The executive thought he was joking, then realized he wasn’t and didn’t probe.

“These are crown jewels assets,” said John Dickson, a former Air Force officer and Partner of the Denim Group, which develops secure software and conducts application security assessments for companies. “This is the largest concentration of intelligence and cybersecurity assets outside of Washington D.C. by far.”

Dickson serves as the chair of the Cybersecurity Council at the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, which is serving as the driving force to bring a new approach to the city’s cybersecurity recruitment efforts. Garrett will work directly with Dickson and other Council members, include representatives from the military, NSA Texas and the private sector.

“We looked at what other cities are doing, including some that don’t have the assets we have, but look better on paper, and we concluded that we needed an economic initiative focused exclusively on cybersecurity,” Garrett said. “We will work with the City and the EDF, but we can be a bit nimbler here. This initiative really came from within the industry that felt the Chamber was the best place to get it off the ground, to be quick to act.”

SA Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Economic Development Will Garrett
Will Garrett

The new strategy grew out of a November 2014 study done by Deloitte for the SA Chamber. The study recommended that San Antonio develop a more focused and proactive approach to growing its cyber sector, or risk losing out to other regional competitors in spite of the city’s military cyber and NSA intelligence missions.

The study analyzed San Antonio’s competitive strengths and weaknesses and has not been released publicly, although everyone I spoke to for this article seems to have read the study or been briefed on it. San Antonio’s competitors in the cybersecurity space likely know the city’s strengths and weaknesses; releasing the report could galvanize public support for a new initiative undertaken outside traditional economic development channels.

The road map now being followed by Garrett and the Council clearly grew out of the study’s findings and recommendations.

“With direction and input from the Industry Council, I already have an action plan with goals for 30 days, 60 days, and 90 days,” said Garrett. “Some of the strategy tracks around traditional economic development actions, while a significant amount of work with be out into developing the ecosystem to ensure San Antonio is ready to grow the number and success of cybersecurity start-ups.   The foundation is here and with the engagement of the industry, we plan to support the growth and expansion of UTSA’s cybersecurity program, create opportunities for public-private partnerships and innovation with our DOD partners,  and establish a formal incubator for new businesses.”

His competition? Cities like Huntsville, AL, San Diego, Atlanta, and Colorado Springs, each one with its own unique assets and intentions to grow its cyber business. I spoke to nearly 20 public and private sector officials for this story and many privately expressed frustration with traditional EDF approaches to hi-tech recruitment in general. Some of those interviewed cited specific missed opportunities to bring new security and tech startups here.

The 25th Airforce extends a welcome to India's Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha and his wife, Lily Raha. Lackland AFB was one of several stops they made during their visit to the United States. Photo by William Belcher/ Sharon Singleton.
The 25th Airforce extends a welcome to India’s Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha and his wife, Lily Raha. Lackland AFB was one of several stops they made during their visit to the United States. Photo by William Belcher/ Sharon Singleton.

Dickson and others see Garrett, who is young, polished and comfortable speaking the language of the security industry, poised for success. He won’t be distracted by economic development leads or inquiries made by other industries. He can call on a network of influential retired military officers with relationships built over their service careers that give them access to key players on both the military and civilian side of the growing security sector. And he knows the local cyber community.

One goal will be to advocate for additional military security and intelligence missions here as the next round of base closures gets underway and further geographic consolidation occurs.

EDF President and CEO Mario Hernandez said he supports the Chamber’s singular focus.

“We are in support of this intense focus on a very strong niche in the San Antonio IT sector, and we will lend our support through our prospect development and handling systems to assist in the effort,” Hernandez said. “It is an experiment worth undertaking to see if jobs, skills and opportunities can be improved in the sector.”

Dickson has been a longtime advocate for leveraging the military and defense assets located here to build the city’s civilian cybersecurity tech sector. He believes San Antonio is positioned to become a major player in the fast-growing commercial security sector — if it gets in the game now.

 John Dickson, a former Air Force officer and CEO of the Denim Group
John Dickson Credit: Courtesy / Denim Group

“This is a differentiation play: It’s making the most out of the assets we have that other communities don’t have, including Austin,” Dickson said. “What we have here are the foundational resources of the 24th and 25th Air Force and NSA Texas. They don’t give out numbers, but the presence here is significant.”

Most of San Antonio’s security sector workers are Air Force or NSA employees or civilian contractors who work for big companies not headquartered here, like Booz Allen Hamilton, Raytheon, and General Dynamics.

The commercial side has evolved here largely because former Air Force security and intelligence officers chose to make their homes in San Antonio and start businesses here.

“We have 60 to 80 companies with a presence here, some of whom are defense contractors, but all are in the cybersecurity space,” Dickson said “They’re not necessarily typical Chamber members, they’re running all over the world, but this industry is white-hot right now from a startup and investment point, so we need someone doing nothing but connecting people around the country to San Antonio and the opportunities and support network here.”

Readers can access more information on the companies by visiting this EDF page, although it includes all tech-related industries and companies, including cyber, traditional IT, cloud hosting and other enterprises.

The last major success – and it was a big one – was the SA Chamber’s recruitment of the 24th Air Force here when San Antonio wasn’t even on the list of cities under consideration at the outset of the campaign. But local leaders know it would be a mistake to sit back now, especially when there are significant growth opportunities in commercial data protection.

Everyone is familiar with the 2014 attacks against number three retailer Target, which was unaware of the attacks until after the credit cards and confidential data of tens of millions of its users had been compromised. Target is not alone. Upscale Neiman-Marcus suffered data breaches on a lesser scale last year. eBay also was penetrated. So was restaurant chain P.F. Chang.

The list goes on. Most companies and government entities now assume they are or will be the target of sophisticated hacking attacks, either by criminal enterprises which seek to sell the stolen data on the black market, or foreign intelligence operatives that aim to steal corporate or government secrets or cause economic disruption. 

Other Cyber Assets

One CEO interviewed for this story who acknowledged he votes Republican said party affiliation is irrelevant in terms of gauging the importance of U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-San Antonio) and his value in Washington D.C. helping the city compete for expanded cyber military and intelligence missions.

Hurd represents Texas’ sprawling 23rd Congressional district, one of the most competitive districts in the nation. It’s widely assumed that former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, who Hurd defeated in 2014, began his campaign to reclaim the seat the day after he lost the election, believing that Democratic voter turnout in the 2016 Presidential election will swing the district back his way.

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-San Antonio)
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-San Antonio)

“The way I see it, if Hurd were to lose that seat, San Antonio would lose its most valuable asset in Washington who can advocate for growing our missions here,” the executive said. “Who else in our delegation speaks that language, has his contacts, or even has cybersecurity that high on their agenda?”

Hurd is a former CIA operations officer who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee and is chairman of the IT Subcommittee for Oversight and Government Reform. These are unusual positions of influence for a first-term congressman, a reflection of both his background and the party’s desire to strengthen his position for re-election in the district.

Hurd’s proactive agenda for enhancing cybersecurity nationwide has been the subject of several Rivard Report articles, and op-eds authored by Hurd. See below for links.

Dickson said another undervalued player in the city’s pursuit of growth is UTSA’s Institute for Cybersecurity, which last year was rated the top program in the country by Hewlett-Packard.

“UTSA is definitely a huge asset, the critical academic player in the cybersecurity space, that number one rating was just fantastic what it did for program recognition,” Dickson said. “UTSA would tell you they want to do more. UT Chancellor Bill McRaven is looking to UTSA to help him develop a cybersecurity presence across the entire UT System.

Dr. Mauli Agrawal
Dr. Mauli Agrawal

“Dr. Mauli Agrawal, UTSA’s vice president for research, has been tasked to really look at this and he brings another whole perspective to the issue, including how to pursue grants and bring more money to the table. He’s working hard here and in Washington D.C.”

Agrawal said his focus is on how San Antonio can better aggregate its tech assets in all fields and achieve a critical mass that is seen in other cities with strong tech sectors. He led a delegation to Birmingham, AL two weeks ago to study that city’s Innovation Depot, a nonprofit tech incubator housed in a former Sear’s Roebuck store that seems similar to Geekdom.

“I see the cyber cloud as  our competitive strength because we have the 24th and 25th Air Force and NSA Texas, and a huge partnership between UTSA and Rackspace with the Open Cloud Institute, we have Rackspace as a stand-alone force, and we have some 80 cybersecurity companies now. We need to pull it all together,” Dr. Agrawal said. “Given all that, I think we have an advantage over most U.S. cities in the country. Perhaps we should create our own innovation center with cyber as a focus.”

Justin Gray works during the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo by Scott Ball.
Justin Gray, a UTSA student, works during the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

How will Dickson and his Chamber colleagues measure success? They aren’t relying on Garrett as a “cybersecurity czar,” he said. The shift in strategy will require broader participation.

“Cybersecurity in San Antonio has never had one big player, like a Rackspace that spawned a whole industry, but there are a lot of good companies in a nascent industry and they are growing,” Dickson said. “The Rackspace ecosystem is probably one of the most astounding things to happen in San Antonio in years. We need to learn from that.”

Recalling the City-backed San Antonio Technology Accelerator Initiative (SATAI) that was launched to much fanfare in 1999 and has since faded from view, Dickson said it was failed experiment that spent millions of dollars to minimal affect and was hampered by poor leadership.

“The problem with SATAI is that it was too broad: technology, entrepreneurship, whatever. We were on the City and County budgets, and we probably burned through $7 million. Today Geekdom, an outgrowth of that Rackspace ecosystem, does what we did and they do it for free.”

The cybersecurity community is taking a lesson from that, Dickson said, and for the last 18 months has hosting cybersecurity bootcamps that cost relatively little and help develop workforce and technology talent at home. The next one will be staged in August.

*Featured/top image: The 24th Air Force, also known as the Cyber Command, is based at Lackland Annex. The mission protects the integrity of military computer systems worldwide against cyberattacks. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.


Cong. Hurd: Cleaning Up the Federal Cyber Debacle

UTSA’s Cybersecurity Program Attracting Attention

Open Cloud Institute Launches at UTSA With $9 Million Investment

Hurd Sees Cybersecurity Creating a Smarter City

Cybersecurity: San Antonio’s Not-So-Secret Opportunity

Why I Quit Cybersecurity in San Antonio and Moved to San Francisco

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.