In 30-Year Career, Mathematician Turned Systems Engineer Never Stops Learning at NSA
February 6, 2020
When Gwen L. likes something, she sticks with it.
Her van’s odometer shows 340,000 miles. Likewise, she has devoted her entire career – almost 30 years – to NSA.
“This is where I landed right after graduation, and it has always been a good fit for me,” says Gwen, a project manager and systems engineer originally from Buffalo, N.Y.
NSA was a good fit for Gwen years ago when she worked a flexible schedule while raising her young children. She continues to enjoy work-life balance, but with no children at home, her focus is now on her career.
“Throughout my career, I have taken advantage of many opportunities, such as part-time employment and flexible scheduling, in order to prioritize my family when my children were young,” says Gwen. “Now, I’ve returned to full-time as an empty nester to prioritize my career.”
NSA offers a variety of internal and external career development opportunities to help employees meet their professional goals.
“I think it would surprise people to know about all of the opportunities there are at NSA for personal development as well as career development,” says Gwen. “I came in as a mathematician, was trained in cryptomathematics, developed expertise in software reverse engineering, and am now certified in systems engineering – all with training provided by NSA.”
Internally, NSA has more than 20 campuses, four cryptologic centers and six cryptologic training schools. The prestigious National Cryptologic School offers advanced classes in language, cryptology, leadership, education and business expertise. NSA employees also can take advantage of National Intelligence University, the Intelligence Community’s own accredited university that offers unique intelligence master’s and bachelor’s degrees, as well as relevant certificate programs taught in a classified setting.
Externally, NSA partners with outside institutions to offer four tuition-funded training programs.
Career Development Starts on Day 1
Gwen joined NSA after receiving her master’s degree in applied math. She was hired into a development program and spent time in several different offices before being assigned to an office in Research.
“I’ve pretty much been in that office for my whole career, but my role on the team has evolved as the project grew from a small innovative effort into an operational product directly supporting mission,” says Gwen, who works on Ghidra, a software reverse engineering framework developed by NSA for the agency’s cybersecurity mission. It helps analyze malicious code and malware and can give cybersecurity professionals a better understanding of potential vulnerabilities in their networks and systems.
Though she has spent decades in the same office, she has taken advantage of learning opportunities that have come her way.
“I was given an opportunity to work with an executive coach. I got feedback on how to be a more effective leader with my team during a big project and understand my leadership style,” says Gwen.
She also was encouraged to pursue specialty certifications in systems engineering and software engineering through classes offered by NSA. After receiving the certifications, she was able to join the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE).
“Taking those classes enabled me to take the exam from INCOSE. I passed the first time I took the exam,” says Gwen.
A Supportive Work Environment
Work-life balance and personal and professional development are only part of what has kept Gwen at NSA for almost 30 years. She also enjoys a respectful work environment that values diversity.
“Even though most of my teammates are men, I have never experienced the kind of treatment that I’ve heard other women describe sometimes – behaviors that reflect conscious or unconscious biases against women technologists,” says Gwen. “I’ve always felt like my ideas and expertise are respected. On my team, we all have different educational backgrounds and experiences, and that diversity of thought is more important to us than any of our physical differences.”
With the perspective that comes with a long career, she can’t help but look back, knowing she would have enjoyed pursuing electrical engineering.
“I never even considered it as an option because, I, myself, had an unconscious bias that engineering was a career field for men. It just wasn’t on my radar,” she says. “If I could talk to my 16-year-old self, I might try to open her eyes to all the opportunities available to her so that she would make more informed decisions and not be artificially limited by her own lack of perspective.”
She is grateful her three daughters have pursued their passions without feeling constraints. Her oldest daughter is a nurse, her middle daughter is about to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering, and her youngest daughter is studying pre-law.
Though Gwen has accomplished a lot at NSA, she is not finished learning. Just recently, her supervisor presented the chance to explore a senior development program. A supportive supervisor is nothing new for Gwen. In fact, she says NSA supervisors are always looking for new ways for employees to use the skills they have or learn new ones.
“I think that is maybe part of the culture – this notion that everybody has value, and everybody brings something to the equation,” says Gwen.