How Mark N. is Forging a New Career Frontier with NSA
September 16, 2021
Mark N. grew up on a horse farm, so it is fitting that his path to the National Security Agency (NSA) was a winding trail full of twists and turns.
Saddle up. Here’s his story.
Mark’s father worked for Hewlett-Packard (HP), the famed computer hardware manufacturer, which put him in the orbit of computer scientists and engineers. From an early age, he noticed their passion and enthusiasm for what they did and wanted to be a part of it.
"They loved what they did, they were building the first computers and the first voice recognition systems – all from scratch,” Mark says. “The passion I saw was contagious and it fascinated me when I was young.”
He took his fascination to higher education and earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from California State University - Chico. Upon graduating, Mark landed a job at HP – like father, like son – and worked there for the next 20 years. While he enjoyed the work, something was missing. However, the ample salary and benefits were too good to suddenly give up – especially when raising a family.
Then, at age 45, his life took an unexpected twist: Mark was laid off.
“I decided then and there that I was not finished with my career, that I needed to reinvent myself,” he says. “I wanted to give back to my country. At HP, all I was doing was making widgets work faster.”
Mark’s first step was going back to school to get a master’s degree in computer science at the University of Hawaii. He realized during his studies that he wanted to dedicate the second half of his career to helping the next generation of cyber professionals and data scientists. The best way to achieve that, he found, was through teaching.
After earning his master’s degree, Mark took a position with NSA as visiting professor leading a class on cyber security. After two decades in the private sector ‘making widgets’ – he was struck by the weight and responsibility he felt upon joining the agency.
“Taking that oath on day one of my employment … I had a definite ‘I’m not in Kansas anymore moment,” he says. “I mean, you don’t have to take an oath at HP.”
Mark acknowledges that cyber professionals in the private sector may be concerned about the ethics of data science at NSA. Especially as pop culture depictions of duplicitous employees or “moles” are often the center of espionage stories. However, he emphatically shuts down any notion that it’s a concern in the real world.
“You would not believe the layers of protections we have to ensure the sanctity of the 4th Amendment,” he says.
“The agency is not like how it’s portrayed in the movies … you are working with professionals who are focused on a mission. Subverting the law is not an option.”
Even though his days are spent in a classroom preparing the cyber professionals of tomorrow, Mark is impressed with the maturity of the data science field overall and is constantly keeping up with his NSA colleagues’ discoveries and achievements. He says the incremental advancements will make a big difference over time.
“It’s like NASA during the Mercury missions … they were learning as they went,” he says. “They were just ordinary people, at the right time, doing an important mission. It was only afterwards, when they looked back, that they realized that they had built our space program.”
Mark’s lectures consist of three parts: theory, hands-on applications and anecdotes from the real world. It’s the latter that his students most often ask about and what he hopes inspires them to also work in the Intelligence Community (IC).
“[I tell my students] Consider doing something bigger than yourself … something more important than making widgets faster or cheaper,” he says. “If you want to do something that will make a difference in the world, consider working in the IC.”
Although he can’t talk about it publicly, Mark says it’s a great feeling to know you’re doing something important for the safety of the country and moving the needle on issues he sees in the news.
“The mission, frankly, is just freaking cool,” he says. “Yes, at HP there were cool products to work on, but at the end of the day, it was just commerce.”