Women Crack Code on Intel, Cyber, Tech Jobs, Despite Growing STEM Shortage
By Tobias Naegele
April 5, 2017
Share this page:
Women make up just 11 percent of today’s global cybersecurity workforce, according to one recent study. And that’s little surprise: In the U.S., women comprise only about 15 percent of engineers and only about 20 percent of computer programmers.
Yet the continuing shortage of skilled technical college graduates and experienced workers accentuates the risk posed by that imbalance. Commercial firms and educational institutions increasingly search overseas for applicants because U.S. colleges and universities cannot produce enough technically skilled students to satisfy growing demand. Homegrown efforts to encourage interest in science, technology, engineering and math (also known as STEM) – especially to girls – have yet to produce the desired results.
The National Science Board reports “women continued to enroll at disproportionately low rates in engineering (24 percent), computer sciences (26 percent), physical sciences (33 percent) and economics (37 percent),” according to its 2016 Indicators study, an exhaustive 900-page compilation. Indeed, the proportion of women enrolling in bachelor’s-level degree programs in computer science has actually declined – from 28 percent in the early 1990s to only 18 percent in 2013, the NSB study found – even though women outnumbered men on college campuses for the past 35 years.
But in military and intelligence circles, where women have successfully smashed through barriers and glass ceilings over the past two decades, women increasingly command high-profile positions, presenting essential role models for generations of women to follow.
Consider Lt. Gen. VeraLinn “Dash” Jamieson, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Inspired by her grandmother who served as a Red Cross nurse in France during World War I – and who didn’t retire until age 93 – Jamieson set her sights on a military career when she was in middle school, she said at a recent panel discussion sponsored by AFCEA.
Despite setbacks that started almost as soon as she joined up, today, she leads one of the most technologically sophisticated branches of perhaps the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world, pressing the case for artificial intelligence (AI) and the use of advanced algorithms to enhance both the speed and quality of military intelligence for warfighters operating at the tactical edge.
Or consider Barbara Hoffman, told by her mother when she graduated high school “to do the best you can,” learn to type and take shorthand and be a secretary. “My shorthand was terrible,” Hoffman says now. It’s just as well – that skill died when computers replaced secretaries, by which point typing was essential for everyone in an office setting. Hoffman, meanwhile, took well to computers when they were introduced in her workplace, and today she’s re-inventing office computing again as principal director for Information Enterprise within the office of the Defense Department Chief Information Officer. In that role, she is setting the direction and overseeing requirements for the Defense Enterprise Office Solution (DEOS), which ultimately aims to replace basic office support and collaboration software for everyone in DoD.
“We are going to migrate the enterprise to a standard software-as-a-service solution, using the cloud,” she says.
Lynn Schnurr never thought of being a secretary. She was going to teach physical education. But in the 1970s, teaching jobs were scarce and she went to work instead for the Department of the Interior and later for a Congressman. After a few years off when her son was born. She went back in 1981, this time taking an IT internship in Army intelligence, following her father, a retired Air Force pilot, into Army Intel IT.
It was like starting over. She had to go back to school, take programming courses and learn a whole new field. Barely 18 years later she was recruited to be the chief information officer for all of Army intelligence. Then came 9/11.
“It was a really exciting time, a time of urgent needs statements coming in from the units, and then having to do rapid development, acquisition and fielding in a matter of months. I went to Iraq and Afghanistan 13 times – as a senior civilian and a female, that was not very common. But it’s where you learn, being on the ground with soldiers, going out to tactical units. … It was absolutely exciting. I loved every second of it.”
Schnurr introduced biometric identification devices, an essential tool in the midst of an insurgency, “We were in a fight with individuals, who might be a policeman by day and a bombmaker by night. We needed a way to identify individuals. For the most part, the Iraqis didn’t have an identification system.”
Then she helped develop and field the Joint Intelligence Operational Capability, creating a system for forces first in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, to integrate and synchronize intelligence and operations data. From concept to fielding was just six months.
Days stretched to 14 hour or more, but Schnurr didn’t wilt. “I loved jumping in my car every morning.” And it showed. Young up-and-comers looked to her for advice and direction. Both men and women, government and industry, asked her to mentor them. They saw something she had and wanted it too.
“I never turned one person down,” she says now. The truth was, these relationships worked both ways. Schnurr was learning about their lives, their backgrounds and the changing nature of the workforce and the changing needs of young professionals.
“I learned from great leaders – good listeners who cared about their people,” Schnurr says. “That’s what it’s all about: the people.”
In 2013 Schnurr retired from government service and took her skills to General Dynamics Information Technology. The role changed, but the ultimate customer did not. She no longer controls the budget on large programs, but as part of a leading systems integrator, she’s still delivering mission-critical support to the military, still driven by the same drive to support the warfighter.
“I’m still passionate about the customer. It’s hard not to be. And one thing I tell all these young people: If you can find something to do that you’re passionate about, that’s the key. You’ve got to be all in. You can’t be half in.”
From Poly Sci to Cyber
No one would accuse Army Brig. Gen. Patricia Frost of being half-in. But it might not have looked that way years ago. She came from a military family and had no intention of following suit. She declined college acceptances – without telling her parents – then announced she didn’t want to go and disappeared for more than a month. That’s when she learned she was headed to college at Rutgers University, her father’s choice. She studied political science and Italian, joined ROTC and planned a short military career as a means to go live in Europe. Three decades later, she’s still in uniform, today as director of cyber in the office of the Army deputy chief of staff, G3/5/7.
“Who would have thought I’d now be in charge of cyber?” she said, contemplating the irony of her career transition. Gaps in knowledge can be filled in, she said, citing her self-educated father-in-law as one of her inspirations. “Open a book. We can be self-taught. We can find a subject matter expert to help us through.”
Lynn Wright, deputy director of naval intelligence and the head of the Naval Intelligence Activity, started her career as a Soviet submarine analyst but was burned out a decade after the end of the Cold War and wondering what to do next. She took one more assignment as executive assistant to Tish Long, then-deputy director of naval intelligence, and it crystalized her career goals.
“I started on the Thursday before 9/11,” she recalled. “That was such a seminal event in my life, and I said, ‘You know what? This is going to be my career.’”
Now Wright is driving a “fundamental transformation of how we do science and technology intelligence,” the insights necessary to ensure that next-generation weapons are built to overcome all known, emerging and potential threats. For example, as designers set to work on developing the Columbia-class nuclear submarine, it falls on naval intelligence to lay out all the potential threats the sub might face in its lifetime. “This is a submarine that will not launch until about 2030 and will probably be around for 40 or 50 years after that,” she says “So we have to do the threat intelligence for a 60-to-70-year period. We have to make sure we understand the scientific and technology trends, but also how we deliver that.”
The transformation she seeks sets aside paper-based, narrative descriptions and replaces them with a digital model that can instantly be tested in a live, virtual and constructive environment,” allowing officers to test hypotheses for different scenarios and capabilities.
All four women shared their career stories and touted the importance of inspiring mentors early on in their lives or careers, colleagues who supported them and encouraged them along the way and opportunities that arose through both hard work and serendipity.
People continue to inspire them today. Jamieson praised young airmen she met on a recent trip to Qatar and Jordan, airmen applying big data and analytics to some problems and produce results she found “mind-blowing.”
Partnering with AI
Artificial intelligence is going to transform the intelligence process in the future, not replacing analysts, she said, but complementing them.
“Everything we’re going to do is about these five words: Win today, prepare for tomorrow,” she said. “We have to go back to the fundaments of analysis,” but at the same time enhance the individual human’s ability to make decisions by offloading labor and thought-intensive processes. “Today we do [analysis] through manpower, but in the future, “we’re going to have to amalgamate data to the edge,” enabling faster and more precise decision cycles. To get there, she says, humans have to understand and trust their data as well as the algorithms that underlay their AI support. “Algorithm is a fancy math word. It used to mean checklist,” she explains. Analysts will have faith in the algorithms if they understand how they work, what data they are processing. “If I understand the pieces and parts that go into an algorithm, I can then automate that, because I have trust and confidence in the data going in and I can understand what the algorithm [is doing]. If I understand that, I can put multiple algorithms together.
“This is a person-machine partnership,” she says. “The person is the decision maker.”
That’s a long way from the day Jamieson contemplated leaving the Air Force after being medically disqualified from flight training because her ears bled in an unpressurized cabin. Expecting to be processed out, she won a second chance by taking over a money-losing command snack bar and quickly making it a success. The change caught the attention of her wing commander, who set her on a path into intelligence.
Careers are rarely linear; more often they’re driven by twists, chance, events and people.
“It takes a lot of people to actually have a successful career,” Jamieson said, citing mentors, leaders, inspiring co-workers an unfailing belief in the essential value of her mission and a grandmother who volunteered to be a nurse in the trenches during World War I and continued to go out to work until retiring, at last, at age 93. “Grandma,” she says, “was a formidable woman.”
Perhaps it’s from her that Jamieson gets her life philosophy. “We’re in a marathon, and it’s called life,” she said. “Sometimes you’re going to put family first, sometimes you’re going to put yourself first, and sometimes you’re going to put your vocation first. … Balance does not mean every day you have to balance everything.”
An outlet for stress, whether it’s running or a CrossFit or some other routine is essential, she says.
Frost agrees. But success doesn’t come in a vacuum. It takes a team.
“You can have it all,” Frost said. “But you cannot do it alone.” That means being willing to ask for help, trusting subordinates and understanding that “I can’t be superwoman.”
Coming of age during a revolution in computer technology meant these leaders were able to learn technology and its application as they rose through the ranks. That may not be true in the future. Intelligence today relies on STEM skills and that reliance is only likely to increase over time.
“Parents today really need to expose their children to all the math, science and technology they can,” Hoffman said. “They need to encourage them to be optimistic, never to be afraid to try. If you fail, you learn. No big deal. You have to be strong, you have to be willing to take on anything.”
Lynn agreed. She said she majored in political science because it required only one math course, statistics, for which she earned a C.
“But later, when I was in my master’s program at George Mason in telecommunications, there was again only one math requirement: telecommunications math. And the amazing thing was that I actually got an ‘A’ in that class,” Lynn recalled. Given the opportunity to counsel her younger self, knowing what she knows today, Lynn said she’d not sell herself short: “I think I would tell that girl she should keep taking math classes, buckle down, ask for help. She should get beyond algebra one and geometry. … Because it turns out that with a little bit of help, I could actually do well in math. That’s an interesting thing to find, but it’s not something you should find out when you’re 31 years old.”
If more young girls refuse to give up, maybe the nation won’t have to suffer shortages in STEM careers for generations.