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Cleared Cyber Career Insights, Ashley, Northrop Grumman

Posted by Kathleen Smith

Ashley, Artificial Intelligence Systems Engineer at Northrop Grumman, shares her experience working as a cleared professional.

What inspired your career path?

I was a physics major in college but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with that. Originally, I didn’t specifically want to do engineering, but I ended up having a connection at Northrop Grumman and someone encouraged me to apply for an internship. I really liked it so I decided to take the full-time offer after the internship.

I was in a new hire rotational program when I started at Northrop Grumman, and I ended up doing two rotations, which were both different from what I had done in my internship. I refined what fit my interests and skillset by trying different things. The group that I’m in now, which is more of a data science, algorithm, engineering group, is the best fit for me. I was really happy to have that kind of rotational path, which helped me figure that out.

What made you consider a career that required a security clearance?

I wouldn’t say I was looking for that specifically, but one of the takeaways from my internship was that it was so cool to work for a company that supported our military. You could tangibly see how you’re helping and making a difference. I have some family members who have been in the military and even though I might not be supporting in a physical way like they did, I feel like it’s a really awesome opportunity to be able to contribute in a different way.

Creating the tools that they use to do their jobs and to keep them safe is really important, so I’m honored to contribute in that way. And we emphasize that we are supporting the war fighter, keeping them safe, and helping them to do their jobs as best as possible. That underlying motivation has kept me excited about working here.

What does mission-oriented work offer you that the commercial world doesn’t?

One big difference to me is that we work on programs that have been around for 40 years. So it’s really about maintaining legacy systems that are still in use and then increasing the capability. You work with what you had and rely on some more traditional methods – unlike how every year there is a new iPhone and they completely redo it. My personality type suits me better for a more longevity-focused commitment. Being at a super tech company where it’s all about pushing the innovation and completely redoing everything all the time isn’t as preferable to me.

How did you prepare for your security clearance investigation?

I actually studied abroad during college and traveled to 21 countries during that time. So the main thing I had to prepare was the exact dates that I had gone to all of those countries. If you’ve done a lot of travel, moved around a lot, or you have a lot of foreign contacts, it’s important to be organized before you’re sent the forms. If you have all this information to track down, you might become stressed within the days you’re allotted to get it done. So compiling that information beforehand is probably the most important.

Is your job truly cyber security or a different discipline that gets lumped into cyber security?

I don’t think I do cyber security, but it depends on how someone defines that. At Northrop Grumman, we have job titles for cyber security and I’m not that. My job title is Artificial Intelligence Systems Engineer. There is obviously an amount of AI type things that could be related to cyber security, but you can also apply AI type things to non-cyber security. So I think some of the general concepts would be relevant, but I personally don’t consider myself to do cyber security specifically.

What do you do to stay on top of the advances in your current job?

Two things have tangibly helped me. For one, my staff group does a Machine Learning Reading Club every other week, where someone recommends a paper and then the group reads it. Having group discussions and other people who are interested in the field helps everyone stay apprised of what’s going on.

For the last two years I’ve also worked on a university research collaboration that Northrop Grumman was supporting with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. It was one professor, two students, myself and one other manager at Northrop Grumman working together on a research project and submitting papers to some of the AI conferences for 2021. Working with them was a really great experience because they’re in the academic world and they’re very on top of what the new ideas are. They definitely helped me stay current.

The difficulty is that there is always new stuff coming out. But once again, we have to relate it back to these legacy systems. We can’t just completely redo things. It has to be vetted and tested. You can’t just throw it in and see if it doesn’t blow up—that’s not an option. So it’s great to learn about these new things, but then we have to take the additional creative step to see how we can apply those new things in a safe way.

What are some of the day-to-day things you need to be cognizant about working in a cleared environment?

I personally have two desks at work, an unclassified desk and a classified desk, which a lot of people in my group have. Since you’re transitioning in and out of the space frequently, you have to remember things like, I have this badge on right now but I need to take it off before I move into that space. Or I was just having a conversation with this person about this thing, but now that I’m seeing them in a different room I can’t have that conversation anymore. So if you are moving between spaces frequently, you have to be cognizant of it.

How does your employer support you in continuing your cleared work during the pandemic?

Everyone that works on my classified program still comes into the office. We have guidelines in place such as wearing masks when you’re in a room with other people or in the hallway, and the cleaning crew comes by much more frequently. They put little sprays and wipes in all the conference rooms so people can wipe down their desk area.

Being mindful of COVID restrictions can be more complex in closed areas since we can’t meet virtually, but Northrop Grumman and the on-campus facilities team has been very accommodating in working with us to help us do our work most effectively while also being mindful of safety and cleaning protocols.

Are you sometimes one of the few women in the room?

One of my work friends that I sit next to in the classified space is also a woman who just joined the program. So I definitely have other women around. As for being one of the few women in the room, it’s never been a problem for me. I’m a very outspoken person and I have no reservations about saying what I think.

I don’t think that just because you’re a woman means that you’re soft-spoken or can’t speak up. Some people are just shy, which is a problem for men as well. The older men in the group who mentor me have been cool, and my manager is actually a woman.

Is there any additional education you wish you had prior to starting your career?

You always wonder, what are you going to do with that differential equations class, linear algebra, quantum physics and those formulas? My group is basically all PhD Physicists and I’m an undergrad Physicist—and we do use those equations. I definitely would have benefitted in this role if I had done a Masters in physics, math, or statistics. That would have legitimately been helpful, but I’m not regretful about not doing it. I’m just trying to play catch up a little bit with some of the concepts that maybe I could have learned better.

Which soft skills are most important to performing well in your position?

I think soft skills are so important and I personally thrive very well in Northrop Grumman because I can do the “sciency” persona, but I’m also social and personable. I always say the communication aspect is important. I take on a large amount of social burden to try and see how the room is generally reacting to things people are saying. For example, if someone says something and I can tell that people either didn’t understand or didn’t take it very well, I try to rephrase what they had said to facilitate the conversation and make sure the desired effect is being had. I think that goes to being cognizant of people’s reaction to things and not just the exact words that were said.

How do you manage your stress and try to avoid burnout?

One benefit of having a classified job is that you literally cannot take your work home—you’re not allowed to do that. Before that was the case for me, I tried not to bring my work laptop home or come in on the weekends unless it was absolutely essential. Now with the classified work, that makes it even easier to do that. I truly believe having that separation is important.

I also think it’s easy to get caught up thinking that every single task you’re doing all the time is so important and you have to get it done otherwise the world is going to blow. Realistically that’s not the case. I try to be a little bit more discerning about which task is essential for me to stay late. If everything is special, nothing is special. So you really have to make the distinction for yourself.

Something helpful one of my managers told me is that there is always more you could do. For instance, I’ve done two customer presentations within the last six months or so, and I get a lot of feedback from other people when preparing for the presentations. The more feedback you get, you think wouldn’t it be great to add this, this, and that? But at some point, you have to decide my presentation is about XYZ and I’m not apologetic of the fact that it’s about this or it could have included this. Set the scope and be non-apologetic about the work you have done even when there is always more that you could do.

To find out more about cleared cyber careers, listen to this special edition CyberWire podcast featuring Ashley and two other women from Northrop Grumman.

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 11, 2021 12:32 pm

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