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Spies Like You

Have you always dreamt of being the next James Bond? Now there are more chances than ever

By Anne Baye Ericksen

Editor's Note: In light of the tragic events on September 11th, we hope this article serves as a way for interested students to learn about the government agencies that fight terrorism.

Pop quiz, Hot Shot: You've just discovered that a leading international terrorist organization plans on flooding several U.S. banks' networks with viruses in an attempt to distract their administrators while stealing thousands of bank numbers and cash.

What do you do?

"You have to keep up with the bad guys, and some of them are at the top of the top in technology. They can be extremely intelligent,” says Annette Nowak, special agent and applicant coordinator/recruiter for the Los Angeles field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Intelligence agencies have always relied on engineers and computer scientists to keep them on top of technological breakthroughs, but technical professionals have never been in demand as much as they are today.

Hacking into computer systems is nothing new. In fact, it's been around since the advent of the personal computer. Whether it's an accidental happenstance, or a deliberate, illegal act, hackers continue to tap into systems, access private data and send debilitating viruses. Just last summer someone rendered some of the federal government's computers vulnerable with the worm Code Red, a bug designed to disable the network on the first of each month.

Computer security is an ongoing and pressing issue in both the private and public sectors, affecting everything from patient privacy to credit card numbers to the nation's secrets. Indeed, it's a very real concern for the U.S. intelligence community and one reason why the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and FBI are all stepping up efforts to recruit technical talent.


As recently as the 1970s, nations sent clandestine communications via telephone and radio signals, almost always in code in case messages were intercepted. As technology progressed, however, the phone and radio were replaced with computers and the Internet. Just as the Internet has made communication more efficient for businesses and individuals, it has done the same for national security activities.

"Fifteen years ago, computers were mostly used for word processing, but now they're used for everything, and that is where the information resides,” explains Dan* a technical recruiter with the CIA.

The CIA, which supplies the federal government with foreign intelligence pertinent to national security, is reputed to be the upper echelon of “spy” agencies, but there is a lot more to its work than James Bond-like missions. The CIA consists of five directorates: Intelligence, Operations, Study of Intelligence, General Counsel, and Science and Technology. While all of the directorates rely on the expertise of technical professionals, it's the Science and Technology unit that engages in the hands-on work on which engineers and computer scientists thrive.

"The work could involve anything from designing a small device, engineering from scratch, or modifying something 'off the shelf' to accommodate a specific need,” says Dan. “Anything involved in the technical aspect of data collection.“

The agency employs a variety of professionals but has many computer scientists and electrical and computer engineers.

"Technology has changed the skill mix for what the agency wants in its technical professionals,” comments Dan. “We've gotten more into the computer side of the work, just like industry has.“

That means if you're a computer science graduate and want to work for the CIA, you might find yourself involved with its information systems security (INFOSEC). Here, the concentration is on network security, architecture, authentication/access control and, of course, investigations.

If it's programming that interests you, you'll surely be challenged by writing specific software for the agency to carry out its classified activities. The CIA's tech professionals work with many of the languages utilized in the private sector, such as C+, C++ and Unix, and networks like LAN. Just as you would in business, your focus at the CIA would be to use the technology to best fulfill the agency's needs, but also to keep it from being infiltrated from unauthorized usage.

Then there are the hardware needs of the agency's computers, artificial intelligence and database management, many of which pose interesting challenges for electrical engineers. Electrical engineers could also be assigned to projects creating and managing facilities electrical infrastructures.

"We also need people in materials, mechanical and systems engineering, but not to the same degree as the other disciplines,” notes Joe*, the CIA's chief of technical hiring division.

For engineers with advanced degrees, there are opportunities to conduct detailed analysis of the data collected, determining what it means and its potential impact on national intelligence and security. "There is a great deal of research and writing involved in the analytical work,” Dan explains. “Engineers are expected to write reports supporting their judgments, which must be written in a concise manner, without politicizing them.“


Technical work in the intelligence community demands a strong curiosity, a curiosity even deeper than that inherent in most engineers and computer scientists. Professionals in this atmosphere not only need to have a firm grasp on a program's function, but also on why the program functions the way it does. The results are then presented to decision-makers who use the information in policy matters, including military and elected leaders. That's why organizations such as the NSA are searching for individuals who want to do more than just write software, people who wish to solve the virtually unsolvable problems.

"We are looking for people who know how things work. We want someone with an in-depth technical understanding of twenty-first century technical problems,” says Foster Miller, NSA's technical skills staffing officer.

Like the CIA, the NSA, which coordinates and plans activities to protect U.S. information systems, wants to attract technical professionals with experience in securing computer communications. And like the CIA, the NSA is interested in intelligence gathering and people who can turn the intelligence into useful data.

During the 1990s, the agency was in downsizing mode, but recently has see that trend reversed. “Throughout most of those years, there were no more than 100 hires per year,” notes Harvey Davis, NSA's director of hiring and recruiting. “We let the hiring program atrophy, but now there is a transformation underway, and we are recruiting and hiring at a feverish pace.“

The organization seeks people skilled at the finer eccentricities of encryption and analysis. “I would say three-quarters of our hires are in technical fields. We need people who are good at problem solving, such as mathematicians, computer scientists, and electrical and computer engineers,” Miller says.

Mathematicians often work on cryptology assignments, which involves a lot of probability and theory. Engineers, however, apply their skills to more hands-on assignments, such as developing antennas, radars, electronic communications and signal processing systems. Other engineering activities involve pattern recognition, signal analysis and optics.

Like the CIA, much of the work done at the NSA is computer-oriented. In fact, the NSA played a substantial role in the development and evolution of the first computers. Today's computer scientists continue to partake in design elements, but also run simulations and neural networks and advance the agency's artificial intelligence program. Of course, all of the technical opportunities center around keeping the nation's intelligence property safe from cyber intruders.

"We need people whose skills make our network secure. Whether it's a foreign entity or high school or college students trying to hack into the system, the threat is the same,” says Miller.


Whereas the CIA and NSA concentrate on data collection and protection, the FBI is the nation's top law enforcement agency, with its main objective of solving crimes. During the infamous era of Al Capone and Eliot Ness, the Bureau's attention focused on Prohibition violators and bank robbers. Today, agents investigate crimes against children using the Internet, Internet fraud and violation of banking computer systems and security in addition to other crimes like kidnapping.

"If a robber were to walk into a bank, he could possibly walk away with a few hundred dollars. But if criminals hacked into banks or companies computer systems, they could steal millions of dollars,” states special agent Nowak.

When working a computer case, it's critical to understand the technology involved, which is why the FBI is stepping up its efforts to recruit engineers and computer scientists.

"Traditionally, people associated the FBI with law enforcement professionals. The typical applicants were law students, police officers or people leaving the military. Today computers and other technical areas are where we want to concentrate [our efforts] because we don't necessarily attract those individuals,” says Nowak. “We need individuals with technical skills.“

Typically, there are two areas where technical professionals are placed within the Bureau: as special agents whose objectives are to solve crimes like agents with non-technical backgrounds, or as technical special agents. As a technical special agent you deal more with the technology that assists other agents with their investigations. Equipment used on a case can range from state-of-the-art visual and audio recording equipment to designing a whole new product to fulfill a specific technological need.

"We've just opened a new facility called the ERF (Engineering Research Facility) where electrical engineers design equipment to support agents,” says Nowak.

Interestingly, the FBI does not hire students directly out of college—even candidates with advanced degrees. In fact, it requires all applicants to have not only a degree, but also a minimum of three years professional experience in their field of study. Candidates with advanced degrees are only required to have two years' experience. “We think the experience is a way for individuals to learn how to handle themselves professionally. The FBI needs people who are mature because you're often working on cases by yourself and need to be able to decide what to do next,” Nowak explains.

Additionally, everyone begins on equal footing by being compiled into a single pool of prospective agents. From that pool, says Nowak, the best candidates are selected to continue on to the interview phase. From there, the process is similar to other job interviews: The people who present themselves as someone who has a lot to offer the bureau move through the system toward final selection.

The Competition

As you can see, the intelligence community is clamoring for the same technical talent many of the companies in the private sector seek. A year ago—before the tumble of the tech sector on Wall Street—the competition for these professionals ran extremely high, and organizations were offering unheard of bonus packages to lure individuals through their doors.

"At one point, dotcoms were offering Corvettes, two years' salary and stock options to recruit and retain people,” states Davis. “That was a difficult environment in which to compete for technical talent.“

When the dotcom fallout began, however, engineers and computer scientists were stopping longer and more frequently to find out what careers the agencies had to offer.

"We can now meet the starting salaries that industry is offering, and students who are interested in job security, benefits and exciting work are coming to us,” comments Joe of the CIA.

"Once technical talent is exposed to the type of work we do at the NSA, they're hooked,” adds Davis.

Of course, because of the nature of the work, these organizations are limited in what they can reveal to prospective employees. Recruiters must speak in general terms and applicants can expect to undergo an extensive security clearance. While each agency has its own clearance procedure, they all require applicants to agree to background investigations, polygraphs, drug and psychological examinations and medical reviews, all of which can take several months. That's why much of their recruitment efforts take place early in the fall, so that come graduation, candidates can have their clearance and be ready to work.

"When they walk out of school, a week later they're ready to walk into the job because they've already been cleared,” Joe explains.

Once on the job, there is usually an orientation program for new hires, depending on where you're assigned. All FBI hires are required to attend a 16-week training program at its academy in Quantico, Va.

"There they learn aspects of being an agent, such as investigating white-collar and computer crimes and national security,” says Nowak.

What's interesting about technical careers within the intelligence community is that there are almost unlimited challenges and opportunities for growth. Each organization, as noted earlier, has several divisions that require technical expertise. Recruiters say that moving from one department to another within a given agency allows engineers and computer scientists to constantly be challenged in a new environment without having to start over with a new employer.

"There are many opportunities under one roof opposed to industry where people might go from company to company,” Joe comments.

Additionally, many of the agencies offer their employees generous education programs, ranging from tuition reimbursement to in-house programs to leaves of absence to attend a master's or doctoral program full-time.

And for engineers or computer science students who wish to get an early start, both the CIA and NSA recruit for internship and cooperative education openings. From summer jobs to alternating semesters between work and school, students have the opportunity to experience first-hand the technical work conducted within the nation's intelligence arena. The FBI also offers students internships opportunities. However, each field office is only allowed to recommend one student for the summer to work at the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., making the competition extremely tough.

The work experience, whether it's from the CIA, NSA or FBI, is invaluable because students become participating members of a project team, gain real-world experience and have the opportunity to evaluate whether or not this is the work and atmosphere in which they wish to pursue a career. And, indeed, many do.

"The conversion from co-op student to full-time employee is more than 80%, twice the norm for industry,” says Davis.

"Co-ops are the primary way into entry-level positions after graduation,” adds Joe.

Worthwhile Surprise

Growing up, you may not have envisioned yourself working among the world's elite intelligence gatherers, but there are definitely opportunities awaiting you. If the intrigue of technical challenges in an international arena interests you, then recruiters urge you to find out more about their institutions, and recommend visiting their respective Web sites. There, you'll find out what positions are currently available and how to initiate the process.

After securing the job, seasoned technical professionals suggest you challenge yourself and explore your options. There are more than enough to last a career.

"Out of my 25 years with the NSA, 22 years have been spent in technical positions because the work is continuously fun,” concludes Miller.

Anne Baye Ericksen is a Simi Valley, Calif.-based free-lance writer who writes about career development and technology.


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