• tony

Before the Beginning

This Saturday, I’ll quietly celebrate another work anniversary. Forty-three years ago, I reported for my first day of work at the National Security Agency. It was a wonderful career, filled with amazing opportunities to learn and to serve, great memories, and super people. I retired in 2012 after 35 years of federal service, all of it in the business we now call "cyber", and all of that in security testing for defense.

Working there was not exactly my life's dream. I attended Western Maryland College in Westminster, MD (now McDaniel College), majoring in Mathematics with a sprinkling of Economics and Business Administration. Dinosaur Alert! I took the only Computer Science course offered at WMC at the time. Hated it. IBM Mainframe, punched cards, mysterious incantations on JCL cards, be nice to the operator at the counter so you could get at least 2 “runs” a day, the whole bit. I did a special project in Linear Programming too. Most work ever for a 1 credit hour course. Why would anyone choose to do this for a living?

In the Fall of my Senior year, the only thing I knew for certain was that I was not interested in going straight to Graduate School. But in the Summer of 1977 the job prospects for your basic undergrad liberal arts math geek? Not so good. My real goal was to get a job as an Operations Research (OR) Mathematician at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The previous Summer, I started my federal career at a GS-2 Mailroom Clerk at the Army Materiel Systems Analysis Activity. Stories for another day, but let me just hint that an old-school mailroom (for real mail, not e-mail) was a powerful hub for information gathering, analysis, and warfare.

Sometime that Fall, I was hanging out in the Math department between classes, and an alum walked in to meet with one of my professors. We got to talking, and he asked me about my plans for after graduation, and asked if I had considered NSA. I answered that I had never heard of it. “NSA, is that where they make the rockets?” He later got me some information about applying, a small paper brochure (which I still have) with an address and phone number. I recall very little of this person who had such an impact on my life, other than he had a full beard, might have been named Peter, and was the perfect NSA recruit of his time - a mathematician who happened to be a native Russian speaker (as I recall).

So a couple of months later I found myself sitting in a classroom in College Park some months later, taking a really hard math test (I *think* I was in the room by myself, with a proctor). I was called in a few weeks later for processing and interviews. I did so great on the polygraph test that they invited me back to do it again - and that was the last I heard from NSA for many months.

After graduation I spent the Summer working back at Aberdeen Proving Ground. And I got a promotion and raise from GS2 Mailroom Clerk to GS4 Math Aide. Mostly I carried Fortran card decks for OR Mathematicians doing modelling and simulations of guns and rockets launched from helicopters - my dream job! I would take the inches of 132-column fanfold paper output, and plot the points from the Monte Carlo simulation onto oversized graph paper, then draw by hand (using a box of "French Curves") the "Circular Error Probable" (CEP). Think of me as a primitive "Graphical User Interface" (GUI).  My hope was to stay on in a permanent position, but there was a Department of the Army hiring freeze that Summer, and so the chances of getting a full-time job were near zero.

Then in mid-September (my summer job was set to expire on 30 September), I finally got a call from an NSA recruiter (another name lost to history and my fading memory), "Son, if you can report in 2 weeks, you've got a job". "Great, what's the job?" "In the COMSEC, or Communications Security, Intern Program." "Great, what's that?" (not that I really cared, given my looming unemployment)

And here's what he told me. "Can’t tell you. But you can go to the Encyclopedia Britannica, read the article on Cryptography, that will give you an idea what you're getting in to." That article was written by a guy named David Kahn, author of "The Codebreakers". The recruiter had to spell “cryptography” for me, by the way.

So on 26 September, 1977, I reported for duty to NSA. As a grizzled veteran of the bureaucracy, I think I now understand. Everybody NSA really wanted to hire had turned them down; there's a stray job billet left at the end of the fiscal year. Quick, dig thru the applicant lists. Anybody local we can get on board before the last possible day, so we don’t lose the billet?

Lucky me! And the rest is history, still being written in my Second Act, working with the wonderful team at the Center for Internet Security.

--tony



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