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A Matter of Security

The newest government agency relies on your technical expertise

By Anne Baye Ericksen

September 11, 2001, was a history-changing day in so many ways. The tragic results of 19 terrorists flying into the World Trade Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., as well as crashing into a rural field in Pennsylvania, struck a national chord of sympathy and outrage.

That day will be forever etched into our memories, and altered the courses of so many lives. Perhaps the least expected, however, was the impact it wielded on the engineering and computer science job market. Out of that tragedy came a bounty of professional opportunities.

Problem Identified

An unanticipated aftermath of those deadly attacks was the realization that law enforcement and intelligence agencies couldn’t communicate with each other through their regular channels, from radio systems to databases. The technologies utilized were separate entities and prohibited shared access, meaning there was no way for officers and agents to cross check information between various organizations. It was an issue lawmakers, corporations, engineers and computer scientists agreed was a detriment and required immediate resolution.

That’s just one example of the fallout from that day. There were other incidents of how technology failed. The first step on a new security path was to wrangle the various organizations under one roof. This lead to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003. Since then, the Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Customs & Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement, U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Coast Guard all function under the department. The Science & Technology and Intelligence & Analysis directives are also members of the DHS family.

Next, came the task of developing high-tech solutions to areas such as border protection, cyber security and disaster-response support. Hurricane Katrina was unfortunately another example of just how much DHS still had to really fine-tune its connections. Again, first responders couldn’t communicate with outside agencies, and the flow of information encountered a myriad of roadblocks, thus delaying necessary supplies and emergency personnel from reaching their targets.

Still, Congress has been onboard with DHS since the get-go. It continues to grant substantial budgets ($40.3 billion for the 2006 fiscal year). Of course, nothing is simple when bureaucratic red tape is involved. It took years for DHS officials to formally identify specific product parameters and desired outcomes. Then the contract bidding process got underway. Now, four years after its inception, DHS projects have moved on to tangible design, testing and deployment stages. And as these developments unfolded, hundreds of technical jobs were created along the way.

“There are a lot of opportunities within the broader DHS and law enforcement spectrum for the technically savvy,” says Paul Washington, program manager of the Homeland Security Enterprise Campaign for Raytheon, headquartered in Waltham, Mass.

“September 11th has spurred a new market for young engineers. There will be more contracting coming out of the DHS requiring some sort of engineering talent,” adds Robert Barone, director of programming for Northrop Grumman Information Technology, located in Chantilly, Va.

Working Out the Details

Both companies are members of a growing club of government contractors researching, designing and producing various DHS products and systems.

“We did a lot of work recently in developing a 360-degree view of a person by searching multiple databases,” explains Washington. “There are a lot of agencies, and they all have bits and pieces of the puzzle. We’re working on integration technology to look at all the different pieces to present to DHS and the law enforcement community. It’s applicable at the border, for employment verification and in the registered traveler area.”

On the other side of the equation is information security and protecting the data and communications that the government does not wish others to see. “Not everyone should have access,” Washington continues. “There are state and local issues of integrity of data. You want real information insurance. We’re working on systems and processes that accept and acknowledge that and incorporate it.”

Over at Northrop Grumman, there are also multiple DHS projects at various stages. In 2004, it was awarded a seven-year contract to design, operate and maintain the department’s network infrastructure for its headquarters and approximately 600 federal, state and local sites. The next year, the company demonstrated how its products could enhance the agency’s geospatial challenges. For example, the GeoShield integrates “network-centric architecture for future command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. The solution provides situational awareness, terrain analysis, tactical decision aids and terrain reasoning,” as stated in a company press release.

Last year, Northrop Grumman assembled a team of contractors for the Secure Border Initiative Net (SBInet), which is a six-year, $2 billion program to supply the U.S. Customs & Border Protection with integrated technologies, infrastructure and rapid-response capability.

And, that’s the realm in which Barone currently operates. “The program is focused on surveillance and protection of our ports of entry. We’re ensuring proper security and surveillance technology integrated and focused on allowing legitimate flow of personnel and goods through our borders,” he states. “Right now we have finished up the pilot stage that will integrate the system at three ports. Once it’s accepted, we will integrate it into 40-plus ports.

“Technology and systems are being applied to help [border agents] with their jobs,” he continues. “They have specific job requirements, and these are tools and capabilities to help them improve looking into what is good and what is bad crossing the borders. It is improved communication, information sharing and visibility to what is going on beyond.”

Another hot DHS arena is biometrics. One application currently in use is the U.S.-Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (U.S.-VISIT), in place at 115 airports and 14 ship terminals. Basically, this is a biometric identification system using digital photographs and fingerprints. In 2004, a contract call went out to customize the system for American embassies and consulates abroad. U.S.-VISIT is expected to cost between $7 and $10 billion through 2014.

It Takes Teamwork

These are just a few examples of DHS initiatives centering on the creation or improvement of technology. Each endeavor is a chance for engineers and computer scientists to test their mettle. Whether you find yourself working directly under the DHS roof—the department has quickly established itself as a stiff competitor for technical talent—or in the private sector, there are certain mandatory job skills.

“On the technical side, you have to have an understanding of data, architecture, governance and natural languages rather than just the computer interface. Plus information insurance is key because it touches everything, literally—data, hardware, policies and procedures,” offers Washington.

In terms of disciplines, DHS organizations are recruiting virtually every technical specialty out there. Electrical, chemical, mechanical and software engineers, physicists, chemists and information technology specialists are all in heavy demand. But even more than your major, employers desire individuals who can sculpt their skills around the tasks at hand, which oftentimes call for a comprehensive approach.

“If they graduate with a degree in computer science or any engineering discipline, then they can be trained or molded into our engineering positions as long as they are versatile and willing to learn,” asserts Barone. “You have to be able to take direction easily. Young engineers have to take constructive criticism.”

Washington adds that a new hire’s ideal position is a systems engineer. “Whether you’re a software designer or a signal process designer, you are part of a system. You’ve got to fit into the system or you’re not relevant,” he explains. “Systems engineers have greater holistic views, more than just hardware or just software.”

Non-technical abilities are equally important, especially when it comes to distinguishing between job candidates. Like so many technical projects, DHS programs are often conducted from the team approach. Therefore, you must be able to interact well with others as well as to communicate. “We historically have not done a good job communicating outside the domain of specific engineering [concepts]—I’m speaking to that of customers or the general public. Engineers [must be able to] convey their ideas to the end customer in a way that makes sense,” says Washington.

Part of the art of communicating is evaluating the political atmosphere. As an entry-level engineer or computer expert, chances are your interaction with policymakers, political appointees and other DHS managers will be limited. However, you must still incorporate that element into how you conduct yourself. “We have to understand the political landscape the technology fits into and we will be more successful,” notes Washington.

Getting the All-Clear

On the job, new hires can be assigned to any number of jobs and duties. Most likely, however, they will be put through a detailed formal training program first. “If they’re entering into the business, they’ll be watching and learning early on. That’s a way to gain a good understanding of how it all fits together,” comments Barone.

Even better, say experts, is to obtain that first tier of experience as a student intern. Both Raytheon and Northrop Grumman offer these positions. Participants earn real-world experience by testing their skills on actual projects. Of equal, or even greater value, is the chance to interact with practicing professionals and observe how business is conducted. “They’re given the opportunity to be in the workforce, to see what it looks like and what the rules are,” says Washington.

Barone adds, “As interns, they learn about the company, our processes and the tools. They learn about the customer environment. When they finish school, interns already have a good understanding of the company, so they can concentrate on the specific project rather than us spending six months getting them acclimated. They become the best employees and the best engineers.”

Another advantage to the internship is passing the mandatory security clearances. As one might imagine, DHS programs often involve sensitive material. You should be prepared to open up about your past and to fully cooperate in the process. The majority of questions revolve around confirming your identity as well as examining your past. Also, you should know that the depth of a security check could vary throughout your career.

“Generally, each customer set has specific security requirements,” states Barone. “Clearance also depends on which phase of the project you’re working on. The design phase might not require as much security clearance, but integration and implementation might. The level of need-to-know is customer specific.”

“Before we do interviews, we have candidates fill out a pre-security form,” adds Washington. “That covers anything that might preclude you from working with Raytheon, such as a felony or unpaid traffic tickets.”

Future Focused

Of course, there’s no absolute certainty that a domestic incidence will never happen again, but there’s no doubt that American engineering and computer professionals are pushing the technological envelope to do their part in keeping national security. Already, there’s evidence that private citizens are daily benefiting from their ingenuity and technical aptitude.

And while the future is unpredictable, DHS officials acknowledge that employing the best only bolsters their effectiveness. In other words, the national security arena will continue to rely on and recruit talented engineers and computer scientists and, thereby, support a healthy job market for years to come.

Anne Baye Ericksen is a free-lance writer based in Southern California.

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