Former Math and Comp Sci Teacher Helps Others Advance at NSA
February 16, 2021
Since joining the National Security Agency, Christina S. has worked on a list of projects that would excite any security-minded computer scientist.
Vulnerability analysis, cryptanalysis, software reverse engineering, malware analysis – she’s covered it all, including technical research where the self-described mathematics lover applied static analysis to detect data leaks in Android applications.
But the 19-year NSA veteran didn’t stop there, especially not when the Center for Strategic Intelligence Research called her name.
“I had the wonderful opportunity to be a 2009 Center for Strategic Intelligence Research Fellow at the National Defense Intelligence College where I researched the application of graph theory to analyze the security of a software system.”
Today, Christina is the Deputy Director of the Computer Science Skill Community, a position that allows her to coach, mentor and provide professional development opportunities to other computer scientists.
“Employees come to me to help them advance their careers,” she explains. “I help them improve their knowledge and skills to prepare for their next position.”
She also mentors school children to help improve their skills, an activity that has its roots at NC State, where Christina pledged Delta Sigma Theta.
“My sorority sisters and I embraced the commitment to public service and improving the way of life for the community around us,” she says.
Today, her public service includes volunteering as a middle school and high school tutor, judging science fairs, and visiting colleges to give talks, review resumes and serve in hackathon events.
It all started with the Commodore 64
Christina’s interest in math and computer science developed from an early age when her father introduced her to the Commodore 64, a home computer with 64 kilobytes of RAM introduced in 1982.
“My dad was a postal worker, but he was very interested in computers and programming,” she says. “He taught himself, and tried to teach me, BASIC programming on the Commodore 64. At the time, I just wanted to play the games that came on the floppy disk.”
Yet, her father’s interest soon became her own and she embraced the possibilities of math and computer science. After college she started her career as a high school teacher in North Carolina, where she taught math and object-oriented programming in C++. Though she was helping students learn two subjects that she herself loved, high school teaching required time outside the classroom that most non-teachers don’t think about.
“I was supervising after-school clubs and events, and I was grading papers during the evenings and weekends,” she says.
All of that changed when she joined NSA.
“When I left work for the day that was it,” she says. “There was no bringing work home because the work was classified and couldn’t leave the building. That’s one of the most significant differences between teaching and working in a classified environment.”
The conversation that changed everything
At the time, she didn’t know anything about NSA – hadn’t even heard the name. When she attended a career fair at North Carolina A&T University, she had a conversation that changed her career trajectory.
“An Aggie alum recruiter told me I could use my math and computer science background to solve hard problems and make an impact on the nation,” she recalls. “He explained how the outcome of my work would help protect our troops and affect events around the world.”
Christina joined NSA through the Information Assurance Directorate Development Education Program, where she had the opportunity to rotate through several NSA offices.
“I’m a big proponent of NSA’s development programs,” she says. “You come on board and do six- to nine-month rotations through the agency and take courses tailored to your discipline. I was able to see what different offices do and how they operate. It was surprising to see how different the culture and work environments are from office to office.”
The makings of a high-performance team
One of the agency characteristics that Christina appreciates is the diversity. She says it’s an agency populated by professionals from all over the country with different ages, races, ethnicities and gender. That creates a collaborative environment where one skill and perspective complements another.
“One of my projects involved co-op students, summer interns, new employees and experienced employees of different races and genders. Some were mathematicians and some were computer scientists and electrical engineers. I partnered with a co-op and we were successful because we both had strengths and weaknesses that complemented each other. I was a stronger programmer, but he was great at picking up and learning the new software tools we had to learn.”
Christina has also been active in the African American and Women employee resource groups.
“These groups are a great place to network, stay informed of new initiatives and interact with employees of all levels, from new hires to senior executives.”
Christina also enjoys NSA’s social environment, including birthday parties, baby showers, wedding showers, chili cook-offs, door decorating contests, costume contests and other entertaining activities.
Most of all, however, she appreciates that her work at NSA contributes to an important mission.
“A lot of what we do is time-sensitive and critical,” she says. “It feels good to know that the work you do impacts not only the U.S. but the world.”
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