IC CAREERS BLOG
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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.”
Making the Move from the Private Sector to NSA
NSA project director says soft skills can help you get aheadSeptember 2, 2021
Like most recent college graduates, Tesheya W. started her career in the private sector. But the desire to do something that she can be proud of led her to NSA, where she is now immersed in cybersecurity as an NSA project director, working with other intelligence agencies and traveling the world to harden America’s cyber defenses.
Tesheya credits the agency with giving her opportunities to grow, both professional and interpersonal, and she credits her soft skills for helping her make a successful leap from the private sector to the tip of the national security spear.
From the Private Sector to NSA
The New York native began her career as a consultant in the private sector, burning the candle at both ends.
“I traveled a lot and spent many nights on a red-eye from California,” she says. “The private sector hours were longer and had less work-life balance. That probably was more on me and my personal expectations than some of the jobs themselves.”
One thing led to another, and the consulting company asked her if she’d be interested in getting a security clearance and joining NSA as a contractor.
“I had no perception of NSA at all,” she says. “I had never even heard of it. I had no clue what to expect.”
She took a leap of faith, joined the agency as a contractor and quickly found her way. “I started focused on customer engagement, impressed leadership in the operations area and was nudged toward a leadership role within operations.”
Within a few years she resigned her contracting role and became an official NSA employee, where the opportunities unfolded in front of her.
“The opportunities are endless with the right reputation, mentors and advocates,” she says.
Seeing the Real NSA
Now that she has seven years of experience under her belt, the University of Maryland graduate sees how NSA is portrayed in popular culture and laughs.
“Honestly, it’s so inaccurate it’s hilarious,” she says. “I wish we could do all the ridiculous things the movies think we do. And they have us looking like stiff robotic people. We are regular folks just like everyone else.”
As an agency leader and minority, Tesheya takes full advantage of the agency’s Employee Resource Groups, participating in six, including Women’s, African Americans and Hispanic Latino Americans.
“They are all helpful in various ways, such as opportunities to receive mentorship and be a mentor, understanding challenges within the subgroups, and they are a wealth of information to pass on to my mentees and my teams.”
Soft Skills and Interpersonal Growth
The diversity at NSA, she says, can extend beyond gender and race, and that offers an opportunity for interpersonal growth.
“I recently worked with someone who has the exact opposite political ideals than I,” she explains. “We also differed on our thoughts about the past, police brutality, and a host of other issues. At one point in my life this might have affected our working relationship. But not anymore. We were able to have dialogues with polar-opposite views and move on as adults to get our work done.”
Tesheya says those soft skills have helped her be successful in both her career and life.
“Emotional intelligence is big one. In a role when you’re not in charge, those skills can make life easier for you and get the mission done.”
What really keeps her going, however, is the larger goal of the agency.
“Dedication to the mission and national security is what keeps me coming in every day,” she says. “Knowing that what we do keeps my loved ones safe makes me proud to come into work.”
If You Dream It, You Can Achieve It at NSA
August 25, 2021
Veronica believes that if you can dream it, you can achieve it at NSA.
That certainly was her experience. She came to the agency as a Special Agent/Polygraph Examiner six and a half years ago and set her sights on becoming a Project Director. Taking advantage of internal training courses and keeping her eye on her goal, she now serves as Project Director for an engineering organization within the agency.
“I didn’t grow up in an area that highlighted federal government employment as a career opportunity,” she says. “I did not come to learn about federal government employment until late adulthood,” she says. “I was certain NSA was not obtainable, but I could not have been more wrong.”
She graduated from an Historically Black College/University, but at that time there were no federal government recruiters on campus. She spent the early stages of her career in the private sector, working in pharmaceutical sales and running trainings for a collection agency.
It wasn’t until she moved to Maryland that she found her way to a career in government with the Office of Personnel Management in the Personnel Security Division, conducting background checks and working on security clearances. After many years with the office, she knew she wanted to do something different.
She happened to stumble across a posting for a Polygraph Examiner at NSA and applied. Because she was employed in the Personnel Security arena, she believed her skills would be a great match for NSA’s security organization. She was right.
Now she is working in a different organization as a Project Director, ensuring projects are completed on time and in line with guidelines, even though she admittedly doesn’t know much about engineering.
She admits that although she believes the agency is a rewarding place to work, there are times when it can feel a little overwhelming due it its large size. But she found immediate support through her membership in Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
It started on her first day of work, in a training. She spotted another woman wearing earmuffs that were pink and green – the sorority’s colors. They quickly became friends inside and outside of the workplace.
“Having connections and a network immediately upon entry helped tremendously,” she says. “The members of my sorority have supported my efforts, as well as guided me through tough decisions. We support one another inside as well as outside of the workplace.”
Inside the workplace, Veronica finds support through the agency’s Employee Resource Groups. She participates in the agency’s African American and Women Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which she describes as a support system like no other. “They have both been helpful in providing support from an array of personnel, as well as helping me to maneuver my career and goals.”
While the agency’s ERGs bring together individuals with similar backgrounds and interests, on a daily basis, employees work alongside colleagues with diverse backgrounds and experiences. But those differences are not a problem.
“The world is not made up of all people that have the same values, ideas and opinions,” she says. “Work is a smaller world or a large family. Either way you look at it everyone will not agree, but we all do work toward respecting each other. I believe situations like this grow you personally and professionally.”
Over the years, Veronica has developed an appreciation for the opportunities the agency offers.
“What I love about working at NSA is the endless opportunities,” she says. “Can you imagine being a Special Agent one year and then supporting an engineering office the next year?”
In the private sector, often employees stay in their role for their entire career, unless they move to another company. “At NSA, there are opportunities to change roles and departments within the agency – security, installation, logistics, communications and more – anywhere you are determined to work,” she says.
It’s a far cry from her initial perception of the agency as a mystical place that was out of her reach.
When she joined the agency, she was looking to find meaning in her work and NSA seemed like a great place to start. “Now that I am here, I believe it is a great place to finish, as well,” she says.
For those considering a career at NSA, Veronica advises them to approach the opportunity with an open mind and be determined to make a difference.
Find Your Home at NSA
August 19, 2021
Like so many other NSA employees, Tameka B. was referred to the agency by a friend who shared their positive experience.
“Just from hearing from her, I knew I could find a home here,” she says – and that she did. She applied and was hired as a polygraph examiner four years ago.
Since then, her career has been on an upward trajectory. “I came to the agency as a polygraph examiner, but just within four years I have also been able to experience being a counterintelligence investigator and an adjudicator,” she says. “The agency has allowed me to work jointly with other divisions while also working my full-time job.”
“If NSA does not seem like a place for you, I guarantee you can find a home here,” she says. “I was shocked at how many people with my background who looked like me, not only worked here but were willing to extend a helping hand.”
Tameka B. connects with colleagues through participation in the Women and African American Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), and also is a member of the Divine 9 group, all of which have supported her career development and enhanced her awareness of diversity at NSA.
She says the ERGs have opened her eyes to the scope of diversity there is at the agency, as well as other career opportunities. “The resource groups help to guide me in the growth and expansion of my career by providing excellent leadership advice, as well as promotion direction.”
Before coming to NSA, she worked as a background investigator then took a position as a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security. She knew she was good with people and effective at talking to people from various backgrounds and gathering information.
Her background was in law, personnel security and background investigations. That experience led her to apply as a polygraph examiner for the agency.
“The private sector certainly prepared me to obtain employment working directly for the government because it opened my eyes to all the different agencies and how they protect our country,” she explains. “Currently, working at NSA, I know I am doing a job that directly impacts the safety of our country.”
Working at the agency allows her to feel the real-life effects of how her job impacts the country, she says. “Every day I interact with real people who all have a goal to protect our country.”
Until she joined NSA, she really had no idea about what the agency actually did. She knew the agency played an essential role in the government but did not understand its role specifically.
“I knew a lot of people in the STEM field worked here, but I did not think anyone with a criminal justice degree could find a place at the agency,” she says. “Since coming here, the agency has opened my eyes to so many possibilities that are offered. No matter what your major is in college, NSA has a place for you.”
Tameka B. found her place as a polygraph examiner at NSA, something she says is much different than what is portrayed in the media. “Trust me – it’s nothing like the movies.”
At NSA, she finds herself working alongside colleagues who come from a variety of different backgrounds. “A lot of people in my field are prior law enforcement and may be on their second career, which is not necessarily my background,” she says. “The key is understanding the differences, addressing them and working together from there.”
That diversity is something she appreciates about working at the agency. “Every day I come face-to-face with different people from various places around the country, with different backgrounds and beliefs,” she says. “One thing that I pride myself in doing is always showing respect and compassion to every person I meet. I was raised on those values and I show that in my job every day.”
She also credits membership in her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, for providing her with the exposure to, and an understanding of, others that has helped her to be successful in her career at NSA.
“As a polygraph examiner, I interact with so many people from all over the world from various backgrounds,” she says. “Delta Sigma Theta taught me how to be engaged and involved with many people from various walks of life. Delta taught me teamwork, proper planning, and to never give up, no matter the challenges. All of those traits are needed in my career every day in order to be successful.”
For those contemplating bringing their skills and experience to a career at NSA, she would encourage them to apply. “My advice would be to take a chance,” she says. “So many doors can open by just giving something a shot.”
Intelligence Insiders Break Down Resume Tips, Tricks and Hacks
July 20, 2021
"Served as assistant sore manager."
"Special skills: Thyping."
"I worked as a Corporate Lesion."
While a quick Google search for ‘resume fails’ is always good for a chuckle, recruiters in the Intelligence Community (IC) warn it’s no laughing matter.
“One typo or misspelling and it’s over. You’re done,” said Gilbert Jones, Intelligence Community Outreach and Recruitment Program Manager for the Office of the Assistant Director of National Intelligence (ADNI) for Human Capital.
Jones recently helped lead a resume workshop webinar hosted by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The audience was made up of students and recent grads interested in IC careers.
The program covered the purpose and value of a resume, knowing the difference between government and private sector resumes, and writing effective cover letters.
Jones’ co-host was Michael Bennett, Intelligence Community Centers for Academic Excellence Program Manager, Office of the ADNI for Human Capital. In addition to the basics (i.e., that a resume provides a summary of your skills, abilities and accomplishments in a succinct manner). Bennett explained that it is important to add specific, relevant details as well.
“For example, to stand out I would always include my foreign travel experience on my resume,” he said. “Mainly because it was directly related to the job I was applying for.”
Both Bennett and Jones emphasized the importance of tailoring each resume to the specific job you are applying for. While they admit that it’s a time-consuming process, it often produces the best results. Jones expanded further: “By ‘tailoring’ I don’t mean copying and pasting what the job description says onto your own resume,” he said.” It’s more about the art of figuring out what it is they’re looking for.”
That ‘art’ – so to speak – begins with a close reading of the job listing itself and is followed by tweaking one’s resume to best align their needs with your skills.
Depending on what type of resume a job seeker is writing, you’ll either have more or less room to make your case. Federal resumes want to see your Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSA) written out in full, where private industry resumes are usually your previous employment experience only.
For the federal resume, Knowledge is described as “bodies of information which are applied to the performance of work functions,” Skills are “measurable and observable and acquired through learning or training,” and Abilities are “enduring innate or acquired talents which can help a person do a job with or without formal instructions.”
Like resumes, a cover letter is a tool to sell yourself to prospective employers and represents you when you are not there. Much of the advice Bennett and Jones gave regarding resumes can also be applied to cover letters. However, Jones singled a few red flags he sees in cover letters that every job seeker should avoid.
Jones and Bennett also stressed that embellishing your experience will never end well. No matter how tempting it may be, both presenters made it clear that you’ll be caught.
So, after knowing what to avoid, what makes for a winning cover letter? For starters, details, details, details. It’s easy to overlook typos in your contact information, street name, and phone number. Second, pepper your cover letter with active verbs, descriptors and results-oriented words. These include: Administer, Analyze, Motivate, Produce, Expand, Improve, Strategic, Leading, Successful, Reduced, Enhanced and Increased.
The webinar wrapped up with a Q&A session between the experts and the audience. One participant asked about how some online job applications won’t allow you to simply upload your resume but requires you to painstakingly enter it, line-by-line, in their own template for it to be considered.
The experts’ response? Be patient.
“That can be a frustrating experience, but don’t get discouraged,” Jones said. “It’s crucial that you always build in extra time to complete these applications, otherwise you may get rushed and make a mistake.”
Here’s more of the experts resume/cover letter advice gleaned from the Q & A:
- Experience doesn’t always equal employment. If a successful college group project or something similar stands out, use it.
- Do a little extra research and find out who exactly the hiring manager is and address your cover letter to him or her.
- Everything you need to create a successful resume and cover letter is available online for free. Take advantage of the templates, sample letters, etc., that are already out there.
Bennett and Jones’ final piece of advice was again to highlight the importance of getting the details right and taking the time to make a good impression with your resume and cover letter.
“I hate to break it to you, but no one is going to read your whole resume,” Jones said. “Take the time to really understand what the hiring manager is looking for and put that up front.”
Former Math and Comp Sci Teacher Helps Others Advance at NSA
July 12, 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.”
Learn more about NSA career families and how your skills fit. Use our Job Exploration Tool.
Data Scientist Gene B. is Motivated by the Mission
June 29, 2021
Gene B. is passionate about his mission at NSA.
“You don't work in a place like this if you don't love the mission. Everything we do here is to protect national security and the warfighter,” he says. “It doesn't matter if you are cleaning trash cans or writing code, you are contributing to the mission.”
He has worked as a software engineer at the agency for eight years and, although his role hasn’t changed, he has rotated through many projects and three different offices during his time at the agency.
Currently, Gene B. leads the FOSS development of Beer Garden, a Python framework the agency develops as an open-source effort. In that capacity, he manages the daily tasking and code development of the team and is involved in the development process of all features. He describes his work as a blend between Python development and project management.
Previously at the agency, he managed various data science efforts, such as the development of ML prototypes to align NSA reporting against open-source threat frameworks. His team also developed relational mapping of data sets to understand our posture against Intelligence Needs.
At NSA, he has been able to develop professionally and expand his skill set. “When I came to the agency, I only had an understanding of JAVA. Since then, I have picked up Python to the point where I am now leading framework development for Python developers,” he says.
Gene B. earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science and cyber security. Since joining the agency, he completed his master’ degree in intelligence management through the agency’s 20/20 program, which provides administrative time to complete course work and papers, something he credits with vastly improving his work-life balance.
He has completed various in-house trainings that are offered to improve technical and management skills, and completed a program called COSI, targeted at mid-level career employees to spend a year learning about different aspects of NSA.
At the agency, he works with colleagues from around the world. “I have met linguists that immigrated to the USA at a young age, to developers who grew up right down the street,” he says.
He appreciates being able to collaborate with coworkers who bring a wide variety of backgrounds to the table.
“This is such a large, but close community,” he explains. “We rotate around in positions that you never know who in your office worked where until you ask. Who knows – In their last position they might have written Presidential Daily Briefings, and now they are running a team of developers. The options of a diverse professional background are endless.”
Another advantage of working at the agency he appreciates is the ability to telework. “My position was offering telework prior to COVID,” he explains. “We have the option to flex out time between being in the office and at home to complete our work.”
This is another contributor to a satisfying work-life balance. “I work 8 hours a day, with a mix of telework and in the office,” he says. “Every day I am home while the sun is still up, and I get my afternoons. So, yes, I am happy.”
Regarding ethical standards for data science work at NSA vs. the private sector, Gene B. explains that the agency’s standards and regulations are high.
“There are strict laws and policies on how we must handle data and every query is accounted for,” he explains. “If I were to grab a data set to conduct an evaluation, I must provide use cases, mitigation strategies and expected outcomes. Yes, this makes it more difficult when you are doing exploratory research, but it is required to protect all Americans’ rights.”
He explains that NSA is a foreign intelligence service and as such follows the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). “NSA has a commitment to respect the law and adhere to the U.S. Constitution, and is committed to fostering public transparency to understand our mission.”
In comparing data science work at NSA to work in the public sector, Gene B. says NSA is a better choice for him personally.
“It all comes down to what impact you want to have on the world and what drives you. Would you rather develop enhanced marketing strategies for targeted ads, develop a model that makes great leaps in medical fields, develop recognition software that aids in crisis situations – or would you rather develop models and research that will prevent international or cyber threats against the United States of America?”
For fellow data scientists who may be considering a career opportunity at NSA, he encourages them to make the leap. “Don't give up! The clearance process is long and will take much longer than if you went with the private sector, but you get so much potential growth here at the agency and the ability to make a real change in the world.”
Mentoring and Lifelong Learning Enrich Data Scientist’s Career at NSA
June 28, 2021
Devin F. is leaving a lasting imprint at NSA by sharing his expansive knowledge – knowledge he has accumulated through his passion for continuing education and professional development.
A Project Manager/Exploitation Analyst at the agency, he takes great pleasure in mentoring others throughout the agency, seeing others grow into their own success, and knowing that he played a small part in that.
“I love mentoring and teaching others,” he says. “Sometimes I am contacted by people from across the agency for mentorship, whom I never meet in person. Yet I still have the opportunity and privilege to impact their professional careers from a distance.”
While he oversees several teams of technical professionals, advises on and critiques their work, his day-to-day duties still include technical tasks, such as performing various data science tasks, writing articles on data science/coding/analysis, and developing data-driven solutions for real-world problems. He shares his vast knowledge by writing blogs and articles about the craft of his trade.
“Due to my position, I focus mostly on mentoring others and certifying them in our rigorous proprietary certification,” he explains. “I work in a special work role that has a blanket retention incentive, and soon we will have a market supplement comparable to the penetration testing career field in the cybersecurity industry, so much of my time focuses on the technical health of the community. I have trained more than 100 professionals in this work role and personally certified dozens.”
Ironically, Devin F. was hired at NSA without a degree or any industry certifications, which is a rare occurrence.
Over the years, he has built a lengthy list of credentials. He earned an Associates of Arts degree in general studies and continued his education earning CompTIA Network+ certification; proprietary NSA certification for the Exploitation Analyst work role, which is currently undergoing national accreditation and newly added to the NIST Cyber Workforce Framework; and through the Intelligence Analysis Development Program became a Professionalized Intelligence Analyst with the agency.
“My training transcript for our agency’s school is almost a dozen pages long,” he says. “I try to take new courses regularly on a monthly or quarterly basis, even if it is just a self-paced CBT course. I also do a lot of training on my own outside the agency using a well-known training on-demand provider. I’ve completed a number of important courses from a technical/technology perspective and from an innovation/leadership perspective.”
He took his first hacking course in 2010, where he threw his first exploit in a lab, which was the infamous MS08-067 NETAPI exploit integrated into Metasploit. The operating system back then was called Backtrack. He has configured routers/switches/VoIP servers/various operating systems, analyzed Petabytes of data, reverse engineered assembly and malware, tampered with Artificial Intelligence prototypes, built medium-sized labs to simulate real-world situations in enterprise virtualization environments, and a lot of other technical challenges.
He started his career at NSA nearly 15 years ago as a military Signals Intelligence Analyst, which over the years evolved into multiple work roles as cyber became a focus area. He spent more than five years as a Network Analyst and has been an Exploitation Analyst for almost six years.
“Over the course of my career, I focused on different components of information security: from cryptanalysis, to cryptography; to communications security; to data security; to network security; and computer/system security,” he explains.
He also has served in leadership positions concurrently with his technical responsibilities, as a Team Lead, Branch Chief, Technical/Compliance Officer, Cyber Lead, Division Technical Director and as a Project Manager.
“Probably the highlight of my career is when I served in a named leadership position as a Technical Director, where I was able to contribute to a number of high-level tasks, including forming new organizations and designing organizational strategy,” he says.
Besides his technical responsibilities, Devin F. wears many other hats. He serves as Adjunct Faculty (part-time instructor) for the agency’s nationally accredited vocational school, teaching for two of the school’s colleges. He also serves as a Classification Advisory Officer for an office that focuses on penetration testing. “I advise individuals on the classification of information to better inform them how to protect information at the correct security level,” he explains.
“I love writing code, analyzing data, and finding solutions for customers or myself,” he says. “That is all lumped together to me as ‘one thing,’ because code without a solution is garbage.”
His vast experience has led Devin F. to a path of even more challenging avenues. Last year he built a cryptocurrency architecture in his spare time just as a hobby to learn how blockchain really works. That experience informed him on discussions he would later have on blockchain technologies and potential applications.
“I still see the deer in the headlights when I mention things like A.I. and blockchain to most people, because most people haven’t been exposed to practical applications of those concepts or how they work,” he says. However, terms like that are more than a buzzword at the agency.
Devin F. shares that the agency is filled with bright and brilliant minds, so much so that it can become intimidating – but that has its advantages.
“All those brilliant minds tend to influence your own brilliance,” he says. “The degree of brilliance among my colleagues at the agency is one factor that keeps me glued to my seat. Life isn’t just about pay, but it is about the opportunity to make a difference.”
Another attribute he appreciates about his work environment is its diversity.
“The agency is overwhelmingly diverse,” he says. “The agency accommodates people with disabilities and embraces diversity in a way that I never really saw at other ‘very diverse’ employers that I’ve worked with. The agency really goes the extra mile. Most of the leaders throughout my career have been women in STEM, minorities, and individuals in marginalized groups. So, when I hear about the private sector still dealing with the issues they have with fairness, it seems almost unbelievable that companies would still have those issues in 2020.”
Commitment to NSA’s mission gives Devin F. a deep sense of job satisfaction. “This mission is what makes the job important. Performing the tasks is the easy part, but the mission can weigh on you,” he explains.
“The job would seem boring if the mission was something as typical as an algorithm to push some product to try to pressure people into buying something that they probably don’t even need. I personally would have a lot of personal conflict working on an algorithm or a product that I wouldn’t use myself. My colleagues that work in the private sector are entirely focused on ‘features’ and ‘name brands.’ Half of the time they aren’t even asking themselves, ‘Do I want this?’ or ‘Is this the best solution for the customer?’ Companies have partners, and so often the products have a bias toward the companies and partners involved.”
In comparing work at NSA to work in the private sector, Devin F. says the difference ultimately comes down to the problem that data science is trying to solve.
“That is where the rubber meets the road,” he says. “Unfortunately, much of the data science in the private sector is focused on making those dollars. I think the most meaningful things you can do in the data science field are limited exclusively to the public sector (government and non-profit). Just look at the pandemic of 2020 and all of the great work people are doing with analyzing virus metrics to help keep people safe across the globe. When you save lives, pushing a product seems so insignificant.”
He also respects the agency’s commitment to ethics and privacy.
“NSA takes Privacy and Civil Liberties very seriously because we have to,” he says. “The amount of professionalism at the agency is at a much higher bar than what you will see across the rest of the technology sector. We don’t bypass all privacy concerns by simply having users sign an extremely long ‘Terms of Service’ that hardly anyone reads in full. Instead, we objectively accept that all people deserve privacy.”
He shares that politics and time theft are not allowed in the workplace. “As an agency employee, you will learn that we uphold the highest degree of professional ethics,” he says. “At NSA, we hold everything to a much higher bar.”
He has a very compelling reason for encouraging other data scientists to consider a career at NSA: “You get to defend the nation and help to keep America safe so that it can continue to be Land of the Free and the Brave.”
Business Financial Manager Finds Welcoming Environment at NSA
June 22, 2021
When Brandon M. first thought about pursuing a career at NSA, he didn’t think he was going to fit in at the agency.
Three years into his first career out of college, he found that he was not fulfilled by his work. He was working as a business operations associate in the private sector. One of his colleagues ha d just left that organization to join the agency, and Brandon decided to pursue opportunities there as well.
“I knew that serving as any part to the safety of the country would provide the fulfillment I was looking for,” he says. “I was able to use my business background and tie it to my want to serve.” He joined the agency two years ago through one of NSA’s development programs and works as a Business Financial Manager. While he found that some of his previous experience did carry over to his new position, he says his work at NSA is very different, as was his initial perception of the agency.
“I was expecting what I think most African Americans would think, my skin color is going to cause a lot of issues here,” he says. “I can say that I have not seen that thus far. I have joined small groups that have made me feel at home, and more importantly, everyone I have interacted with has done a great job of making me feel welcome.”
As part of NSA’s development program, he changes roles during each year of the program. He says that has fostered a well-rounded view of the agency and helped him to build a strong network.
Another way he has managed to expand his network within the agency is through his participation in Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). He belongs to three ERGs – the African American and NextGen groups, as well as participating as an ally in the Women ERG.
“They have all helped me to expand my network,” he says. “The amount of knowledge to pull from within any ERG is the main reason I joined. The promotion process can be intimidating to a new hire, but every ERG I am in was there to help me through that process.”
Besides focusing on the responsibilities of his job title, Brandon M. is also active in his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi. “NSA provides and allows for balance to pursue fraternity activities outside of work in many ways,” he says. “The main way NSA allows this is that we have a formal email chain with all of the members of Omega Psi Phi at the agency. It allows for us to provide information to each other, such as chapter meetings and social gatherings that we may not otherwise be aware of.”
The agency’s MBA hours that are provided to employees each year allow fraternity members to meet as a group and still get paid.
His fraternity has helped him to grow professionally, in some ways that are specific to the agency. “As for what I learned in my fraternity that relates to working at the agency, there are many things,” he shares. “The first thing that I can say that is specific to Omega Psi Phi is discretion. Working for NSA requires us to display discretion on many levels, and it ties directly with what we learn in the fraternity.”
Brandon M. is focused on supporting diversity and inclusion at the agency. “I don’t see diversity as an issue at the agency, but I want to make sure people who look like me see the agency as a real opportunity.”
Diversity in the workplace is what keeps the agency strong. “Every project I work on has people from different backgrounds and viewpoints,” he explains. “Working in a business role we have to collaborate with others with very technical backgrounds. The agency does a good job of ensuring that the mission comes first.”
He shared that he believes an organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion sometimes isn’t enough.
“Sometimes you will see diversity pushes at companies, but they do not do anything to make the work force feel welcomed,” he says. “It does no good when you do things to make a diverse workforce but do nothing to make people feel welcome. That has not been my experience at the agency.”
While his previous experience and skills have helped him to succeed at NSA, he says he believes there are things more important than skills that make a candidate a great asset to the agency.
“In most roles you will have to learn the way that things are done within the DoD and NSA,” he says. “Being willing to learn and stretch yourself is what makes you a great asset. There will be times when side projects come up that do not involve any of the skills that you were hired for, and what makes you a great asset is being willing to give them a try. It’s mainly attitude that makes you a great asset to NSA.”
Another misconception he found about how the agency is perceived is that working at NSA is nothing like what many would imagine. “NSA is nothing like the movies, it is surprisingly more normal than one would imagine.”
His best advice for anyone considering a career at NSA is that there is no reason not to apply. “There are many avenues, such as employee resource groups and other informal groups that make a big agency feel small.”
From Oceania to Cornfields: How an NSA Career in Data Science Began
June 16, 2021
How did Kevin H’s plunge into the Great Barrier Reef lead to a career in Data Science with the National Security Agency (NSA)?
Let’s dive in.
Growing in up Maryland, Kevin enjoyed camping, music and fantasy card game Magic the Gathering. In high school, he got the opportunity to visit the world’s largest coral reef in Australia, and, after seeing its majestic beauty, became set on studying Marine Biology at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT).
A math whiz from an early age, Kevin added a mathematics minor to his academic slate and the mix of the two disciplines led to a unique opportunity. He was asked to be a part of FIT’s burgeoning Biomathematics major, consisting of equal parts Applied Mathematics, Computer Science and Biology/Ecology.
After graduating, his Biomathematics degree landed him his first job in the field of data science – working for a private sector agriculture company. His task was analyzing which environmental conditions led to the best crop yields. But after 18 months, Kevin was ready to leave the cornfields behind and continue his education by pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Colorado-Denver.
This experience led Kevin to two personal revelations: 1) After taking classes in intelligence writing and terrorism analysis, he became determined to pursue a career in Intelligence; 2) Academia wasn’t for him.
“I left academic data science because I felt pigeon-holed into becoming an expert in one narrow sub-field,” he says.
His remedy? To follow his instincts and go after a career in intelligence by researching and browsing the countless jobs available on intelligencecareers.gov. He zeroed in on the Data Scientist role at NSA and has been in the position for the past three years.
Aside from breaking free from the narrow realm of academia, Kevin’s pursuit of a career in intelligence had to do with a desire to serve in a way he couldn’t in the private sector.
“During my time in private industry, we chased efficiency for market advantage. At NSA, every day is a new opportunity to serve,” he says. “That has yet to get old.”
When asked to detail what he enjoys about working at NSA as opposed to careers in academia and the private sector, Kevin didn’t hesitate to explain.
“I like the diversity, I am always learning new things, when you get too comfortable, it’s time to move on,” he says. “And I like witnessing the impact, from empowering better decisions to learning saving time and money. I have witnessed my work change things for the better.”
Kevin also praises the Agency’s attitude towards work-life balance, something he says was lacking in both academia and the private sector. The flexibility, he says, is certainly a plus – but also is the encouragement to always be improving his personal knowledge.
“By participating at academic and industrial conferences,” Kevin says. “I have been empowered to stay at the cutting edge of our field. Internal training ensures those best practices are translatable to NSA.”
Another advantage over academia and the private sector that Kevin singles out is interpersonal relationships. He notes that those at NSA are much healthier than those in the private sector, mostly due to the agency’s focus on the mission of keeping our country safe, rather than the bottom line or pleasing stockholders.
“The mission and the people are what makes the difference,” he says. “Everyone I have met in my program is a voracious learner, passionate and keen to drive the mission forward.”
Kevin acknowledges that NSA has had some bad press during his tenure and that may have an impact on recruiting his fellow data scientists in the private sector or academia. His message to those individuals is simple:
“Please come spend one year with us. Think of it as a sabbatical if you want,” he says. “I attest that NSA is at the forefront of ethical thought on data science. Every employee has sworn an oath to defend the constitution and we are incredibly sober about the cost of error. Ethics is integral to our workflows and our way of life.”
Kevin hopes his winding path to becoming an NSA Data Scientist is a relatable one. From diving the Great Barrier Reef to analyzing soybean crop yields to academia, he has a wide array of experience. What changed for him was finding a place and a career where he made a difference.
“The mission is what drags me out of bed each morning,” he says. “I believe no one will be truly at rest until they can apply their unique talents to better the lives of those around them. NSA lets me do that.”
Kevin says it has never been easier.
“Reach out! NSA is increasing our presence to the public. From social media, to school career fairs, to conference expo-floors. Come talk to us! For me, this career was well worth the wait.”
For Business Careers and Beyond, NSA’s ‘Too Cool Not to Explore’
June 11, 2021
Stephen D. is one of many people who takes care of business at the National Security Agency.
On a daily basis, he manages a portfolio of about $500 million, making sure funds are being executed within the bounds of the Department of Defense’s financial acquisition, contracting and purchasing rules.
At least, that’s what the MBA does right now. With the support of his internal networks and mentors, he could soon be doing something entirely different at NSA.
“Within the business world, you have the ability to move into roles and positions that vary in what they do, but at the same time, if you build relationships internally, you can move wherever you want. People are willing to take you on to the mission side of the house, the cyber side of the house …”
Or in Stephen’s case, the White House.
One of his mentors works in an NSA office that serves as a liaison to the White House. Stephen got to shadow his mentor at an on-site meeting, take a gander at the vice president’s ceremonial office and catch a glimpse of a presidential motorcade preparing to leave the White House.
“It was absolutely awesome,” he said. “Those types of opportunities are only within places like [NSA].”
Stephen was in the middle of finishing his MBA, torn between becoming a baseball coach or working in the business field when he started researching NSA opportunities. His interest in international relations tipped the scales in favor of working within the Intelligence Community. Between its global impact and the good it does, NSA, he says, “was too cool not to explore.”
He didn’t know anyone in the Maryland area when he came to NSA several years ago, so he joined two of the agency’s intramural teams – softball and basketball – where he met “a ton of great people.”
“As you meet more and more people, you kind of start building your own teams, and the ties become stronger.” Team building is encouraged, and even paid for, to some degree, by the agency. Employees are awarded 12 hours of morale building time per year. Stephen’s group has used this perk to go to Orioles games, Dave & Buster’s and an escape room.
One of NSA’s newer perks is the Civilian Fitness Program, which gives employees three paid hours per week to work out, another example of what Stephen calls the agency’s “absolutely phenomenal” work-life balance.
He says having a considerable amount of time off, even as a first-year employee, was helpful while he was more active in his side gig of wedding photography and videography. There’s less time for that now that he’s using NSA’s tuition assistance to earn a Ph.D. in criminal justice with a concentration in homeland security, but he’s also found the time to serve as a technical recruiter for business jobs at college career fairs.
Finance and business students, he says, may be instinctually drawn to large financial houses like Goldman Sachs or J.P. Morgan, but “we [at NSA] kind of break that mold. It’s fun to explain what we do on the business side, but we also explain the concept that if you want to do business, great, and if not, we also have so many other opportunities you can explore.”
Stephen’s contemplating his next career move, but it’s definitely going to be at NSA.
“I’m not exactly sure what I want to jump to, but I know the opportunities are available.”
Enabling Intelligence Integration Through Education
National Intelligence University turns practitioners into visionary leadersJune 2, 2021
Among the many opportunities for career development in the Intelligence Community is an accredited university steeped in the academic disciplines of the world’s most secretive craft.
Its curriculum is exclusive to intelligence, its classes are taught by intelligence practitioners, and its students are either civilian federal government employees or military servicemembers with a hand in intelligence and a variety of other career fields. Students are intelligence analysts, pilots, human resource specialist, or public affairs specialist. This diversity elevates the collective knowledge of each class.
It’s called National Intelligence University – or NIU for short – and it’s the hidden gem of the IC.
Tom Van Wagner, director of alumni relations at NIU, knows better than most what the school can do for aspiring intelligence professionals. He’s an alumnus and the longest tenured administrator at the university, and he’s seen thousands of students come through the doors.
“If you were just finishing undergrad and wanted to be with a top-flight law firm, you’d consider applying to one of the top-flight law schools,” Van Wagner explains. “In business, you’d go to one of the best MBA programs in the country. So if you want to rise to the top of the intelligence profession, why not go to the school that’s produced more intelligence community leaders than any other school?”
Van Wagner is talking about leaders like Gen. Paul Nakasone, a four-star general who is currently the director of the National Security Agency and commander of U.S. Cyber Command, and Earl Matthews, deputy assistant to the president, and the senior director for defense policy and strategy for the National Security Council.
The program that produces such leaders, Van Wagner admits, isn’t an easy one. Full-time students can earn a master’s degree in as little as one year, due in part to the university’s academic calendar that packs four 10-week terms into each calendar year. But given the benefits of the education, it’s well worth the effort.
First, full-time students are actually full-time employees who have been assigned to get a graduate degree. That’s right, earning an advanced degree is your work assignment. You attend classes full-time and receive the paycheck and benefits you would earn if you were on the job. All books, all fees are paid for by the government. Part-time students, on the other hand, may opt to attend classes in the evenings and weekends to balance working and career development at the same time.
Next, there’s the professional network. Every intelligence component, in addition to 20+ other national security organizations, across the of the U.S. government, are represented at NIU.
“The NIU network is second to none,” Van Wagner says. “You’re going to class with people from FBI, CIA, the Army, the State Department and the entire IC. Your network expands well beyond the people you eat lunch with at the office.”
Then there’s the faculty: a mix of long-term resident faculty and rotational IC practitioners on teaching assignments. In addition, because NIU is located in the heart of the National Capitol Region, there is a rich pool of current and former IC leaders available to serve as adjunct faculty. All are steeped in real-world intelligence experience, keeping the curriculum current and fresh. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a lecture from the likes of recent Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who’s been known to teach a class or two.
The curriculum includes a rigorous mix of scholarly literature and real-world, top-secret case studies. The readings may come from an outside source or may include books published by National Intelligence Press, NIU’s publishing arm. As the dedicated research unit of NIU, the Ann Caracristi Institute for Intelligence Research (CIIR) represents the IC’s premier resource for academic intelligence research. CIIR serves to support, advance, and promote NIU’s academically rigorous research on topics critical to U.S. intelligence and national security.
The Institute houses NIU’s expert research faculty, prestigious Research Fellowship Program, and a number of pioneering intelligence research centers, which use state-of-the-art research methods and tools to analyze a synthesis of classified and unclassified data on cutting-edge topics. CIIR has also recently launched the IC’s preeminent academic COVID-19 research initiative “A World Emerging from Pandemic: Implications for Intelligence and National Security,” in partnership with the Pentagon’s distinguished Strategic Multilayer Assessment Group.
NIU is the kind of environment that transforms focused tactical professionals into big-picture strategists. It turns competent professionals into visionary leaders.
Just the Facts
- National Intelligence University has been around for more than a half-century. It opened its doors in 1963 as the Defense Intelligence School and has evolved to meet the changing needs of U.S. national security. This year, NIU will complete an organizational transition from the Defense Intelligence Agency to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
- NIU is regionally accredited by the Middle State Commission on Higher Education and is a member of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.
- Only federal government civilians and military servicemembers with TS/SCI clearances are eligible to attend.
- NIU just named a new Dean for its College of Strategic Intelligence. Dr. Amy Kardell is the first faculty member from outside the Department of Defense to serve as the dean of the College, and the first woman to serve in this capacity in the 58-year history of the institution.
- Annual enrollment averages approximately 700 students. About 70% attend part-time while continuing professional careers.
- The average class size is about 12 students.
- NIU is on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram
- Three degrees are offered: Bachelor of Science in Intelligence; Master of Science of Strategic Intelligence; and Master of Science and Technology Intelligence. The university also offers 15+ certificate programs in regional and topical subjects.
- In the last year, NIU has launched the Student Senate, NIU Ambassadors, and the Research and Resilience Mindfulness Group, all extra-curricular activities to encourage engagement with peers across the IC.
- During the 2020 academic year the NIU Community voted to make NIU’s official mascot an owl. Culper the owl is named after one of the most prolific spy rings of the Revolutionary war.
- Tuition and books are provided to students at no cost to the student or home agency.
- Visit National Intelligence University online to learn more.
Take It from a Dummy
How the FBI supports occupational health and environmental programs in the Intelligence CommunityMay 27, 2021
Ivana Heremore has a job that nobody else wants.
She straps on hearing protection and sits in noisy environments to test how well the protective equipment works. A recent assignment had her sitting next to a sniper in training as the rifle blasted several times in a row. Sensors measure the volume of noise that reaches her ears. The data is then analyzed to determine the level of hearing damage a human will sustain wearing the protective equipment.
FBI Personnel with Ivana Heremore
Luckily for Ivana, she is not one of those humans, just a mannequin head used by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in a broader program designed to improve occupational safety and environmental sustainability.
You can think of the FBI’s Occupational Safety and Environmental Programs Unit as a testing and incubation center for innovative solutions to big problems. When it comes up with a good solution, it shares best practices with the Intelligence Community (IC) through meetings and annual off-site work sessions.
Catherine Shaw, the program’s Unit Chief, says the environmental side of the program has broad application. First it works to assure compliance with regulations that govern such things as power plants, generators and water quality. Second, it seeks to improve the efficient use of resources, including water and energy. Third, it focuses on sustainability, including how buildings are designed and recommissioned, and how recyclables are handled.
The recycling program is a good example of how Shaw and her team are pushing the boundaries of innovation. They developed a system to sell valuable recyclable material, which not only accomplishes the goal of environmental sustainability, but also brings in revenue to the tune of $2 million over the last several years. The revenue is then reinvested into the environmental program.
Those successes and others like them generate good will toward the initiative and make it easier to reinforce good office recycling habits.
“Now there is an expectation that there is a recycling container in every office,” Shaw says.
Environmental initiatives also include electric vehicle charging stations on FBI campuses, which can be used for the FBI vehicle fleet as well as personal vehicles. Employees who use the stations to charge their own vehicles are charged back the cost.
Shaw says it’s important for the FBI and other agencies to set a good example on environmental issues, especially when the law enforcement agency is investigating public companies for breaking environmental laws.
“We have busted other companies for things like not disposing of hazardous waste properly, so we lose credibility if we don’t do it right,” she says.
The other side of the equation is occupational health, which also has a long list of initiatives. The timeliest initiative, brought to the surface by Covid-19, is the challenge of pumping clean outdoor air into facilities and increasing airflow. Another initiative is the study of how climate change and hotter summers can affect the health of employees, including agents.
But one that is attracting a lot of attention right now is the initiative to protect the hearing of agents who regularly train with weapons that can severely damage the agents’ hearing. This is where Ivana Heremore comes in.
The Mannequin Goes to Work
Ivana Heremore – a name based roughly on the phrase “I wanna hear more” – makes the rounds to different environments to gather measurements on the decibel level of noise and how well different protective devices function. Industrial hygienists combine that data with other audiogram data to gain insight into what protective devices work and which do not work in real life conditions.
While the FBI has equipment, such as ear protection worn over the ears like earmuffs and in-ear “foamies”, that works well, it is not as functional on the firing range because agents wearing the devices must take them off to hear someone; for example, when the instructor speaks. The team was able to help recommend a new type of hearing protection that fits in the ear and includes a switch that can be easily activated to hear a human voice.
The Team That Does It All
Even though Shaw’s scope of responsibility is broad, and her team’s work fans out across the IC, she says her unit is small. When people think of the FBI, she says, they think of special agents, not environmental specialists.
Yet she is always on the lookout for young professionals or fresh college grads who have studied environmental science, occupational health, public health, industrial hygiene and other related fields.
It’s a great team, she says, and Ivana has been known to send out holiday cards too!
The Weird and Wonderful World of IARPA
May 12, 2021
If research at the nation’s intelligence agencies is already giving the United States an edge over its adversaries by developing specialized tools or products, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) takes problem-solving to the next level. It can take years of experimentation — and failure — to advance IARPA’s understanding of a particular problem.
IARPA, an organization within ODNI, invests in what it calls “high-risk” research programs, meaning it tackles “complex, interdisciplinary problems for which it’s entirely probable that none of the proposed solutions pans out,” says Dr. Carl Rubino, program manager for two IARPA research programs that are designed to advance natural language processing technologies.
But on the flip side of taking risks is the potential for a high payoff. IARPA’s scientists are asked to attempt the “seemingly impossible” by considering not just what problems can be solved now, but how the program can be used for future needs. The successful programs, he says, “provide our nation with an overwhelming intelligence advantage.”
Another bonus is the potential to discover something wonderful along the way. Dr. Rubino says some of his favorite results have occurred when IARPA research projects are used in “novel, useful and unexpected ways.” For instance, under the MAEGLIN (Molecular Analyzer for Efficient Gas-phase Low-power INterrogation) program, a state-of-the-art micro-gas chromatograph was built to detect trace amounts of hazardous chemicals from a distance. The chromatograph has also shown to be useful as a breath sensor to detect signs of acute respiratory distress syndrome associated with COVID-19.
IARPA Program Manager Carl Rubino delivers a talk on IARPA’s contribution to low resource language technology development.
Dr. Rubino manages IARPA’s MATERIAL and BETTER programs. MATERIAL aims to revolutionize how the IC gathers intelligence from foreign text and speech. Systems have already been developed under this program to translate, transcribe, retrieve and summarize information in lower resource languages (languages with less presence on the internet).
In the following scenario, BETTER works like this: An analyst interested in MERS disease studies in the Middle East selects a few sample documents in English, and then asks the system to learn from that selection to retrieve similar documents in Arabic. After that initial selection, the analyst highlights what they found useful from the first set of returned documents, and then the system uses this input to improve the search capability yet again. In other words, the system learns and improves based on the user’s activity.
Other IARPA research programs address the ability to identify or recognize individuals from a long range or high elevation, the need for quieter unmanned aerial vehicles that rely less on ground support equipment, and the power to determine whether someone has stolen biological intellectual property — like if a custom yeast strain from one company appeared in a competitor’s lab, as illustrated in a scenario describing IARPA’s FELIX project.
IARPA’s program managers work closely with U.S. Intelligence Community stakeholders to identify their biggest challenges.
“They teach us about their tradecraft and use cases, and help us identify and validate appropriate research directions,” Dr. Rubino says. “For both of my programs I continue to engage dozens of experts from multiple organizations.”
Program managers then identify experts from organizations that have a research relationship with the federal government — such as Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) or University Affiliated Research Centers (UARCs) — who help develop the research plan.
Then, after a public solicitation, program managers select proposals based on technical approaches, budget, and the diversity that the solicitors’ approaches offer to meet the goals. These are usually experts from academia and industry.
IARPA’s main objective, Dr. Rubino says, is to pioneer scientific advancement. And for him, the excitement of the challenge is a rush.
“Engaging world-renowned experts is extremely fulfilling. The chance to be a student again at my age is also a definite plus, but the major pull factor was the unique prospect of being able to make a difference for both science and my country,” he says.
IARPA is looking for more program managers to broaden its research portfolio, and that means bringing your unique and cutting-edge idea with you. It’s actually part of the application. Learn more on IARPA’s careers page.
Intelligence Analysis: Where the Answer is Never Final
May 5, 2021
In a time when geopolitical dynamics can change without a moment’s notice, the work of an intelligence analyst is never truly, totally, definitively … finished.
“Answering a question could be a decade of work because the answer changes every year,” says Catherine B., an intelligence analyst at NSA.
That motion, that flux of conditions that renders all solid answers fluid and all correct answers questionable, that’s what keeps Catherine coming back for more.
“I focus on a fast, high-priority mission,” says Catherine, who currently specializes in the Middle East. “Every day is different.”
Working in the Gray Area
Catherine wasn’t always comfortable in the gray area between today’s right answer and tomorrow’s. Her original intent as an undergraduate was to go into engineering, a field that drives toward binary yes/no answers.
But she soon became fascinated with the fluidity of liberal arts. She took classes in foreign policy and international relations, changed her major to government and minor to law and society. Before she knew it, she was a civilian intern working on intelligence issues with the Navy.
Upon graduation, the Cornell alum accepted a position as an all-source analyst in the Office of Naval Intelligence. It was there that she got a taste of what NSA and other Intelligence Community (IC) agencies produce.
She was in charge of reviewing intelligence from the IC and disseminating those details that pertain specifically to shipyards, vessels and fleets – Navy issues. She liked the work, but she saw something bigger ahead.
“My work at the Navy was more tactical,” she says. “I wanted more intellectual challenge, and I knew NSA was one of the agencies that produced the most intelligence.”
What followed was a joint-duty assignment with NSA, where her professional ambitions found a home.
Being a Part of the News
As an intelligence analyst at NSA, her work was not only more strategic, but she also began to see the outline of her career flashed across the television screen on the nightly news.
Only Catherine and a few colleagues know what role she plays in how those current events unfold.
“It’s neat to be watching the news and a story comes on and you know you’re a part of the story,” she says. “It’s fulfilling in a very silent kind of way.”
Promotions and People
While her career took shape in the office, Catherine also worked on a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies, all paid by the government. She took some of her classes at National Intelligence University, the IC’s own accredited university, where the classified environment allowed students to study real-world events and real-world problems.
Her solid performance and advanced education helped Catherine land a promotion to Branch Chief, where she currently oversees a team of 25 and manages workflow, daily priorities and quality control.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she says. “I have great co-workers and great managers. The people care about each other. Everybody works together.”
Travels Abroad, Business and Leisure
While the No. 1 mission of NSA is to protect the United States, the work itself reaches across the globe. Catherine has spent time in the Middle East, Paris and London, all time dedicated to the mission.
But her appetite for business travel is matched by her appetite for fine dining and even finer wines. She and her husband spend vacation time in places like Portugal and Croatia, sampling local flavors in restaurants and vineyards.
“I’m kind of a foodie,” she says. “We plan our trips around the wineries of the world.”
Following Her Footsteps
For young adults thinking about a career in intelligence analysis, Catherine says three skills are essential:
- Critical thinking. Your mission is to answer a question to the best of your ability. To do so, you must know how to objectively evaluate information and how to evaluate your evaluation. Common cognitive biases must be neutralized.
- Curiosity: You must be inclined to the curious, asking question after question to uncover a trove of facts and perspectives.
- Attention to detail. Your work will go to the desks of policymakers and the president. They will make decisions, based on your team’s analysis, that will affect the future of the United States.
If you have all three and you’re comfortable with questions that never have a final answer, look into a career as an intelligence analysist with NSA. You may even land a spot on Catherine’s team.
Accountant Leaves Grueling Tax Season Behind to Join NSA
April 29, 2021
When Bryant B. first came to NSA more than three years ago, he was struggling to survive tax season.
Working at a public accounting firm while he was also earning his master’s degree, Bryant was putting in 55 hours a week or more during tax season. The grueling schedule left little time for anything else.
He intended to go to an on-campus recruiting event at Salisbury University, but when that didn’t work out, he went online to learn about opportunities for accountants at NSA. That year he graduated in May, was married in June, and started at NSA in July.
Since then, he has rotated through various offices over the course of his three years at the agency to learn about finance, accounting and budget, allowing him to see the organization as a whole.
Among the benefits of moving around the agency are the many contacts he has made, “I have made so many connections and seen different roles,” he said. “You can sharpen the skills you have and learn new ones.”
He intends to stay with the agency and is applying for positions where he will stay for two years or longer; two are similar to his current role and one is a supervisory position.
His work at NSA includes coordinating and conferring with people within the agency to support warfighters to determine what is necessary to secure mission objectives. In that capacity, he works to guide, analyze and watch spending patterns, has helped those traveling for duty to verify their travel, and has worked in the accounting office to help pass an audit.
To enhance his skill set, Bryant is working toward earning his CPA certification. Once he passes, he will be reimbursed by the agency, another benefit of working at NSA.
A flexible schedule is yet another benefit offered at the agency. While the compensation may not compare to working at a public accounting firm, Bryant says, “The pay is different, but so are the hours – you don’t have to work 10 to 12 hours a day.”
That helps to keep work life and personal life in balance. “I can’t take work home with me,” he explains, “which is a great feeling.” Even in inclement weather, when others are forced to work remotely, work stays at work.
Beside the flexible schedule, Bryant also enjoys the personal fitness hours offered by NSA. He keeps active in NSA’s intramural leagues, playing kickball, softball and basketball with his colleagues, which he says is a great way to meet new people.
Among the people he has met are his “official” mentor, and many others to whom he can turn for career support and guidance. “It is a huge campus, so you can see and meet different people all the time – new and veterans.” Now he has employees who are new to the agency turning to him for advice.
Bryant also connects with others through two employee resource groups. Soon he will extend those connections into the community by participating in the K-12 outreach mentoring/tutoring program, an effort he is excited about joining. He also shares his experience at NSA as a technical recruiter visiting college campuses, which gives him the opportunity to travel for work.
Bryant says he enjoys his work at NSA, especially the mission. “Knowing you have an impact in some way is very satisfying; it feels good. The organization really shows its appreciation – everyone is working together for a common goal.”
Protecting the Nation by Solving Problems
April 13, 2021
Laura is a problem solver.
An Intelligence Analyst at NSA, she works to identify interesting problems and dives in to solve them. It’s one of things she likes most about her job.
“I like digging into interesting problems, but I also find great satisfaction from knowing that the work I do provides safety and security to my fellow Americans and the many good people in the world community we live in together.”
Before joining NSA 17 years ago, Laura worked in the private sector. She joined the agency mid-career to help a software development team improve their software development processes. At the agency she cross-trained in the Intelligence Analyst Development Program and became an intelligence analyst and went on to become a supervisor of network analysts and intelligence analyst technical leader.
At NSA, she works with colleagues who come from a variety of backgrounds, some with data science-specific backgrounds and many who are experienced and intelligent, but do not have a data science degree. Her mission at the agency is to improve the tradecraft and tools that analysts at NSA and their collaborating organizations use to analyze many types of data, she explains.
One of the things she appreciates most about working at NSA is the quality of work-life balance.
“I no longer work more than 40 hours a week. My employment situation is secure. I have excellent benefits and good pay. I am able to choose a specific work role with a flexible work schedule so that I can schedule weekends and any other needed time off work for parenting activities,” she says.
Continuing education opportunities are another benefit to working at the agency that she appreciates. “I had extensive educational qualifications before I came to NSA, but I have taken advantage of many internal training opportunities to push the boundaries of my knowledge, cross-training in new fields and learning in depth about many new technologies,” she explains.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in geology, then went on to earn a master’s degree in engineering geology and did additional college coursework in computer science. Her credentials also include a certificate from a three-month course at the National Intelligence Institute, certifications in software development process and practice, and five additional industry certificates from week-long classes in areas of defense technology.
Now she is considering finding another graduate program to attend virtually and plans to take advantage of NSA funding.
In making the transition from the private sector to working at NSA, she found the agency has much larger and complex data sets than most industries that consider themselves to be working “big data.”
She also has witnessed higher ethical standards at NSA vs. the private sector.
“I have worked in the private sector and have witnessed that private sector decisions revolve around not being successfully sued vs. doing the right thing,” she says. “Here at NSA, the ethical standards are much higher. There are laws and oversight to ensure those laws are followed. There are many potential uses of data that could be made to effectively give the U.S. great advantage over adversaries, but strict adherence to the principle of not spying on our own people and following additional ethical guidance, are strictly followed. Our adversaries do not work under the same constraint. We have clear ethical limits that must not be violated.”
She encourages other data scientists working in the private sector to consider a career at NSA, something she promises will be an interesting experience.
NSA offers a variety of missions with various levels of intensity and flexibility, she explains. And a complete change in work role or internal mission will not cause a loss of benefits or seniority.
“There will be work of a magnitude and type that you may not have a chance to work on anywhere else,” she says. “If you don’t like your first job at NSA, there are many other jobs in varied fields for you to try out within the agency.”
Math Beyond the Numbers: How Puzzles and Algorithms are the Backbone of NSA Data Science
April 6, 2021
Sam G’s job title at the National Security Agency (NSA) may be Research Mathematician, but that doesn’t mean he adds, subtracts, multiplies and divides all day.
“There are whole areas of math that have nothing to do with numbers,” he says. “Puzzle problems and algorithms, often called ‘discreet math,’ is what’s most important in data science.”
Growing up in North Carolina, Sam’s hobbies were reading, ultimate frisbee and playing the board game Dungeons and Dragons. And, of course, puzzles. His early aptitude for math led him to enroll in the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a prestigious public high school focused on the intensive study of science, mathematics and technology.
Despite attending such a STEM-focused high school, Sam took a different path for his undergraduate studies. He earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Oberlin College, a traditionally liberal arts school in Ohio. After graduating, he worked at the Census Bureau for nine months as he applied for the job he really wanted: NSA mathematician. Sam was accepted and has now been with the agency for 11 years.
“The first three years at the agency, most mathematicians, data scientists and computer scientists enter a development program,” he says.
Part of that program was being mentored by older NSA mathematicians and data scientists, Sam immediately embraced that aspect of the agency and has made ‘paying it forward’ a central tenet of his career.
“Since then, I’ve mentored more than 40 employees in various development programs,” he says.
Sam admits there has always been a little bit of a teacher inside him, and that’s probably why he’s embraced mentoring young employees so much. He also mentions it gives his career at NSA a unique flavor that no other organization could give him.
“It’s the mix of industry and academia. We’re solving problems that immediately matter, but also teaching eager students,” he says.
Sam’s job involves building software to help skilled engineers do their jobs better and faster. This usually means creating algorithm designs to figure out how they’re doing it, then listening and making suggestions. He explained that with data science, the volume of information is always the biggest hurdle to overcome.
“NSA has tons of smart subject matter experts, but there’s too much data for them to study,” Sam says. “My job is to ask which part of their job is robotic, then we make a robot for it. We want to make their job easier; sometimes that means faster, sometimes that means more accurate.”
Like his enthusiasm for mentoring younger data scientists and mathematicians, Sam is quick to point out his fondness for working with his colleagues and how that translates into better outcomes.
“My work is very collaborative,” he says. “Our team is motivated to solve problems. We brainstorm and work together. The individuals succeed when the team succeeds, and everyone knows that and acts accordingly.”
So what would Sam say to his fellow data scientists and mathematicians in the private sector that are thinking about switching to an NSA career? Having spent nearly all of his career at the agency, he touts the aforementioned ‘mix of industry and academia’ which wouldn’t be found in a purely profit-motivated environment. He also makes clear that the mission-oriented work that NSA data scientists do means you’ll see things no one on the outside will see.
“NSA has capabilities and tools not seen in the private sector because we must solve problems that don’t exist in the private sector,” Sam says.
The ‘problems’ Sam refers to are certainly related to NSA’s high stakes mission of protecting national security and keeping America safe. He can’t go into much detail, but he can say that the mission he and his colleagues support make working at NSA well worth it.
“I’m not solving theoretical thought experiments or tricking more people into clicking more ads,” he says. “I’m incredibly motivated by the mission we serve.”
Diversity in the NSA Workplace: ‘Your Unique Voice and Skillset will be an Asset’
April 1, 2021
How inclusive is NSA in terms of diversity? Recently, two employees answered that question and more. Let’s go straight to the source.
Prior to joining the National Security Agency (NSA) as a recruiter, Michelle E., pictured life at the agency like many of us do.
“Whenever thinking about NSA, I always thought of men in black suits working on secret projects,” she says. “Once I arrived, I realized the agency was a very welcoming and exciting place filled with lots of career opportunities for people with diverse backgrounds.”
Growing up in Virginia, Michelle loved sports and student government, and was a member of the JROTC. As an adult, she’s had private sector experience as a market research analyst, trainer and human resources professional.
Eventually, she decided she needed more than what the private sector could offer and decided to apply for a position at NSA.
“I was seeking career advancement and an opportunity to give back to my country,” Michele says. “I was also intrigued by NSA’s mission and drive to better the world at large.”
Now Michelle’s been at the agency for nearly two years. Every six months she receives new responsibilities which allow her to utilize her previous experiences to contribute to NSA’s ongoing mission.
She credits taking advantage of NSA’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) which support and unite her with other colleagues with similar backgrounds. Michelle currently belongs to both the African American and Women ERGs.
“These groups have provided key guidance which assists me in successfully navigating through our agency,” she says.
Michele also acknowledges that her participation in Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a service-based sisterhood of predominantly Black, college educated women has helped her with navigating life at the agency.
“Membership has provided me with the opportunity to bond with others across the entire agency, significantly expanding my network and reach,” she says.
Michelle states that she frequently works with individuals from different backgrounds who have different perspectives. Throughout her two years at NSA, she’s learned to listen and understand these other points of view.
“This allows me to expand my thought processes and analyze the impact of potential decisions on the goal at hand. Doing so allows me to work more efficiently,” she says. “Differences should be celebrated. I enjoy talking out issues and coming together on an issue for the greater good.”
Michelle is passionate to share that NSA not only supports and encourages diversity, but actively sees it as a helpful benefit in aiding their mission.
“Know that your unique voice and skillset will be an asset to NSA. Diversity is welcomed and appreciated at the agency,” she says.
“You do not have to hide your heritage, personality or full self if you are selected to become an agency employee.”
After six years of working for a defense contractor supporting NSA, Aisha D. was starving for a chance to join the real deal.
She wasn’t hungry for long.
“I was unaware of all the opportunities available at NSA prior to joining,” she says. “Now I view it as the ultimate career buffet.”
For two years, Aisha’s title has been Deputy Program Manager, Hardware Vulnerabilities Solutions. Her background is in supply chain and business management, logistics and intelligence analysis. It’s that kind of varied background that, in her opinion, is one of her greatest assets as an employee.
“The perspective I have gained in these different assignments throughout my career helps me think outside of the box,” she says.
Aisha didn’t always see the life at NSA as a ‘career buffet’ or see the positives of her varied experiences. However, once she officially joined as an employee, she began to realize just how much opportunity lay before her.
“Honestly, I didn’t truly understand how beneficial being an employee at NSA was until New Employee Orientation (NEO),” she says. “One of the NEO speakers was a former NSA Police Officer who became a Diversity & Inclusion employee. Learning about how she reinvented herself at the agency is what sold me that I made the right move.”
Aisha has also taken advantage of NSA’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) which support and unite her with other colleagues with similar backgrounds. She currently belongs to both the African American and PRIDE ERGs.
“If someone were concerned about diversity at the agency,” she says. “I would encourage him or her to ask pointed questions of the person interviewing or recruiting them.”
Aisha sees a similarity in values between NSA and the sorority she is a proud member of, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Their principles of “Sisterhood, Scholarship, and Service to All Humankind” echo the agency’s encouragement of outreach and civic engagement.
“Investing in the communities we serve is a priority for NSA and is reflected in the amount of time employees are allowed to dedicate to such efforts during the normal duty day,” she says.
Once on the outside looking in, Aisha is now taking advantage of the career opportunities and support system NSA has to offer. She sees her diversity in experiences and her personal diversity as nothing but a positive … and feels NSA does too.
“In my opinion, a career at NSA is what you make of it,” she says. “As an institution, the agency is deeply invested in recruiting and retaining diverse talent.”
Diversity and Inclusion Officer Sees His Work as Both ‘Scientific and Spiritual’
March 25, 2021
Oliver C. is a renaissance man.
He’s a Baptist minister, neuroscience enthusiast, military officer, counselor and training expert.
Yet his current role, Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A), may be his most important. And one his whole career has been pointing to.
Oliver grew up in the Edgar Allan Poe housing projects in Baltimore, which was a tough environment. After high school, he attended Frostburg State College and majored in Political Science. After graduating he joined the Army as an intelligence analyst. He subsequently enrolled in the Washington DC National Guard Officer Candidate Program and for 20 years served as a logistics officer. He received the award of Commander of the Year in 1994. Oliver also received graduate degrees in Management and Divinity.
From there his career progressed to stints in the private sector as an accounting manager and government contractor, and continuing to serve in the DC National Guard where he also held positions as Director of Family Readiness and Contracting Officer. This was during the height of the War on Terror in the early 2000s, and he counseled countless families whose sons and daughters were heading off to war.
In 2010, Oliver was then recruited by DHS I&A to work as senior acquisitions analyst, and also taught a class on diversity and inclusion. His success in that area led to his current position, which he’s held since September 2020.
So, what are the current initiatives, goals and activities of I&A’s diversity and inclusion program?
“Currently, I am working on three immediate goals,” Oliver says. “First, an overall strategic plan for diversity and inclusion in DHS I&A. Second, instituting a diversity council. And third, bringing together an equity advisory group.”
Oliver says the strategic plan begins with tweaking existing DHS I&A programs on wellness and work-life balance, in addition to training and mentoring, to make sure everyone considers inclusivity and diversity. However, like any plan, there needs to be overall goals to shoot for. These include:
- Inspiring the collective power and potential of shared human experience
- Creating opportunities for optimum and progressive engagement
- Leading by valuing people, building trust and instilling purpose
The diversity council, however, is an initiative to offer Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), encouraging employees to advocate for themselves through group-sponsored training events, presentations, summits, mentoring, sponsorship, panel discussions and more. There are several ERGs, including ones for African Americans, Asian Americans, LGBTQA, Latinos and Women.
Oliver says that, first and foremost, members of these groups can support each other by telling stories, sharing strategies and listening.
“It allows a space for them to have fellowship with one another,” he says. “It allows them to feel free and helps them to work at their optimum potential.”
The third item on his to-do list is starting the equity advisory group. Beginning in 2021, every federal agency must produce an equity assessment.
“This entails conducting surveys of current employees, assessing all current programs, brainstorming how to make things better and always improving.” he says.
These three items will keep Oliver busy for the rest of the year and beyond. What keeps him going is the success he sees in implementing these programs. For example, he often sits in various ERG meetings and witnesses the camaraderie and support the members give each other. Not only does it create a better culture, but it also keeps the country safer as these folks work every day on protecting national security.
“It may not seem quantifiable, but as a Baptist preacher, doing this program has become very spiritual for me,” he says. “Yet in many ways, it’s also scientific. Acceptance is not necessarily soft emotional intelligence. We all have biological--cognitive, sensory and neuro—responses to being accepted or not.”
With all the goals and plans Oliver has on his plate, he says it really boils down to creating a system where all employees are empowered, engaged and free to do their best work.
“And that all starts with trust,” he says. “Building trust is the best and most important thing I do.”
Contract Manager Finds ‘Second Home’ at NSA
March 22, 2021
Christine K. never gave up on her goal of working at NSA – it is a career path she had been thinking about since high school. It just took a few years for the right opportunity to come at the right time.
While busy earning her degree in communication studies with a minor in business administration at Towson University, Christine worked full-time. Her experience included an array of positions – as a surgical coordinator for an orthopedic practice, in publishing and marketing, and as the manager of an equestrian center, a familiar environment being an accomplished equestrian herself.
But what she really wanted was a career with a mission, an example she saw at home.
Christine’s family is a military family (her father served in the Navy), and she wanted a career, like his, that would give her a sense of purpose. “I saw how he was fulfilled in his career, and I wanted that same type of purpose,” she says.
When one of her co-workers was hired at NSA, she decided to give it one last try to join the agency and attended a recruiting session. “It definitely was worth the wait,” she says.
Now she is a contract manager at NSA. In that role she works hand-in-hand with business and finance managers to ensure contracts run smoothly, and that projects have enough funding.
“I use my major every day,” she says. “I am happy because I paid for my own schooling, so I feel fortunate to use both my major and my minor.”
Many people may not realize how business ties into the agency, she explains, but business professionals are needed to support the mission, making sure efforts are supported and funded so they can be completed.
Aside from the opportunity to put her skills to work to advance the agency’s mission, Christine also appreciates NSA’s flexible work environment. “It is a huge plus,” she says. “Hours are extremely flexible, so if something comes up, like grad school, you have the time to make time for class and your personal life.”
A flexible schedule allows her to adjust her workday, which often starts early and ends early, leaving her enough daylight hours to go riding at her family horse farm nearly every day. That flexible schedule also will help when Christine heads back to school to earn an MBA in either finance or leadership. She has applied to programs and expects to begin her studies next year.
Since starting at NSA, Christine has found a supportive network helping to guide her career path. “It is very easy to network,” she says. “I have gone to lots of events here and they have all been positive.”
Networking helped her to connect with two mentors she says are a perfect fit. One is in a leadership role and helps her to visualize a long-term path, and another helps her with beginner- to mid-level goals. She hopes to return that support by becoming a mentor herself someday. For now, she plans to get involved in the recruiting process at her alma mater.
“Everyone here has been extremely friendly, which can make or break a job,” she says. She has enjoyed getting to know her fellow employees even better through community building activities at work, like bowling. Employees are awarded 12 hours of morale-building time per year that can be used inside or outside the building.
Although she had a long-standing desire to work at NSA, Christine says that once she arrived there were still some things that surprised her.
“I wasn’t expecting the flexibility, that is something I never had,” she says. “I never had leadership that was 100 percent supportive of grad school; I never had the support of people who wanted me to better myself; and I never worked where it was actually fun to come to work.”
Christine says she was also surprised to see so many women leaders at NSA. Leadership is something she aspires to at the agency, where she says she is very comfortable and can see opportunities for advancement.
“It’s like a second home.”
Business Careers Serve a Bigger Purpose at NSA
March 15, 2021
Janelle W. started out wanting to be a nurse.
Driven by her desire to problem-solve, she wanted to save lives and be helpful to others who were in difficult situations. Now she applies that same motivation to her work at NSA.
As a Business Financial Manager at NSA, she explains, “I problem-solve every day, and I’m helping to save lives by supporting my country.”
A graduate of Wilmington University with a degree in business management, she had been working in the private sector in banking for six years and was growing tired of her sales position.
“It was more like a job, not a career,” she says. She found herself moving from bank to bank, always in the same type of role.
Then a neighbor who was working at NSA suggested she check out the business opportunities available at the agency.
Janelle was attracted to both the stability offered at NSA and its location – Fort Meade is very close to her home.
Moving to NSA from the private sector, she found the hours were more flexible, the benefits were much better, and there was more opportunity for advancement. In the private sector, if she tired of one role, or that role was no longer meeting her individual needs, there really weren’t other paths to pursue.
“You can do anything here,” she says about NSA. “If I get tired of doing one thing, I can do something else.”
In her current role, Janelle manages the finances for a variety of programs. Her work ensures that what is needed to accomplish a mission is provided.
“Without business professionals, no one in any mission would be able to do anything,” she explains. “Although I am in a supportive role, it is still very important as far as impact. It could affect someone’s safety, depending on the situation.”
Accomplishing NSA’s mission is a driving force behind her work. “When I can see the end result of a purchase and how it impacts the end result, that’s what makes me come to work every day.”
Janelle didn’t know much about NSA when she joined the agency, but her grandfather had worked there and retired in 1985 after previously retiring from the Navy. He was always very secretive about his work, she says, and didn’t share much.
Today, she shares experiences with a supportive network of co-workers, whom she can reach out to for help or to answer questions.
“I learned quickly that networking is something you need to do, because you never know where you might end up.”
Janelle also has a mentor at NSA to support her along her career path. Having a mentor who is a few grades above her at the agency has helped her to identify strategies to advance her career path by offering advice and answering questions along the way.
“Management has an open-door policy, which is helpful when you have questions. There is always someone to help you get the answers you need.”
One of the NSA benefits she appreciates most is a flexible work schedule, which enables her to manage family life more easily. As the mom of a toddler, the flexible hours allow her to meet her child’s needs, providing a better work-life balance than what she had in the private sector.
Another agency benefit, tuition support, is helping her to further her education and enhance her skill set. She is pursuing an MBA at Wilmington University, and is nearly finished with her course work.
Janelle plans to have a lengthy career at NSA and hopes to retire from the agency. “Once I got here, I realized this is what I want to do,” she says.
“At NSA, I feel I have a career, not just a job.”
Empathy and Understanding Support a Diverse Workforce at NSA
March 5, 2021
Through Salini N.’s seven years at NSA, she has found that the reality is different than the perception of the agency.
“The movies and TV tend to make NSA seem like a dark and secret organization,” she says. “But, in reality, it’s filled with normal people who are pretty friendly and open.”
Before coming to NSA, she joined the U.S. Army as a Cryptologic Linguist. Serving in the military led her to a career path she didn’t expect – her position as a Section Chief at NSA. When she arrived at NSA as part of her military service, she didn’t know too much about it. But once she started working at the agency, the public service aspect of her duties really struck a chord.
That experience inspired her to continue working at NSA after transitioning out of the Army. “I truly enjoyed applying my skills to a meaningful mission for the greater good and wanted to continue having that opportunity,” she says.
Her sense of purpose and service to others is also reinforced through her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta.
“One of the principles in Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., as with all of the Divine 9 organizations, is service,” she explains. “The commitment to service has always been an integral part of who I am but was fortified even more through the culture of service in Zeta. This desire to serve my community and help others has translated very easily into my position as a Section Chief.”
Her commitment to service to others fortifies her dedication to her management responsibilities at the agency. “As a manager, it is critical to be of service not only to the mission but to my employees as well,” she says. “Making sure they understand and see firsthand my willingness to help, is paramount. The principles of servant leadership are significant to me. Prioritizing the needs of my employees helps them develop and grow, thus resulting in increased performance and positivity.”
When Salini started her career at NSA, she had already honed her Chinese language skills during her military service, and those skills positioned her for success as a Language Analyst at the agency.
She applied to NSA’s Language Analyst Development Program (LADP), which provides participants the opportunity to rotate through different offices for six- to nine-month tours for a period of two to three years before they are assigned to a permanent position. The experience provides participants with the opportunity to explore different career fields and departments within the agency, and also helps them to expand their network.
That expansive network is helpful as Salini N. frequently works on projects with individuals from different backgrounds and viewpoints.
“Understanding different perspectives is important to growing our own viewpoints and making meaningful connections with others,” she says.
After two years in the development program and three tours, Salini N. accepted a position to work as a Branch Chief.
“I really enjoyed the opportunity to lead people while still having the opportunity to use my Chinese language skills,” she says. “After one year as a Branch Chief, I was promoted into a Section Chief position.”
NSA offers employees many meaningful opportunities to connect with colleagues throughout the agency, including Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which bring employees of like interests, cultures and experiences together. Salini N. has expanded her network through her participation in the American Veterans ERG, the Women ERG, and the Asian American/Pacific Islander ERG.
She says all of these Employee Resource Groups have been extremely helpful to her by advocating to senior leaders for positive change and by hosting events that bring awareness to important issues for these communities.
“The NSA workforce is diverse overall, and there are also a multitude of career opportunities to diversify your professional experience,” she says. “I think the most important aspect is to just remember that everyone is different.”
Her understanding of others’ unique needs and concerns recently helped de-escalate a tense situation with a co-worker.
While in a virtual training focused on effective communication practices, participants in breakout groups were tasked with discussing difficult conversations that they might have with colleagues at work. One of the participants expressed frustration about having to wear a mask at work due to a disability.
“The individual was rather passionate about it,” she says. “Their strong opinion was making others in the group uncomfortable.”
To help calm the situation, Salini N. gently suggested to her colleague that they should consider reporting their disability to the medical center for evaluation. In the end, the colleague said that they would reach out to the medical center.
Salini N. shared that she could understand the colleagues’ perspective, but wearing a mask is everyone’s responsibility to show that we care about the well-being of those around us.
“Being empathetic and understanding of the needs of others is what helped.”
‘Have a Hand in History’: Join NSA’s Team of Intelligence Analysts
March 1, 2021
If you’re looking for a career that brings new challenges every day, the National Security Agency should be on your radar.
According to an NSA intelligence analyst (IA), when it comes to his job, no two days are alike.
“It’s probably one of the best jobs at NSA because you’re constantly challenged,” says Curt, who recently shared his experiences during a webinar about NSA intelligence analyst careers. “I can’t say there’s an average day for an IA – there are always new challenges. You should never be bored.”
A career as an IA offers a sense of fulfillment in knowing you’re helping to protect the nation, he says. It also comes with plenty of benefits when it comes to work-life balance and professional development.
So, what is the best path to become an IA at NSA?
“There isn’t one,” says Curt. “Diversity makes us strong – we don’t want everybody thinking alike.”
Different points of view are critical because IAs use their expertise – whether it’s educational, cultural or even geographical – to develop creative solutions to difficult problems. IAs conduct research, develop strategies and analyze foreign intelligence to produce reports and recommendations for safeguarding personnel, information, facilities and systems operations.
IA Key Skills
Although there is no perfect mix of background and education for an intelligence analyst, key skills can help IAs with the requirements of the job. Education or professional experience in the following areas is preferred:
- International relations
- Regional studies or foreign language
- Intelligence or security studies
- History, government or political science
- English or journalism
- Data science and analysis
According to Curt, written communication is one of the most important skills someone can bring to NSA.
“You can have all of the big brain power in the world, but if you can’t communicate your results, then it’s all for naught,” he says.
NSA employees are trusted with classified information and must acquire a security clearance. The hiring process includes an extensive background investigation, polygraph interview and psychological assessment. You must be a U.S. citizen to apply.
Employees can be stationed anywhere in the world, but the agency’s main campuses are in Maryland (NSA headquarters), Georgia, Texas, Colorado and Hawaii.
IA Career Options
Just as many different skill sets are needed at NSA, there are different tracks for an IA once hired:
Intelligence Analysis Development Program (IADP)
The IADP is designed to help new civilian IAs gain proficiency in several core competencies, and includes classroom and computer-based training, as well as operational tours totaling up to 36 months. Nine months of the program must be in the areas of signals intelligence (SIGINT) target analysis and reporting, and at least six months must be in the area of SIGINT development.
Intelligence Analysis Transition Program (IATP)
The IATP is an individualized full-time training program aimed at mid- to late-career Intelligence Community analysts transitioning to a career at NSA. It provides on-the-job tours and classroom instruction to ensure analysts have the tools and techniques to transition from consumers of SIGINT to producers of SIGINT.
Direct Hire IA
A direct hire IA should be able to conduct the full scope of NSA IA functions, including SIGINT reporting and SIGINT development.
Direct hire IAs are in the minority, according to Curt.
“A lot of what we do actually can’t be taught in school, and we have to teach you here,” he says. “But if you’re interested in [a direct hire position] and you think you have the knowledge and know-how to do it, and be competitive, put your hat in the ring.”
Diversity & Inclusion at NSA
Curt says one of the hallmarks of NSA is a diverse workforce, and the agency helps champion diversity awareness and cultural understanding by offering 11 employee resource groups.
“When we all come as a diverse community, and we come together, we are a force to be reckoned with,” says Curt.
Benefits Beyond Serving Your Country
Once on board, IAs can take advantage of the benefits of working for the agency, including flexible work schedules, opportunities to travel, continuing education and professional development, and more.
For Curt, NSA’s mission is just as important as the benefits of working for the agency.
“You have a hand in history,” he says. “You’re a silent warrior, you’re protecting your country. It’s so rewarding.”
To explore intelligence analysis jobs at NSA, visit our application tool.
Seeking Something “Bigger Than Myself”
February 15, 2021
It’s one thing to jump from a private sector career to the federal government. It’s quite another to jump from private sector to federal and completely change your career field in the process.
Yet, that’s exactly what contracts manager Erin B. did when she joined NSA.
In the private sector, Erin was a professional recruiter for a large logistics company, where she identified promising candidates and facilitated their employment.
The hours were long, and she frequently found herself working late nights and weekends, all for a job that didn’t feel very fulfilling.
But her position at the time sharpened her communication skills, taught her how to build relationships and gave her experience as a presenter. It also improved her data analysis, management skills and negotiating techniques.
As it turns out, that was enough to catch the eye of NSA and get her in the door. But not as a recruiter.
“I was considering entering the agency as a recruiter, but I wanted a career change,” she says. “I wanted the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself.”
Her lack of experience in federal contracting was not a problem. She was hired full time into the Contract Manager Development Program, which provides both hands-on experience and training in federal contracting.
“I had a lot to learn,” she says, “but because the agency values education and training I was able to really learn my role through Defense Acquisition University (DAU) courses and on-the-job training.”
With little more than a year of experience under her belt, she has developed skills in assessing, monitoring and analyzing costs, contractor performance and scheduling. She has also been introduced to fellow NSA professionals outside of the business management and acquisition space, which has given her a strong understanding of how everyone in the agency works collectively toward the mission.
And that, more than anything, is what motivates her to succeed.
“It’s exciting to know what I do on a daily basis contributes to the larger goal of keeping this nation safe,” she says. “Not a lot of people can say that, and I take pride in knowing what I do every day is for the benefit of others.”
It’s a big shift from her previous career. Not only did that job have a less inspiring mission, it also required much more of her time.
“One of the biggest differences between my private sector work and work at the agency is the fact that I can’t take work home,” she explains. “It’s a blessing in disguise. While my workload is dense, it’s manageable. I love that I’m able to flex my schedule to balance work, school and my personal life.”
She uses some of that free time to attend events related to her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, including sister relations activities, community service events, networking events and conferences.
As a member of two Employee Resource Groups – one for Women and another for African Americans – she has also been able to build her network and pick up tips from mentors.
“Both employee resource groups allow you to get better connected with the agency outside of your day-to-day role. The groups expose you to opportunities you typically won’t find on your own and allow you to learn.”
That learning experience extends to project work, too. Because Erin gets the opportunity to work with professionals in different disciplines from different locations, some with years of experience and some with only months, she has learned the best way to handle differing points of view.
“Working on projects with individuals who have different viewpoints can be challenging, but that’s when we grow and learn,” she says. “I’m always thankful for those opportunities to push me outside of my comfort zone.”
Centers for Academic Excellence Bring Diversity and Expertise to the IC
February 8, 2021
One of the hidden gems of the Intelligence Community (IC) is a grant program that helps to shape the future of the IC workforce.
The IC Centers for Academic Excellence (CAE) program is designed to create an IC workforce that is diverse, highly trained and well prepared to position the IC at the cutting edge of intelligence.
The program creates a win/win/win situation for colleges and universities, students and the IC itself.
For Colleges and Universities
The IC CAE awards grants to colleges and universities to create a curriculum that illuminates the intelligence profession. Faculty are offered specialized training on subjects related to the IC and can take advantage of research opportunities to help the IC tackle difficult problems.
All accredited four-year colleges and universities are eligible to apply, but the program emphasizes diversity in gender, race and geography. Schools that form a consortium or otherwise enhance collaboration with under-resourced schools are highly encouraged to participate.
Students in the program get an education that prepares them for a career in national security. They study intelligence-related curricula and participate in specialized workshops, simulations, conferences and seminars.
One such opportunity is the Summer Seminar, a two-week program hosted by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Participants gain in-depth knowledge of the IC and develop an understanding of the breadth of IC occupations. Seminar students visit congressional oversight committees and various IC agencies. The experience includes a simulation designed to replicate a real-world intelligence problem.
For the Intelligence Community
The IC is the ultimate beneficiary of CAE. The program produces a diverse, competitive and knowledgeable cadre of incoming young professionals. Because the grant includes diversity in race, gender and geography in its criteria, program graduates represent a wide cross section of America. They offer a strong foundational knowledge of the IC and critical skills to immediately contribute in specific roles.
For more information, download the IC CAE FAQ.
How a Supportive and Diverse Culture Helped Land This NSA Employee Her Dream Job
February 2, 2021
Many people told Lareesha H. that she would never work for the National Security Agency (NSA) due to its perceived lack of diversity.
They were wrong.
“Through hard-work, late nights and additional schooling. I made sure I possessed the necessary skills to obtain a position at NSA,” she says. “In 2009, my dream came true - not only working at NSA but also in the exact job I wanted.”
Now an 11-year veteran of the agency, she recently reflected on her journey to NSA and the agency’s success in fostering a supportive and diverse work environment.
She said it all started with a motto she tries to live by: “If fear is the only thing that is holding you back, then you have a good chance at meeting your goal, because FEAR you can overcome with trying.”
Lareesha grew up a ‘military brat’ oversees before her family settled in Maryland in 1994. She was a typical kid who loved running track, writing poetry and shopping.
She attended Morgan State University and became a lifelong member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, a not-for-profit organization that provides assistance and support through established programs in local communities throughout the world.
“Delta Sigma Theta Sorority taught me that the sky is the limit, it is ok to step out of your comfort zone, and the reward you get from helping others is unmeasurable,” she says. “I strive to be a strong, effective leader who provides emotional support, career guidance, networking opportunities and resource assistance to my coworkers. When I see someone overcome a problem at work or receive a promotion based off my assistance; it brings great joy to my heart and it is why I do what I do.”
After graduating, her early professional life included working as a contractor for the Office of Personnel Management. In that role, Lareesha learned about different federal agencies and what they do. One of those agencies was NSA, and she was inspired to join an organization dedicated to protecting national security.
During her time at the agency, Lareesha has held several posts. She’s conducted background investigations, determined security clearance eligibility, and worked in Counterterrorism as a Compliance Officer.
Then she needed a change.
“Always, looking to learn, I set my sights on a new mission. I became a part of the USCYBERCOM Cyber National Mission Force for three years,” she says. “I then became a Staff Officer and now am Chief Intelligence Oversight Program Manager.”
Lareesha says one advantage of her current position is the work-life balance it offers. She’s thankful the agency not only allows her time to pursue her passions, but actively supports it.
“I have maximum flexibility to attend in-person/virtual sorority events that consist of community service and mentorship,” she says. “NSA encourages its staff to engage in such activities as it provides an opportunity for one to give back to society, but also provides guidance and motivation to junior-level employees.”
Throughout her move up the ranks, one tool Lareesha has taken advantage of is NSA’s employee resource groups (ERGs). ERGs are groups of employees who join together based on shared interests or life experiences – providing support, enhancing career development and contributing to personal development.
“I am a member of the African American ERG, People with Disabilities ERG, Women ERG, as well as Blacks in Government (BIG),” she says.
As someone who has worked throughout the agency in different departments, and as an African American woman, Lareesha has a unique perspective on NSA diversity efforts.
“When I came to the agency 11 years ago, I looked around and realized very few people ‘looked like me,’” she says. “It was intimidating, scary and often uncomfortable. Most people find comfort in knowing people are the same race, age or gender. It’s an unspoken bond and reassuring hand, even if you never meet the person.
However, Lareesha says NSA is much more diverse now than when she started.
“NSA is comprised of individuals of all races, some have disabilities, some are transgender, different ages, have different personal/professional experiences and are from different cultural backgrounds,” she says. “Any project you work on will be diverse.”
So what’s her advice for minorities thinking about a career at the agency?
“NSA can be intimidating, but it has a great mission, some excellent mentors, and the skills you learn are so valuable, not just from a professional standpoint but also a personal one.”
Lareesha says every day at the agency can be a new adventure, and the skills she’s learned have helped her succeed. Not just with her own work, but with helping to assist others when necessary.
“I always believe in doing the best I can with the tools I was given,” she says. “If those are not the correct tools, I make my own; ensuring the job is completed in timely and satisfactory manner. I recall a coworker who was struggling with a work project, so I stayed late to assist and offer ideas. She completed the project on time and received an award.”
Lareesha admits that, like any job, there are ups and downs, pros and cons, to working at NSA. However, she says working at the agency will teach you two priceless attributes, which to her are far better than any technical skill.
“You will learn Perseverance and Resiliency,” she says.
“Which will become two of your greatest attributes in life.”
From Book Worm to Data Scientist: Aaron F Looks Back on How He Got Here
January 12, 2021
Growing up in New York, Aaron F’s parents took him to the library each Saturday where devoured every international spy novel he could get his hands on.
He didn’t know it at the time, but years later he’d be involved in the real thing as a Data Scientist for the National Security Agency (NSA).
Aaron was a chemistry whiz in high school. He told his guidance counselor he wanted to pursue it as a career. The guidance counselor pushed him instead to study electrical engineering, a more lucrative field at the time that also used similar skills.
Aaron took the counselors advice, and after high school enrolled in Howard University to study. By his own account he was a fair student – good, but not great – until he had a breakthrough in a circuits class. For a group project, he was paired with two fellow students who had stellar GPAs, something Aaron did not at the time. He talked with them and picked their brain about what their secret to academic success was.
“I learned my approach was off,” Aaron said. “I was studying only for memorization and not just absorbing what I found interesting.”
His new approach increased his grades and curiosity in other subjects, and after graduating Howard, he worked for the Navy as a Systems Engineer, designing software for submarines to help detect other enemy submarines in nearby waters.
After a few years, Aaron grew frustrated with that position’s rigid grind and needed a change. Still thinking about his own academic breakthrough while in college, he set his sights on becoming a professor. This way he could help younger students reach the same conclusion and move beyond studying only for memorization.
He ended up at the University of Delaware, working on a master’s degree and PhD in Applied Mathematics and Statistics. Part of his studies included working with high school math teachers, helping them effectively instruct their students in applied mathematics.
“I taught math teachers how to teach applied math in new and different ways,” he said.
During this time, Aaron’s wife was working at NSA – she encouraged him to apply there as well to take advantage of the robust educational benefits. After landing a position at NSA working in applied statistics, Aaron moved his class schedule to after hours and began to work full time.
After graduating, Aaron stuck around and has now been with NSA for 22 years, currently working as a Technical Director. Over the years, the term ‘applied statistics’ has morphed into Data Science, but he says that hasn’t changed his job duties.
“I am responsible for the innovative and agile planning, analysis, development, and delivery of High Assurance and Commercial Encryption Solutions. We use data science to characterize our risk posture and behavior over time.”
Such ‘solutions’ include encrypting links in satellites to make sure the enemy can’t hack in, and Aaron especially enjoys NSA’s mission focused work.
“We do cool things to catch bad people,” he says. “The types of data and missions we use data science to extract value from cannot be done in the public sector. Our mission objectives are unique.”
Having that impact is a big part of Aaron’s continued job satisfaction. He talks directly to mission critical decision makers, asks their needs, and develops data-based solutions that are focused on their objective.
“Data Science is a field where you can extract value from data in ways that allow you to be predictive and/or prescriptive. I ask people what their pain points are to their mission and I make sure I deliver outcomes intuitively link to pain points. Afterwards, I follow up with questions about how good these linkages are/have been.”
Aaron admits that recruiting his fellow data scientists to NSA from the private sector may be hindered by some bad press over the past few years. But nothing he’s seen during his tenure has given him pause.
“NSA is committed to conducting all data science efforts ethically, lawfully, and within our authorities,” he said.
Throughout his career, Aaron has been at the forefront of data science – even before it had that moniker yet. He could’ve easily pursued a successful career in the private sector or academia, but what changed for him was finding a place and a career where he made a difference.
So what’s his message to his fellow data scientists thinking of an NSA career in Intelligence?
“If you want to extract value from data to make life safer for your fellow citizens,” he said. “Come work for NSA.”
From Private Sector
Employee to NSA Project Director
December 22, 2020
As someone that’s come from the private sector to the agency, Terri J wants people considering a career at NSA to know that working in product management has many entry points.
An MBA with experience in marketing or a User Experience Designer building interfaces is just as likely an entry point as a computer science expert. As long as the person empathizes with users, understands technical issues and business opportunities, and collaborates well with others.
As a Project Director for the National Security Agency (NSA), Terri’s work typically begins with her uttering this phrase:
“That’s not efficient for our users. Let’s fix this.”
The ‘projects’ that Terri ‘directs’ are usually new software programs aimed at making the tasks and processes of other NSA employees easier. For example, if a linguist is slowed down by having to copy and paste something 10 times in an hour, Terri and her team will develop software to streamline that hindrance.
While she refers to them as ‘users’ – they are really the backbone of NSA intelligence operations: signals analysts, geospatial intelligence experts, reporters and linguists, among others. Terri sits down with them and finds out what they need to do their job better. The average project length is six months to a year or two, and she builds a team of 7-9 people to execute each project.
The team building, Terri says, is one of the most important and satisfying parts of her job.
“The first step is learning each of their strengths,” she says. “Then it’s about giving them purposeful assignments, getting roadblocks out of their way, and letting them know that what they do really counts.”
Doing work that ‘really counts’ has been key to Terri’s longevity at NSA. Her undergraduate focus was technical writing and she has a graduate degree in graphic design.
“With my technical writing and design background, I’ve always enjoyed and had a knack for explaining about and looking for ways to make things work in a simpler manner,” she says.
Terri’s early work experience was in software development, grinding out and designing installation instructions for server programs. Eventually, she left the private sector behind and took a job at NSA, initially as a User Experience Designer and currently as a Project Director. When asked about what she learned in the private sector that she brought to NSA, Terri didn’t hesitate in her response.
“Managing people,” she says. “And knowing that people are your greatest assets.”
Terri also didn’t hesitate in discussing the advantages that her line of work has at NSA versus in the private sector. The first one she mentioned was having the ability and encouragement to talk to users, instead of being separated from them.
“A huge advantage of my work [at NSA] is I can talk to a user almost every day,” she says. “In the private sector, marketing/sales were usually the only people who could actually talk to the users. Management didn’t want you to get in the way of making their deal.”
The process for talking to users to determine their specific needs can differ for each individual, Terri says. Some are more open than others. The interviews are held either one-on-one or in a focus group setting with multiple people. Often, there is a questionnaire developed ahead of time, which is the jumping off point for discussion. After that, it’s up to Terri.
“In most cases, it’s not a problem getting people to talk about what they do,” she says. “But it’s still important to ask open ended questions, be open in your body language and expressions, listen, and let them talk.”
Another advantage Terri sees over working in the private sector may be more personal, but it’s what keeps her motivated and coming back to work.
“You get to develop software for people who are doing mission-critical work, people who are protecting our country in real-time,” Terri says. “That’s very different and more fulfilling than working for somebody’s million-dollar bonus.”
All things considered, after a long career in the private sector, Terri has found camaraderie, purpose and passion in helping to make life easier for those working on the front lines of intelligence gathering.
“The impact that I make may be small, but I see it. I didn’t see it in the private sector, but at NSA, I see it directly,” she says. “And that’s what keeps me going.”
From Peanut Proteins
Internet of Things
December 11, 2020
Data scientist N. Jackson took a long and winding career path to a laboratory behind NSA’s gates that serves as the research hub for the Internet of Things (IoT).
It’s here, amid everyday items like televisions, game consoles, sound systems and even toasters, where Jackson crunches gigabytes of data to understand how hackers with malicious intent can weaponize home appliances, as well as IoT devices in large enterprises that operate on “Big Data” responsible for the security of critical networks.
“We look at large data sets to find patterns of behavior that are out of the ordinary,” she explains. “Our goal is to develop capabilities to detect abnormalities … an alert system.”
An engineer by training, Jackson is no stranger to solving tough problems. With both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, another master’s in biomedical engineering, and a Ph.D. in applied physics, she has a professional portfolio that defines the cutting edge.
Before joining NSA three years ago, Jackson continued the legacy of George Washington Carver through her research at Tuskegee University to develop edible peanut protein films for NASA astronauts to be used as thin sheets for food preservation while in space. At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor she engineered medical stents to open clogged arteries and stem cell scaffolding to help stem cells grow into cartilage and bone. And she designed and engineered the surface of synthesized magnetic iron-oxide nanoparticles at Howard University to help oncologists target and obliterate prostate cancer cells.
Her professional pivot to data science and the internet of things may at first seem puzzling, but her intellectual curiosity and technically diverse line of thinking is revealed when you ask what advice she would give her 16-year-old self:
“Now with insight and as a mother, this is what I will convey to my little young ladies- Begin to figure out the needs of the future, this is what determines the relevance and value of a particular thing” she says. “As technology advances, data science, machine learning and artificial Intelligence become popular requirements for addressing a wide range of today’s challenges, and so the opportunity to merge research methodologies with data science seemed like a good combination…and it was a wise move for me.”
Jackson transitioned from the scientific research realm and joined NSA after a recruiter showed interest in her credentials. Hesitant at first, Jackson soon realized that data science is a field that is beneficial to a variety of industries and simultaneously benefits from a diverse professional team. She brings her engineering background, which contributes to the range of professional disciplines her colleagues represent within the Data Science program; spanning computer science to behavioral psychology.
“We work with people from diverse backgrounds who analyze problems from different perspectives,” she says.
It all comes together in the NSA Data Science Development Program, a three-year stint where employees rotate through several NSA offices to get the education and training required to excel in data science.
“It allows you to see the agency from different viewpoints,” she says. “You may not know how to develop code, but you have the ability to become a competent program designer through course work and training.”
Jackson’s time in the development program is almost complete, and she’ll be moving to a permanent data science position in the coming months. And while the distance between engineering and data science may seem great, her new profession is right in line with the kind of work she’s enjoyed since she was a teenager.
“In high school I realized I prefer analytical work, objective vs. subjective,” she explains. “With math and science, you can work through the problem and get the solution.”
Her comfort with the sciences took root even earlier than high school, as she absorbed the perspectives of a mother and two aunts who had engineering degrees.
“I subconsciously accepted the challenging concepts of the hard sciences and everything that goes along with them from close familial examples of strong female engineers,” she says.
For more information on careers in data science, engineering, computer science and more, visit our Careers page.
IC Deep Dive: Learn
Types of Intelligence
November 5, 2020
When popular culture depicts the intelligence profession, we see a clandestine spy operating in a foreign country, gathering closely guarded secrets from unsuspecting enemies.
Is it accurate?
But the bigger picture is much more complex.
Data and information come in many forms, from official foreign government meetings and open source internet articles to satellite imagery and highly technical equipment specifications. The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) gathers information from all these sources and stitches together a picture of what is happening in the world today and what is likely to happen tomorrow.
This flexibility, the capacity to expertly collect information from a variety of sources, is one of the reasons the IC is a highly collaborative team of 17 agencies, each complementing the next. While one agency is an expert in one form, another excels in a different form.
What will always be true, however, is that the IC never relies on a single form of intelligence to draw conclusions. One agency may contribute a piece of the puzzle while another agency contributes a second piece, and so on, until visibility into world events becomes clear.
This collaboration, orchestrated by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), is what makes the IC such a formidable weapon in the U.S. government. The ability to gather information from several sources not only leads to new discoveries, but also helps analysts verify and validate findings, which leads to a higher level of confidence in the accuracy of intelligence reports.
Intelligence Types in the IC
The IC recognizes six major buckets of intelligence. Some agencies use many of these sources, while other agencies excel and specialize in a specific type.
- Open Source Intelligence (OSINT): Open source intelligence is exactly what its name implies: information found in the public domain. It can be from news reports or social media, online databases or videos, academic journals or photo sites. If you’ve researched a report online, you have used open source data. While many IC agencies use open source, ODNI’s Open Source Center is major collector and distributor of open source intelligence.
- Signals Intelligence (SIGINT): Signals intelligence is intelligence derived from intercepted communications and electronics signals. Think radio wave communication, voice over IP or texting and email. A big part of signals intelligence is cryptography, cracking the codes used to disguise messages and encrypt electronic signals. The leader of signals intelligence in the IC is National Security Agency (NSA).
- Imagery Intelligence (IMINT): Imagery intelligence derives from images produced optically or electronically, such as photographs, satellite imagery or radar imagery. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is the manager of imagery intelligence for the U.S. government.
- Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT): Geospatial Intelligence is the analysis and visual representation of security matters on Earth. It is produced through imagery intelligence and geospatial information. NGA takes the lead on geospatial intelligence.
- Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT): Measurement and signature intelligence is highly technical data that locates, identifies or describes characteristics of targets. It can, for example, identify distinctive radar signatures of specific aircraft systems or chemical compositions or air and water samples. The Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA’s) Directorate for MASINT and Technical Collection has responsibility for Department of Defense MASINT activity.
- Human Intelligence (HUMINT): Finally, human intelligence is intelligence derived from human sources. Although popular culture equates human intelligence almost exclusively with espionage and clandestine activities, it also includes overt collection by known actors. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is the IC’s lead on human intelligence.
With all types of intelligence combined, the IC develops a picture of world events and reports that activity to the president, policy makers, law enforcement and the military. Accordingly, the IC’s assessments play a major role in shaping public policy and military strategy.
3 Common Denominators
November 5, 2020
Each of us has unique skills, individual talents and distinct career goals. Yet the three things that top the list of benefits in the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) appeal to almost every job seeker, regardless of experience or profession.
That's because these three things are the lifeblood of all healthy careers. Without them, you will find yourself adrift in a churning labor market, without a clear path to the shore.
They are 1) exceptional benefits, 2) job stability, and 3) work that makes a difference.
- Paid Time Off: Employees get a large package of paid time off, including 10 federal holidays, generous annual leave, sick leave and maternity leave, in addition to all rights afforded by The Family and Medical Leave Act.
- Health and Life Insurance: The federal programs for health, dental and vision insurance are among the best. Long-term needs are addressed through long-term care insurance and life insurance.
- Federal Retirement Plans: The Federal Employee Retirement System is a three-tiered plan that combines a basic benefit plan with Social Security and the Thrift Savings Plan, a tax-deferred retirement savings plan similar to the private sector 401(k).
- Education: Depending on where you work, the IC provides generous support for tuition and related expenses for private sector college and university programs. The IC also runs its own accredited university, National Intelligence University, where IC employees can specialize in subjects unique to the IC.
- Work-Life Balance: The IC makes work-life balance a priority. Depending on your position and your agency, you may be able to take advantage of a flexible schedule or telework. Long office hours are usually rare, and it's not likely that you will be expected to answer office emails, texts or telephone calls from home. On-campus resources make daily tasks easier, such fitness centers, banking series and motor vehicle services.
The Stability of Government Jobs
Unlike commercial companies, the federal government does not operate on a for-profit model. While commercial companies traded on the U.S. stock exchange are driven by quarterly profits for stockholders, the federal government is driven by one thing: service to the American people. Employees are not furloughed to improve quarterly numbers.
While there are no guarantees of continued employment, it's safe to say that your government position will be more stable than a similar position in the private sector.
Why IC Jobs Make a Difference
The value that drives employment in the federal government is public service. Federal government employees do what they do for the health, safety and prosperity of the American people.
The U.S. Intelligence Community deals with a wide range of issues, all of them considered potential risks to the American way of life. When you report to work in the IC, you are not simply collecting a paycheck. You are making a better world for you, your family, your community and your fellow Americans.
Get More Details
To learn more about the benefits of specific agencies, check out these microsites on Intelligence Careers:
Balancing Work and
November 5, 2020
From financial classes to farmers' markets, the IC makes work-life balance work.
If you think the term "work-life balance" is a hollow cliché, you haven't met Jeanne Matotek.
Matotek and her staff of seven work 40 hours a week with a single goal: to provide programming, referrals and consultation to help employees achieve the work-life balance they desire.
"Our programs help employees integrate the dual agenda of individual and organizational success," she says. "We want people to come to work and be fully present and focused on the mission, not having to research childcare options."
Want to get a flu shot or fill a prescription? You can do it on campus at NSA. Do some banking or get a haircut? Check. Take care of your dry cleaning or renew your vehicle registration? No problem.
And this just scratches the surface. The list of amenities and programs for work-life balance in the IC is so long that it can't all be covered in this article.
Matotek works her magic at NSA specifically, but all other IC agencies focus on work-life with similar zeal. It's part of an IC plan to make sure all employees are happy, productive and fully focused on protecting the nation.
Let's start with flexible scheduling. Depending on which agency you choose, your program will offer different options. For Matotek's agency, employees can work four 10-hour days and have the fifth day off, or they can customize a schedule to make it fit their own lives.
What's certain is you won't be spending your evenings doing office work from your dining room table.
"Because much of the work done in the IC is classified, employees cannot take their work home," she explains. "This results in a much cleaner division of work and home. For the most part, when your work day is done, it's done."
To take advantage of those off hours, the IC offers free tickets to movie theaters, amusement parks, D.C. area museums and sporting events. That includes hot tickets to big games, like Baltimore Ravens games, which are strictly first-come, first-served.
"People line up to get them and when they're gone, they're gone" she says.
There's also a farmers' market that sets up in the NSA parking lot in summer months with fresh produce, food trucks, honey, jewelry and a variety of other food and non-food items.
One of the most popular amenities is the fitness program, which allows people to visit the onsite fitness center for up to three hours a week. (Yes, you get paid to work out.) You can lift weights, run on a treadmill or take part in group fitness classes.
As every parent knows, it's difficult to juggle childcare and work demands. The IC has an answer to that. The childcare center at NSA is a thriving community of agency children in a facility that was once the largest childcare facility in Maryland. Parents simply drop their kids off when they arrive, pick them up at the end of the day … and visit whenever they want in between.
On the flip side, employees can take advantage of a dependent care program that helps them manage the challenging task of taking care of elderly family members.
"When you become a parent, you have nine months to prepare," Matotek explains. "With elder care, you have nine minutes if a family member falls and breaks a hip."
The agency helps employees quickly locate resources for elder care, provides a support group for those taking care of older relatives, and offers one-on-one counseling.
Agency employees can also take advantage of financial management classes and workshops.
"Most people did not get financial education in school," Matotek says. "Some didn't get it at home. So we help."
Example classes include budgeting, home buying and basic investing. The agency also hosts financial experts to give talks on finance related topics.
The benefits of financial management classes go beyond helping employees better manage their budgets. One of the primary drivers of espionage is money. Employees who find themselves in difficult financial situations are more susceptible to bribery than those who are financially fit.
All these work-life programs and so many more in the IC help improve workplace productivity, reduce absenteeism and empower recruitment and retention. They are part of a culture that reinforces work-life balance from the very top.
"Our leadership encourages people to take time with their families, and they walk the talk," Matotek says. "A lot of them tell personal stories about their families and the importance of family."
If work-life balance is important to you, check out our Careers section to learn how your skills fit in the Intelligence Community.
Importance of Intelligence
October 30, 2020
The night before a roadside bomb detonated against his Humvee, Ryan McCallum knew something was amiss.
The Illinois Army National Guard soldier had an uneasy feeling that night and didn't sleep well. The standard intelligence briefing he and his crew received about the route to and from the airbase in the middle of Iraq was not helpful.
But when he got on the road that morning in Iraq in June 2007, his anxiety deepened. A sandstorm was kicking up. Tires on the side of the road were burning. Something just wasn’t right; none of this was “normal.”
He would later learn, long after the bomb exploded – after several surgeries to remove shrapnel from his hand, head, and neck, and to repair a nerve in his hand - that a more complete intelligence report would have led him down a much different path.
Today, as a domestic representative for the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), it’s his mission to make sure accurate and timely intelligence flows freely to those who need it most.
IC Wounded Warriors
McCallum’s journey from that roadside bomb to his position today at NCTC in South Florida would not have been possible without the Operation Warfighter Program.
That program, as well as the related IC Wounded Warrior Internship Program, are designed to give wounded warriors, like McCallum, an opportunity to extend their service to their country, something that had attracted McCallum since he was a kid watching reruns of The Dirty Dozen, The Green Berets, Patton, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Kelly’s Heroes, and TAPS, to name a few.
“My grandfather served in Korea, my father in the first Gulf War, and I didn’t see anyone picking up the torch after 9/11,” he says. “I knew I was going to serve in some capacity.”
Despite a full-academic scholarship, that time came in his freshman year of college in 2003 when he enlisted in the Illinois Army National Guard. For the first couple years, he served the National Guard’s standard one weekend a month, two weeks a year, while continuing his college studies. But when things flared up in Iraq, he knew it was time for a change.
“I did everything possible to go overseas with an infantry unit from Illinois,” he says.
Not long after is when he found himself making that fateful road trip to the airbase, something he and his fellow soldiers did every Friday for weeks.
They made the four-hour trip to the airbase, completed their mission, and began the trip back to their forward operating base. They stopped for fuel and returned to the road, McCallum taking his position as the gunner.
When the bomb detonated, McCallum was knocked unconscious. He regained consciousness as the vehicle was filling with smoke. Once the other passengers regained consciousness, the driver pulled him out and away from the burning vehicle. A distress signal was sent and alerted the Blackhawk helicopter team to be dispatched to their location.
For McCallum, his time seeing the Iraq landscape was drawing to a close. Twenty minutes later, he was being hoisted into the Blackhawk and said his well-wishes to his friends – and brothers – from Illinois whose new task it was to remain with the vehicle.
At the hospital in Baghdad, McCallum received the Purple Heart medal during a bedside ceremony. He would later pass through Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Andrews Air Force Base in Washington DC, and finally arrive at Womack Army Medical Center in North Carolina. When doctors examined his hand, they found a severed tendon and signs of gangrene. The only surgeon available was one who specialized in knee surgery, but they went ahead with the surgery anyway in an attempt to save his hand. That would not be his last surgery.
McCallum eventually ended up at the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC for an extended stay. While recuperating, he worked to finish his bachelor’s degree that he had delayed to serve in Iraq. He was then offered a job as the Army National Guard Bureau’s in-patient liaison. He was tasked with helping fellow Army National Guard soldiers and their families at the hospital navigate the unfamiliar waters.
It was at Walter Reed where McCallum learned about the Operation Warfighter Program. After filling out a bit of paperwork, McCallum was offered an internship within ODNI.
Still unfamiliar with ODNI, McCallum accepted the opportunity to learn. During this time he became acutely aware of the value of intelligence integration and believed that a more complete intelligence briefing that night two years ago in Iraq may have changed his story.
The ODNI internship, in the Office of Public Sector Partnerships, opened McCallum’s eyes to the business of intelligence. His official duties took him to the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department. The intelligence profession thrived in all corners of the federal government, he learned, and it even reached out to state, local, tribal and territorial levels, as well as the private sector, colleges and universities.
And that sense of intelligence integration is what drives McCallum today.
The Eyes and Ears of the Field
McCallum is now a full-time NCTC employee who describes himself as “the eyes and ears for NCTC - and my field-based partners - in my corner of the domestic field.” He helps coordinate intelligence between NCTC, other federal partners, state and local law enforcement, fusion centers, academic institutions, and private sector officials. He believes it’s vitally important that intelligence information reaches those at all levels.
“The intelligence community briefs the president and his senior advisors, but I want the partners in the domestic field – fellow policy makers in their respective positions – to understand what’s going on from NCTC’s perspective,” he says. “We should be briefing firefighters, who have a need-to-know that violent extremists subscribe to using fire as a weapon. School bus drivers and colleges and universities have a need-to-know what we believe are indicators of violent extremist mobilization. The information needs to get out to more than the upmost senior policy makers and advisors within our federal government. It’s been my personal goal is to make sure that our intelligence analysts are also thinking about broader partners in the domestic field.”
His job, as he sees it, is to get the word out and share information, as appropriate, to help the FBI, DHS, and other federal partners, state and local officials, and private sector partners, keep America safe.
“When it comes to terrorism, we are all working towards the common goal…to keep America safe from all enemies, foreign and domestic. I still believe that and it is why I continue to serve, just in a different – and sometimes better – way than I did while I was in the military.”
Learn more about the IC Wounded Warrior Internship Program.
How a High School
Program Launched a Budding NSA Career
October 22, 2020
Like most of us on a first day of work, Marlon O. just wanted to fly under the radar. But for his first day in the National Security Agency (NSA) High School Work Study Program … that just wasn’t in the cards.
“I remember being very shy and just trying to complete my tasks and go home,” he said. “Thankfully, that plan did NOT work.”
He received an enthusiastic welcome (even a little too enthusiastic, he jokes) from his new colleagues, which put him at ease and confirmed that his decision to join the program was the right one.
“I remember being so happy to be there and just ready to work, network and learn as much as I could,” he said.
Marlon was one of hundreds of high school juniors who join the program every year to develop skills in either business, computers, engineering, manufacturing, construction, graphic arts or foreign language.
Growing up in Maryland, Marlon had a wide assortment of hobbies, including basketball, football, golf and drawing. He found the same diversity in the variety of professional disciplines at NSA.
“NSA is like its own community where there’s a job and interest that appeals to everyone,” he said. “The diversity of roles and jobs are seemingly endless.”
Coming from the perspective of a suburban kid, Marlon said NSA can give off a “VIP” feel – large buildings, an endless sea of cars in the parking lot and heavy security. But he found the people inside to be as friendly as good neighbors.
“One of the greatest things that helped my perception of NSA evolve is the amount of help and support I was getting as a new employee,” Marlon said. “Everyone was extremely patient and helpful because they recognized that I was new to this and genuinely wanted to learn.”
One of the things he learned was the difference between cultural perceptions of the agency and reality. NSA, he says, is not as buttoned up and serious as movies sometimes make it out to be.
“A lot of the time NSA is just a fun place to be. People have interesting conversations, [bring takeout] food for the office or just hang out and talk sports.” The attributes that made him successful in the program, he says, weren’t anything particularly unique, just being open minded and going with the flow.
“I remember moving from one organization to another for the span of a couple weeks, where I had to learn a completely new task, with new people, who communicate and work so differently than the people who I previously worked with,” he said. “Being adaptable and flexible made it much easier.”
After his work study ended, Marlon was accepted into the Bridge Program, which bridges the gap between the high school program and full-time employment. The program paid for his college classes while he continued to work for NSA.
Marlon has now transitioned into full-time employment at the agency as a Capabilities Data Analyzer. He said his ‘eureka’ moment, the moment he knew he wanted to start a career at NSA, happened at one of the holiday parties.
“[At the party] I thought, ‘this is what I want to do.’ When you have coworkers who are excited and happy to see one another and truly enjoy being around each other, it turns work from a job to a paid hobby.”
Today, the once scary buildings and intimidating vibe are in the rear-view mirror. He hopes to help others understand that NSA is an encouraging, warm and friendly place to work – but also one that will challenge you.
So what’s his advice to those thinking about a career at NSA?
“Come in with an open mind and ready to learn new things. Be ready for those times where you may need to step out of your comfort zone and always remember that there will always be someone there who can and will help you when you need it.”
NSA Hires High School
Students for Work Study, Internships and Scholarship
October 19, 2020
Even if you haven’t started college yet, it’s never too early to start thinking about the career you want – and getting paid experience in it.
The National Security Agency is seeking high school juniors who live within commuting distance of an NSA facility to join its High School Work Study Program. High school seniors are invited to apply for the Stokes Educational Scholarship Program or an internship in STEM or foreign language.
Alexis, who participated in the high school work study program from 2017-2018, says her experience was “mind blowing” and the best decision she ever made.
“It was an opportunity that truly changed my life and has me set up for an amazing future,” she says. “Now I am a 20-year-old college student getting everything paid for, while working full-time in a position I absolutely love in an agency that has benefits galore.”
High School Work Study
High School juniors must apply by Oct. 31, to be considered for this part-time paid work opportunity at one of these locations: NSA headquarters in Maryland, Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Texas or Utah. You will work a minimum of 20 hours per week, during your senior year in one of these positions:
At Fort Meade, students can also work in these fields:
- Graphic Arts
- Chinese Language or Russian Language
You must have a minimum of two courses in your desired field of study and a minimum GPA of 2.5 (unweighted). Students must be 16 years old by Dec. 31 of their high school junior year.
Stokes Educational Scholarship Program
The Stokes Educational Scholarship Program is open now through Oct. 31 to high-performing high school seniors, particularly minorities, who plan to pursue degrees in Computer Science or Computer/Electrical Engineering.
You’ll receive up to $30K in tuition assistance and education fees per academic year while attending school full-time. Plus, you’ll earn a year-round salary.
Even better, once you graduate college, you'll have a job waiting for you at NSA. You'll be required to work at the agency for at least 1.5 times your length of study upon graduation.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, program requirements have changed. In lieu of SAT/ACT test scores and AP/IB exam scores, high school transcripts must show a minimum of one physics or calculus course, and a combination of two courses (minimum) of computer science, computer programming or engineering.
Application requirements for the 2021 Stokes Educational Scholarship package are:
- One-page essay: "Why I Want a Career at the National Security Agency (NSA)"
- GPA minimum of 3.0 out of 4.0 scale (unweighted)
- Official transcripts from high school (and college for consideration)
- Two letters of recommendation (both must be from teachers of technical courses)
- Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in lieu of SAT/ACT test scores and AP/IB exam scores:
- High school/college transcripts must show a minimum of one physics or calculus course
- A combination of two courses (minimum) of computer science, computer programming or engineering
Gifted and Talented (G&T) Internship Programs
G&T STEM is open to high school seniors with at least an AP/IB Physics and AP/IB Calculus course, and either a computer science, computer programming or an engineering course by senior year.
New this year, the G&T Language Program is open to high school seniors who are taking AP language courses and are proficient in Chinese, Russian, Korean, Farsi or Arabic.
In either program, you’ll work full-time for 10-12 weeks during the summer following high school graduation. Students must be 16 years of age to begin the program and have at least one Physics or Calculus course and a combination of two courses in either Computer Science, Computer Programming or Engineering. GPA of 3.5 (unweighted) or above is preferred. The deadline to apply for either of these internships is Oct. 31.
Besides gaining valuable paid work experience, participants in any of these programs can also take advantage of mentorship and training opportunities, and be considered to stay on at NSA once their assignment is over.
It’s an amazing opportunity because after they’re done with the program, they’ll have a security clearance, and then they can convert to a full-time job or even a part-time job,” says Lora Hornage, Program Director at NSA.
Visit our Student Programs page for more information about NSA opportunities.
NSA Tackles 2020
October 7, 2020
While Americans may be concerned about election interference coming from Russia, national security experts say Russia is just the tip of the iceberg.
Dave Imbordino, election security lead for the National Security Agency (NSA), recently spoke on the subject at a panel discussion during the 2020 DEF CON conference.
“We’re looking at the spectrum of all of our adversaries, Russia, China, Iran, and ransomware actors,” said Imbordino. “There are more people in the game. They’re learning from each other.”
With the 2020 presidential election in sight, NSA is working hard to identify and eliminate these complex and pernicious threats to the foundation of our democracy. But what, exactly, are they looking for?
According to Imbordino, a primary threat is influence operations, i.e., creating fake information online to stir dissension and sway opinions.
“Influence is a cheap game to get into now with social media,” he said. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money. You can try to launder your narratives online through different media outlets. That’s something we’re laser-focused on as well.”
China has already deployed influence operations in its own backyard, specifically Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“[China] becoming potentially more aggressive in the U.S. space is something that we need to monitor and be prepared for,” Imbordino said. “For the Chinese cyber threat ... they’re a little bit different in terms of the scale and breadth of the targets they go after.” China’s broad compromises of private information and the scale of their operations sets them apart.
Iran is also attempting online influence campaigns targeting the U.S. audience.
They needn’t look further than what Russia did in 2016 … and what they plan for 2020. Imbordino said the Russian-operated Internet Research Agency, for instance, has set up influence operations overseas to reduce the possibility of being detected.
“They have set up something in Africa, Ghana, in terms of ... having people there trying to put stuff online, posting things about socially divisive issues, using covert influence websites to be able to get their narrative out,” he said. “That’s kind of a shift in tactic that we’ve seen from the Russia side.”
When asked if one adversary is more dangerous than another, Imbordino made it clear that we must take election threats from each of these adversaries seriously.
However, he did emphasize that the ransomware threat is a wildcard. The attack might not target U.S. election infrastructure but could still impact our elections. For example, an attack could delay results, vote tallying, or potentially prevent voters from voting altogether, thus sowing confusion and chaos in the electorate.
“You can have a ransomware incident that doesn’t even have a measurable impact on an election’s accounting,” he said. “But once it’s reported and public knowledge, someone can then spin that into an influence campaign to make people think that it did … and cause the results to be in doubt.”
Despite the dire warnings, Imbordino said that he and his interagency partners are more than ready to face these threats and stressed they’re more prepared than ever.
“We’ve seen [our] adversaries evolve; we’ve seen new adversaries come in. You always worry about what you don’t know,” Imbordino said. “But I’m confident that we are in a lot better position [than 2016] for agility and responding to these threats because of the systems we have set up.”
Protecting our nation’s security is intricate, challenging and essential work that takes the best and brightest minds to execute.
Become a part of the team that protects elections security and other major issues threatening our country. Learn how your skills can contribute to our critical mission by using our Job Exploration Tool.
NSA and Carnegie
University: Partnering on Cybersecurity Research for 20+ Years
September 15, 2020
By Betsy Stein, NSA Communications Officer
From creating more resilient facial recognition algorithms to studying the trustworthiness of artificial intelligence, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and NSA have been collaborating on cybersecurity research for more than two decades.
“Our research collaboration is strong, with CMU hosting one of the original NSA Science of Security Lablets,” said NSA Deputy Director George Barnes. “The university has been instrumental in stimulating basic research to create scientific underpinnings for security and advocating for scientific rigor in security research.”
Given this lengthy partnership, NSA has named CMU a Featured School – and will be highlighting the collaboration on NSA.gov, IntelligenceCareers.gov, and on social media beginning 26 March 2020.
“Carnegie Mellon has a long history of excellence in cybersecurity research and education, and we are honored to be selected as an NSA Featured School,” said CMU President Farnam Jahanian. “CMU’s programs in cybersecurity are led by internationally renowned experts who are inspiring and training the next generation of cyber-professionals and enhancing our national security and defense.”
CMU is one of only 11 colleges and universities that has been designated as a Center of Academic Excellence (CAE) in all three focus areas – Cyber Defense (CD), Cyber Operations (CO), and Research (R). The CAE programs promote higher education and research in the critical area of cybersecurity. NSA sponsors the CAE-CO program, and NSA and the Department of Homeland Security jointly sponsor the CAE-CD and R programs.
“These designations were just a matter of getting the stamp of approval that our program aligns with what the government needs,” explained Dena Haritos Tsamitis, Director of CMU’s Information Networking Institute. “It is important that our work be relevant – what is needed by the government as well as private industry. We want our students to be relevant to the field and be contributors when they come out.”
Since 2011, CMU has hosted one of the six NSA-funded Science of Security and Privacy (SoS) Lablets, which work on ensuring that activities in cybersecurity can be backed by scientific knowledge. CMU is currently conducting research projects that focus on understanding human behavior and developing methods to assemble secure systems. One project focuses on how easily facial recognition algorithms can be tricked, and another is studying how users make personal cybersecurity decisions.
“Our research relationship with CMU goes back more than 20 years,” said Brad Martin, a Subject Matter Expert in NSA’s Research division and founder of the SoS initiative. “As the technical research has deepened, so has the trust between the researchers and our two institutions, which positioned CMU to be designated as an NSA SoS Lablet.”
NSA has sent at least three full-time liaisons to work at CMU in the past five years, with one currently working out of the Software Engineering Institute, a Federally Funded Research and Development Center at CMU. Several leaders from CMU have also spent time working in Research at NSA.
In the last five years, NSA has awarded CMU more than 12 grants for scholarships and research totaling $2.1 million. CMU has sent 46 students with Scholarship for Service grants from the National Science Foundation to work at NSA since 2001, and currently, more than 80 CMU graduates work at NSA.
“The relationship is deep and productive for both CMU and NSA,” said Kathy Hutson, Senior Strategist for Academic Engagement at NSA. “We love to feature these schools that are helping to provide the tools and talent we need to protect our nation.”
The Featured School Series highlights schools designated as CAEs that have a depth and breadth of engagement with the agency. To learn more about the Featured School Series and schools previously highlighted, visit NSA.gov.
To learn more about CMU, visit the CMU website.
Take it from Someone
Almost Quit: NSA’s Co-op Program is Worth it
March 18, 2020
It took several interactions with NSA employees at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T) before Jenaye M. finally realized she was meant to attend the Cooperative Education Program (Co-op) at NSA.
A fellow student initially told Jenaye about the Co-op Program, and a few months later, that same student spoke in her sophomore colloquium class about the opportunity. Later that week, Jenaye attended a career fair banquet and sat right next to an NSA employee, and the next day at the career fair, she ended up speaking with an NSA employee her roommate had just been telling her about.
“Things like this don’t keep happening by accident,” Jenaye says, explaining that she finally applied to the program, which would allow her to rotate between attending school and working at NSA.
She made it through the application process but got off to a rocky start when she began in January 2015. On her first day, it sleeted, and the North Carolina resident didn’t own an ice scraper. She also struggled being so far away from home and didn’t love her first assignment.
“At one point, I had considered not coming back. It was just a lot, but I had to look at the benefits and weigh my options,” she says. “It definitely wasn’t worth not coming back.”
Jenaye stuck it out, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering in May 2018, and is now a full-time employee at NSA. She easily ticks off the benefits of the Co-op Program now that it’s behind her. First and foremost is being able to gain real-world experience, something you can’t get in the classroom, she says. Second, the 52 weeks she put into the Co-op Program counted toward her work experience, yielding a higher salary when she started full-time. Lastly, she’s already been contributing to her retirement fund for three years, she says.
“Being able to come in as a student but be treated like a full-time employee, that was pretty unusual,” she says. “I got the opportunity to see some things that I would like to do and some that I would not like to do – which is just as important.”
Working as an analyst in signals intelligence was her favorite experience while rotating through different offices in the program. She also had the opportunity to do reliability qualification testing, analyzing products being used in the field.
“The experience you get here is unique. There is a lot of specialized work that you cannot find in corporate America,” she says. “Your daily job contributes to protecting the national security of our country, which includes providing technical support to military members out in the field. It’s a gratifying feeling when you can help your country every day.”
That is one of the reasons why Jenaye decided to come back to NSA after graduation. She’s now in the Information Technology Development Program, and will rotate through various departments, gaining experience in network engineering. NSA is also paying for her to work toward her master’s degree.
“It helps mold you into what a great employee looks like,” she says of the program.
Jenaye also appreciates the work-life balance and the culture at NSA.
“Being a new graduate, there is a learning curve here, but there are tons of people to help you get to where you need to be – to where you can be successful in the agency,” she says. “There are a lot of A&T alumni here, and the networking is amazing.”
And if you don’t like what you are doing at NSA, you can change jobs without having to change employers, she pointed out.
“There are so many different avenues you can take, the options are limitless. Regardless of which field you are looking to pursue, there is guaranteed to be something here for you,” she says. “You can even work overseas or spend time working for other intelligence agencies, such as the FBI, Secret Service or CIA.”
Jenaye encourages other students to take advantage of the many student programs at NSA.
“How many people have the National Security Agency on their resume before they even graduate college?” she asks.
NSA is taking applications for the Co-op Program now through March 31, 2020, from college sophomores and second-semester freshmen. There is a program for STEM students who are majoring in Computer/Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Cybersecurity (technical track) and another program for language students who are majoring in Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Farsi or Korean.
Everything You Wanted
About NSA’s Co-op Program
March 6, 2020
NSA’s Lindsay P. provides all the details on the Cooperative Education Program, which is accepting applications now through March 31.
Q: What is NSA’s Cooperative Education Program?
A: The Cooperative Education (Co-op) Program is an opportunity for qualified students to integrate real-world, hands-on work experience with their traditional studies in the classroom. Students rotate between a semester of full-time college study and a semester of full-time work, including summer semesters, until graduation with their bachelor’s degrees. Students get a diverse range of work experience in offices across NSA, directly related to their intended majors. Upon completion of the program, students have accumulated a minimum of 52 weeks of relevant work experience and are fully prepared for permanent employment post-graduation.
Q: Does this mean I won't graduate in four years?
A: Participating in the Co-op Program typically delays graduation by a semester or two. However, students leave the program with more diverse and relevant work experience than the majority of their peers, making them extremely competitive in their career fields. In fact, most program participants finish their final work tour with a job offer from NSA in hand. That means no stressful job search during your senior year of college!
Q: Who is eligible?
A: College sophomores and second-semester freshmen majoring in Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering, a technical Cybersecurity degree program or a qualifying Language (Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Farsi or Korean) are welcome to apply. A minimum 3.0 GPA is preferred. We accept applications from both traditional four-year students, as well as community college students with the intent to transfer and complete their bachelor's degrees. Applicants must be U.S. citizens in order to be eligible to obtain the required security clearance.
Q: What are the advantages of being an NSA Co-op vs. a more traditional summer intern?
A: While the Co-op Program is a bigger commitment than an internship, as students return for multiple work tours with NSA, the rewards are greater! Co-op students are entitled to the same government benefits as full-time employees, to include time off, insurance and promotions. In addition, through the rotating assignments, Co-ops gain more experience and exposure to different areas of the agency, making them well-rounded and knowledgeable candidates for hire upon graduation. Through the diverse work and mentorship opportunities afforded by the Co-op Program, students will form an extensive professional network with leading experts and professionals in their fields. Co-ops have earned a respected reputation throughout the agency and are valued a great deal.
Q: Is this a paid position?
A: Yes! Co-op students are paid a competitive salary and receive promotions as they advance in credits toward their degrees. Students also receive tuition reimbursement benefits, with one technical course being reimbursed every semester the student is at school. Furthermore, students who attend school more than 75 miles from NSA Headquarters are eligible for travel reimbursement and housing assistance. All Co-ops receive paid time off, paid holidays and sick leave. Our Student Portal is a great resource for details on housing and benefits, as well as for tips on interviewing and the security clearance process.
Q: Am I guaranteed a job at the end of the program?
A: Permanent employment is not guaranteed; however, most of our students do come on board as full-time NSA employees after graduation. The diverse, relevant experience in addition to the extensive networks built by students throughout the Co-op Program are invaluable and nearly always result in a permanent job offer.
Q: How do I apply?
A: We accept applications twice a year, February 1 through March 31, and September 1 through October 31. Language majors should apply for Job ID 1142022 and all other majors should apply for Job ID 1142021. Students may begin the program in either the fall or spring semester, but the application and clearance process can be lengthy.
‘Secrets … They’re
How the Intelligence Community navigates the murky waters of intelligence and ethicsMarch 2, 2020
Most of us understand basic principles of good and evil, or right and wrong, but what does it mean to be an ethical spy?
The business of intelligence is fundamentally about gathering information, analyzing it, and providing our most senior national leaders with insights to help them make the best possible decisions. And sometimes acquiring this information without the permission – or knowledge – of its owner.
That’s the nature of spying.
“So, you can see how this might create some conflict with the general idea of what we commonly think of as ethical behavior,” says Michael Thomas, deputy transparency officer in the Office of Civil Liberties, Privacy and Transparency at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
Speaking at a hiring event in Huntsville, Ala., this past summer, Thomas explained that these are the dilemmas that individual intelligence officers navigate every day.
But it gets even more complicated.
Not only is the IC in charge of obtaining information that our adversaries don’t want us to have, it is also charged with protecting certain information in the interest of our national security.
“Secrets, well, they are kind of our thing,” Thomas says. “And they are rooted deeply in the foundation and function of the Intelligence Community.”
It’s a central operating principle of the IC that “decision advantage” is obtained through information asymmetry. In other words, when one side has more and better information than the other, the holder of that information has a distinct strategic advantage.
You can’t have that information asymmetry without protecting some of what you collect: what you know, how you know it, your strengths, your weakness, and perhaps most importantly, your people.
Yet the essential act of keeping that information hidden – think of the ubiquitous line, “It’s classified” – can undermine trust in our motives and methods.
Given the sensitivity and secrecy of the work, it’s no surprise that the IC operates in an environment in which rules of ethical behavior must be clarified, standardized and followed without fail.
That’s what ODNI’s Office of Civil Liberties, Privacy and Transparency is all about.
We are one of the many elements across the IC helping to make sure it’s operating within the law and in accordance with American values,” he says.
So back to the key question, what does it mean to be an ethical spy?
Well, for starters, before we are spies, we are public servants, as employees of our federal government. And the basic obligation of that service is that public service is a public trust. Each and every one of us has a responsibility to place loyalty to the Constitution, laws and ethical principles above private gain.
And these aren’t just words on a page. Every intelligence officer takes an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, and to well and faithfully discharge their duties.
But “spies” aren’t your average civil servants. So in 2014, the Director of National Intelligence took things a step further, issuing a set of ethical principles for the Intelligence Community.
These principles reflect the core values common to all elements of the Intelligence Community and distinguish the officers and employees of the IC as “intelligence professionals.”
- Mission: To serve the American people, understanding that the mission requires selfless dedication to the security of our nation.
- Truth: Seek truth, speak truth to power and provide intelligence objectively.
- Lawfulness: Support and defend the U.S. Constitution, comply with U.S. laws, carry out the mission in a way that respects privacy, civil liberties and human rights.
- Integrity: Conduct all affairs with integrity, staying mindful that actions should reflect positively on the IC.
- Stewardship: Use powers prudently, protect sources and methods, report wrongdoing and remain accountable.
- Excellence: Improve craft continuously, share information responsibly, collaborate with colleagues, and demonstrate innovation.
- Diversity: Promote diversity and inclusion in the workforce, encourage diversity in thinking.
The principles reflect the standard of ethical conduct expected of all IC personnel, regardless of individual role or agency affiliation.
The Intelligence Community’s efforts towards greater transparency are about illustrating that professionals in the IC are using these principles as a guide to decision-making, day in and day out.
“We must think of the public as a stakeholder, alongside the president, diplomat and warfighter,” Thomas concludes, “because public trust is essential to our national security mission.”
isn’t Just Great for Women, it’s Great for Everybody
February 18, 2020
If you’re a female engineer, the National Security Agency is at the top of the list of best places to work in the federal government, according to the readers of Woman Engineer Magazine.
For the last few years, NSA has consistently made the list of government employers that the magazine’s readers would most like to work for or which they believe provide a positive work environment for female engineers. This is at a time when women are leaving engineering careers at a higher rate than men for many reasons, among them: inequitable compensation, a demanding work environment that does not lend itself to work-life balance and a lack of advancement opportunities.
Corinne B., an electrical engineer who’s been at NSA since 2015, isn’t experiencing any of the drawbacks listed above. In fact, what makes NSA a great place for women to work, she says, is that it is a great place for everyone to work.
NSA, she says, isn’t “strongly focused on gender, background, or ethnicity. Your treatment is agnostic of your background.”
Corinne, who started her NSA career as a 19-year-old Co-op Program student and “never left,” appreciates the agency’s flexibility and commitment to a positive work/life balance, as well as its mentoring and career development opportunities. At 24, when many of her peers are just getting their careers started, she’s in more of a senior position as an Engineering Lead.
For Corinne, working at NSA is somewhat of a “family legacy,” with her father and other family members having worked in engineering at the agency. While Corinne is not a parent herself, she remembers her dad was able to coach sports teams and never missed a game or a holiday because of work.
“He never got called into work on a weekend. He never had to put work over being at home. You don’t have to prioritize work over family.”
So when friends want to plan a trip, Corinne says she’s never the one who can’t take off from work. She’s even converted some non-engineering friends into co-workers because they were “jealous of the leave and flexibility to do different jobs.”
Corinne also has never missed teaching one of her martial arts classes or had to attend training for work at night or on a weekend. In fact, she feels free to leave work at noon so she can catch up on her homework — she’s working on a graduate degree in systems engineering with tuition reimbursement provided by the agency.
“As long as you communicate with your supervisors and are getting your work done, it’s an understood and accepted reason for not being in the building.”
While the Society of Women Engineers reported in 2018 that female engineers make 10 percent less than their male counterparts, Corinne isn’t seeing the pay gap at NSA, nor has she experienced gender discrimination when it comes to advancement.
“It’s a government pay scale, so you know what a person at a certain grade is making. I haven’t felt any sort of bias toward me in getting promotions that would enable me to make more money.”
Corinne, who mentors Co-op Program students, says she’s had about 10 mentors so far in her career who’ve provided advice from diverse perspectives. She also appreciates the camaraderie she’s found in employee resource groups, especially when she was new to the agency.
One of the other main things that keeps her at NSA is knowing that her work serves a mission.
“I’m the last generation that was living during 9/11,” she says. “I think that is really what drove me to want to work in the Intelligence Community. Growing up so close to the Pentagon and D.C. and being old enough to remember the panic during the attacks made me want to help stop something like that from happening again.”
How a Diverse Workforce Makes Us All More Secure
February 12, 2020
A workplace that welcomes employees of different backgrounds, life experiences and perspectives is not just a goal of the Intelligence Community (IC) – it’s critical to national security.
“When you’re talking about diversity and inclusion in the Intelligence Community, it’s not just a nice thing to have – it’s necessary,” says Rita Sampson, Chief of IC Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity (IC EEOD) within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). “Our core mission is to provide decision advantage to leaders in federal government.”
A variety of viewpoints and experiences among IC employees ensures the broadest range of possible solutions to the country’s biggest national security challenges.
“Having a workforce coming from different backgrounds and having different life experiences, trained in small colleges or large colleges or different learning environments – these are the kind of skills we have to bring together to solve our problems,” says Sampson. “You can’t make the best decision if you don’t have the viewpoints, perspectives and innovations that diversity and inclusion bring.”
Because increasing diversity in the IC is mission-critical, initiatives have been developed to attract and retain employees.
Courting Top Talent
Sampson refers to herself as “a prime example” of a person who hadn’t considered a career in the IC.
“Through high school, college, law school, as a practicing attorney, the Intelligence Community never came on my radar screen,” says Sampson, who, by chance 10 years ago, saw a job posting for a senior leadership position in the IC. “I know there are other people just like me out there that are talented and looking for meaningful career opportunities and opportunities to continually grow.”
Sampson leads a team that is constantly reaching out to diverse talent pools through career fairs, campus visits and community forums to demystify how the IC works and to communicate that every skill is needed and valued – from math to business to engineering to computer science to communications.
She realizes she’s competing with the private sector and academia, but believes prospective employees will discover the unique benefits of working to help secure the nation.
“You get great satisfaction that you’re coming to work every day and making a difference,” says Sampson.
Making Employee Voices Heard
Once employees come onboard, they realize they are part of a community that appreciates and respects differences.
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) within the 17 IC agencies encourage employees to advocate for themselves through group-sponsored training events, presentations, summits, mentoring, sponsorship, panel discussions and more. Enterprise-wide IC Affinity Networks (ICANs) bring groups, other employees and allies together to advance employees’ professional capacity and serve as a leadership partner. The ICANs include:
- African American Affinity Network (AAAN)
- Asian American and Pacific Islander Affinity Network (APAN)
- IC Pride (LGBTA)
- Deaf and Hard of Hearing Network (DHH)
- Women in Intelligence Network (WIN)
- Latino Intelligence Network (LINK)
These groups help influence and shape workplace culture, policies and decision making, and also act as educational resources and IC-wide conveyors of professional development and strategic programs across the IC.
“There is a lot of peer education, and a lot of cross-cultural experiences that take place,” says Sampson. “It allows us to unify the community.”
Everyone Has a Role to Play
While Sampson and EEO and diversity professionals focus on diversity and inclusion on a daily basis, she emphasizes that inclusion doesn’t occur with their leadership and efforts alone.
After years of researching the IC workforce and after examining recommendations from the IC Workforce Concerns Report on how to make the community more diverse and inclusive, Sampson is about to kick off the “Small Steps Campaign,” which is centered around four pillars: awareness, exposure, action and social accountability.
The goal of Small Steps is to empower every employee to play a part in creating a diverse and inclusive environment.
“We want to make sure every member of the workforce has the tools they need to create a more inclusive workplace,” says Sampson.
Though the campaign is not necessarily a top-down effort, senior leadership will play a big role. In fact, efforts are being made to make sure senior leadership pathways become more diverse.
“Our annual demographic report shows we are making progress in the area of diversity and inclusion; at the same time, we have more work to do,” says Sampson. “We need to do a better job of making sure everyone we bring in experiences opportunities for advancement at the same level.”
Creating networking opportunities, offering mentorship programs and investing in leadership and skill-building training is paying off for one facet of the IC workforce: women, who make up about 40 percent of all IC employees.
“Women are advancing at a level that’s a little more than their overall representation,” says Sampson. “Women are being promoted and we’re proud of that. We want to make sure we’re owning the responsibility for creating a more diverse leadership team.”
Though a lot of work has been done to attract, hire and advance the IC workforce, there is more to do as national security issues continue to evolve.
“It’s never complete work; it’s ongoing work,” says Sampson. “You don’t just wave a magic wand and suddenly wake up more diverse and inclusive. It’s continuing work.”
NSA and University of
Illinois Partnering to Secure Networks and Cyber Systems
February 10, 2020
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) is one of the first universities to partner with NSA on researching the science of security and has been working on cybersecurity problems with NSA for more than 19 years.
“As one of the initial schools to be designated to host an NSA Science of Security (SoS) Lablet, Illinois has been instrumental in stimulating basic research to create scientific underpinnings for security and advocating for scientific rigor in security research,” said NSA Deputy Director George Barnes. “The Illinois SoS Lablet builds on a long history in developing science upon which systems might be engineered.”
To celebrate this partnership, NSA has named Illinois as a featured school and will be highlighting the collaboration on NSA.gov, IntelligenceCareers.gov, and on social media beginning January 23, 2020.
“As a public comprehensive research university, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has an opportunity and responsibility to advance our society,” said Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones. “We are honored to be named a National Security Agency Featured School, and we look forward to continuing to partner to develop the talent and tools needed for our national security challenges.”
The partnership began in 2000 when Illinois was designated as a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense (CAE-CD), a program now jointly sponsored by NSA and the Department of Homeland Security. That program, along with a CAE-Research designation, which Illinois received in 2008, promotes higher education and research in the critical area of cybersecurity.
At about the same time NSA researchers began collaborating with Illinois faculty and students in support of broad cybersecurity and assurance goals, to include research in programming languages and system verification in support of systems analysis.
“This early work with Illinois ... led to valued capability developments that are still in use within NSA and partner federal agencies today,” said Mr. Brad Martin, Illinois Academic Liaison.
In 2011, Illinois became one of just three universities to host a SoS Lablet. Dr. David Nicol, a professor at Illinois, has been involved in the lablet since the beginning and appreciates the fact that NSA has been investing in research at the early “conceptual” stages.
“I was pleased that the problem of viewing the scientific basis for security was being taken seriously,” he said. “It’s commendable that NSA recognized this issue and invested resources in studying it.”
NSA has also awarded Illinois more than $600,000 in grants over the last five years and has hosted a number of summer interns from the university. Currently, two students at Illinois are in the Stokes Educational Scholarship Program, which recruits students, particularly minorities, who have demonstrated skills critical to NSA. The students receive up to $30,000 a year toward their college education and commit to summer internships and six years of agency employment following graduation.
Currently 115 Illinois graduates with degrees at all levels in areas from mathematics to Russian work at NSA.
“We have many talented employees at NSA who have come from Illinois,” said Ms. Kathy Hutson, NSA’s Senior Strategist for Academic Engagement. “We are so pleased with the partnership we have forged with the university and what it has yielded for NSA.”
Illinois is the fifth university to be named an NSA Featured School. The series highlights schools designated as CAEs that have a depth and breadth of engagement with the Agency. To learn more about the Featured School Series and schools previously highlighted, visit NSA.gov.
To learn more about Illinois, visit the Illinois website.
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.