The CIA: solving hard problems in the national interest
IT folks at the CIA get exposure to the latest
and greatest technologies and tools and apply them
while serving the country and the agency's mission
Watson, the IBM supercomputer most recently seen on the TV show Jeopardy, employs essentially the same technology that's used every day at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA, McLean, VA). You might call supercomputing, along with mass analytics, the portal to the exciting career opportunities at this national security intelligence agency, says Fred Ingham, chief of the systems engineering division in a CIA IT organization.
"We're using a machine that's a copy of Watson to help us with our 'big data' problem and help us connect the dots," he says. IBM's Watson is known for its state-of-the-art algorithms for natural language processing, information retrieval and reasoning. "We give our people firsthand experience working hands-on with our Watson to develop it further," Ingham says.
To get the best out of its powerful computers, the CIA competes with companies like Google and Facebook to bring in top talent. The chance to work with technology like Watson is certainly a drawing card for IT talent, Ingham notes with pride.
In fact, Ingham started his own career with the agency, moved on to private industry and then returned to work at the CIA. "Working here you can get exposure to the latest and greatest tools and techniques and technologies," he says. "And you get to apply it here while serving the country and the agency's mission."
The CIA has had diversity and inclusion programs in place for the past twenty years, according to Deborra Gardner, chief of staff for D&I. But recently the agency has begun to revamp the programs and "give them more teeth," she says.
"About eighteen months ago it became obvious that we should place greater emphasis on a corporate-level strategy for diversity and inclusion," Gardner explains. "We reconstituted the diversity council, and in the last six months we've been looking at our employee resource groups and figuring out how best to maximize their inclusion outreach."
What types of jobs are available to IT pros and engineers at the CIA? Don, who can't provide his full name for security reasons, is lead engineering recruiter for the CIA's support hiring division. He says the agency seeks degrees in computer engineering, electrical engineering and computer science. He's interested in everyone from recent college grads to senior-level tech pros.
Some engineers will handle a variety of network engineering assignments, Ingham explains. They'll work in local and wide-area network engineering plus satellite and, more recently, wireless networks. The CIA is also getting into cloud computing "in a very big way."
Software developers are needed for cyber defense, digital forensics, mobile device programming for Android and IOS, information retrieval, semantics reasoning and artificial intelligence. "And we're dealing with big data, so we need people skilled, knowledgeable and experienced in mass analytics," Ingham says. "We look for people with a solid foundation in any of those areas. Once they have that foundation we can teach them specific skills."
"We look for individuals who have a solid foundation of analytic course work, who keep up to date with state-of-the-art tools and techniques in their domain, and who have excellent collaboration and communications skills," Ingham says.
Hiring requirements are at the same level as last year's, and the CIA will continue to look for IT project managers focused on the life cycle of a project and used to managing large hardware and software rollout, he adds.
Don notes that one appealing aspect of working at the CIA is the flexibility to move around. "You might come in as an apps developer, spend a couple of years at that and then go into a computer engineering position," he says. Of course all prospective CIA employees must pass a thorough top secret security clearance process before they can start work at the agency.
To recruit a diverse workforce, the CIA'S community outreach and liaison staff (COLS) works with community groups and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related professional organizations, according to COLS chief Cindy Lodge. They include Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Society of Women Engineers, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, Great Minds in STEM (GMiS), Mexican American Engineers and Scientists and the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers. New at the agency is outreach to Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, a student organization for the LGBT community.
Gardner's office partners closely with CIA University, to ensure that diversity and inclusion (D&I) orientation is appropriately integrated into curricula for the agency. A recent addition to the offerings is a video of stories from diverse employees. "We're trying to bring some real-life examples to D&I discussions, and the video facilitates that," Lodge notes.
The CIA's diversity council recently added more top execs. "They have been charged with developing the corporate D&I strategy," Gardner says. The agency also has annual diversity and mentoring awards: "a competitive selection with nominations and judging."
Employee resource groups (ERGs), around for more than twenty years, are "re-energizing to bring corporate issues to senior leadership," Gardner says. They identify challenges that are important to their particular affinities and make those issues visible at the agency's most senior level. ERGs are also essential in outreach and recruitment.
The CIA has many mentoring programs, informal and formal, including those run by the ERGs, Gardner says. The agency is "determining how best to assess the value added by these programs and how best to move forward into the future" with them, she says.
Succession planning has been updated, Lodge notes. The CIA is going deeper into the organization, identifying promising folks at GS15, the step before the executive level.
Community volunteerism is popular among the CIA family. Employees participate in FIRST Robotics, the USA Science and Engineering Festival, NSBE, Junior Patriot League and the GMiS Viva Technology! program. Local-area science fair winners are brought in to visit and learn more about careers at CIA headquarters.
Work schedules can be flexible at the agency, recognizing family commitments and commuting issues. There are gymnasiums in most buildings. There's also a very good preschool, but it has a long waiting list.
Lodge has been at the agency for twenty-seven years. "It's a collaborative environment," she says. "We thrive on working together to solve hard problems. It's exhilarating, and for me it feels like a real second family. A lot of people are working behind the scenes as unsung heroes."
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
||26,000 (North America)
||$12.2 billion (North America)
||Collects and analyzes national security intelligence for use by senior U.S. policymakers