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  • Writer's picturetony

Going Up?

I started my NSA career in the Communications Security, or COMSEC, Intern Program. It was a pretty traditional internship, a three-year program of rotational assignments and training classes, with a capstone paper and oral examination at the end. In NSA talk, you would be certified as an NSA Communications Security Professional. There might have been 20 or so people in the program at the time. Maybe half of us had degrees in mathematics, some in various liberal arts, and several were on-board selectees (people who were “Direct Hires” into an NSA job and later applied to the Intern Program).

When I started, the program was effectively but casually run by a part-time, mid-career professional. Dave was a very experienced guy and a good mentor, and I’ve never forgotten one of his earliest lessons.

“Tony, here’s something you need to know. If I walk up to you, you should always be able to give me a few coherent sentences describing what you are working on, why it is important, and why I should care. And if I give you a couple of hours, you should be able to put together a very coherent paragraph or two which describes this topic well enough to give to senior managers and budget folks and people like that. And if I give you half a day, you should be able to put together a quality formal presentation that you can give to an audience of professional peers and executives. If you can’t do all that, then you don’t understand well enough what you are doing.”

A few thoughts.

In modern terms, you might call Dave’s first requirement your “elevator speech.”

This was the first time as a professional that I became conscious of the need to think of every message at multiple levels of detail, targeted for different audiences. This is the kind of thing they teach you in every public speaking or writing class (“Know Your Audience”), but Dave’s story stuck with me in a memorable way. And he turned this from a rote idea into a specific professionally responsibility.

Although I am sure he knew it, Dave didn’t mention that he listed those three requirements in reverse order of difficulty. It is often true that the shorter the statement, presentation, or writing, the harder it is to produce effectively. Most know some variation of the quote, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter,” the essence of which seems to date back to French mathematician Blaise Pascal. Also implicit in Dave's guidance was that I shouldn't wait to be asked to produce these 3 variations of the story.

Dave's advice also helped me through an early-career identity crisis. After my internship, I found myself working with extraordinary mathematicians, analyzing US cryptography for weaknesses. Everyone was super friendly and helpful, but I felt like I would never be able to keep up with, much less contribute to the work in any substantial way. But at some point, I realized that the ability to write or speak coherently on complex topics was both valuable and valued - to make a case for an idea, drive the budget process, or convince others to cooperate. In fact, communicating about the analysis of mission problems is not a separate thing, but a complementary analysis process that can also shape or redirect the mission work. And since I served in technical organizations with high standards, I’ve always tried to ensure that even the shortest statements accurately reflect complex topics and avoid the superficial fog of buzzwords that sometimes cloud our industry.

I’ve forgotten a lot of facts and lessons in my professional life, but almost 44 years later, I still quote Dave occasionally and am grateful for his wisdom.


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