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Cleared Cyber Career Insights, Lauren, Northrop Grumman

Posted by Kathleen Smith

Lauren, Software Integrated Project Team Lead and Manager at Northrop Grumman, shares her experience working as a cleared cyber security professional.

What inspired your career path?

Growing up I always had a passion for math. I wasn’t the student that earned top marks in every class, but I tried to solve every problem there was in the textbook. When I first got to college, I thought I was going to become a math professor and one of the requirements for that path was to take computer science. I had a very passionate female professor who inspired me to pursue computer science in addition to math as a full-time major. From then on, I was hooked.

I later took a computer ethics course where I first learned about cyber security and I was accepted into the Cyber Scholars Program at UMBC. Cyber Scholars is a scholarship program primarily funded by the Northrop Grumman Foundation, which enables success for women and other underrepresented groups in cyber security fields. I was then able to put my newfound interest and skills to work as a Forensic Analyst in UMBC’s Department of IT.

From there, I pursued different internships to strengthen my skills and gain exposure to the cyber workforce. I graduated and accepted a job as a Cyber Software Engineer at Northrop Grumman, where I had opportunities to rotate through various programs and explore different cyber security roles. I recently transitioned to Software Integrated Project Team Lead and Manager on a space program.

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

Once I started taking more classes in cyber security, I realized it was the career path for me—and I understood that a majority of those positions would require a security clearance. Because cyber threat is a new type of adversary, extremely complex and ever evolving, it was exciting. Even if I had to get a security clearance for it, I knew I wanted that to be my career. Going back to my roots as the girl who wanted to solve every math problem in the book, I wanted to find a career that would be challenging, engaging, and contribute to solving the nation’s most complex cyber problems. That was a dream for me.

Why did you choose mission-oriented work and not the commercial world?

When I graduated, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in cyber and be part of a group of people serving and protecting our national security. When you think of the cyber workforce, you think of people that are highly motivated by the mission—protecting people from everyday hackers to adversaries impacting military operations. So when it came time for me to enter the workforce, being part of a team that was highly motivated by the mission and understood the significance and severity of their work was the best place for me.

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

When I first started my career, I thought you’re only doing cyber security if you’re actively researching cyber exploits or reverse engineering malware. I’ve come to realize there is so much more than that: from creating the infrastructure for cyber analysts, to developing the software and tools for automated analysis, and also supporting data management and information security. Although it’s not what I considered cyber security when I started my career, I do consider the job that I’m in now to be under that umbrella of cyber security.

How do you stay on top of all the advances to keep current with your job?

One of the great things about Northrop Grumman is that they offer training and educational assistance to employees, so they can keep up with their technical skills and stay aligned with the evolving technical domain. We have a Cyber Academy with cyber security tracks and we also have various cohorts where participants can attend virtual lunch and learns to learn more about different projects, technical skills, training resources, and new certificates. Additionally, listening to podcasts is always great, so I do that as well whenever I can.

What influences your day-to-day workflow?

The most significant influence on my day-to-day work is my team. We were previously following an agile scrum methodology, so we had three-week sprints. At the time our day-to-day workflow was primarily driven by our release planning and development work that we had scheduled for that release. Recently, we transitioned into Kanban methodology because we had to adapt more to unplanned mission events and demonstrations. Since we transitioned into that model of Kanban, we’re able to be more flexible and adapt with the different needs that come up from both the customer and our own stakeholders as well.

Are there any adjustments to working in a cleared environment?

One of the biggest adjustments for people starting in a cleared work environment is learning how to operate without 24×7 access to your cell phone. One of the most refreshing things about coming into work is that not one person will be hidden behind their cell phone if I go into a conference room. Everyone is forced to break out of their shell and have conversations with one another. Even if you’re the only person in the room, there’s no barrier to hide behind. It was one of the things that I had to get used to, but it’s been a blessing in disguise.

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

Males have dominated the engineering field for years, so there are definitely times I find I’m the only woman in the room. Luckily, those occasions are happening less often. I feel very fortunate that this company put so much effort and focus on diversity of thought. So whenever I’m in those situations, I always feel that my opinions and feedback are valued and respected. Right now in the program we have several leads that are women, including myself. I think the dynamics are changing, which is great to see.

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

Northrop Grumman was quick to adapt to the pandemic. They held Town Halls, encouraged employees to work with their managers to find work they could do from home, and kept a continuous stream of information and updates. They looked for opportunities where we could utilize uncleared teams to investigate different tools we hadn’t previously had the time to look at. So we were able to be flexible and identify some uncleared work.

Are there any certifications you wish you had prior to starting with Northrop Grumman?

I think the one certification that would have helped is the Agile Scrum certificate. But I had a great team, and for me hands-on learning was the best experience and education that I needed at that time. So I don’t think there were necessarily any courses I needed ahead of time. It was being prepared to learn and manage my expectations, that it was going to take some time to learn a whole new project, a whole new code repository, a whole new mission and adapt with the team to learn that.

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

Teamwork and communication. Someone once said, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” With all of our missions we want to go far and create a lasting solution, and for that you need teamwork and solid communication.

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

The best way for me to manage stress is by maintaining a good work-life balance, which luckily both Northrop Grumman and the government supported. We have our peaks where we need to be working more hours than usual in order to support specific missions, but every team has a family and understands the importance of work-life balance. I don’t have kids but I like going to the gym. So for me having work-life balance is making sure I can get in my workouts in the morning and come in after that. We have flexible work arrangements, so if I had to start my day later or leave early they were able to support that as well.

In terms of burnout, I always try to remind myself why I chose this career path in the first place. I use that to fuel me and push me forward. I look for opportunities to give back to the community as well, through programs like cyber scholars and the Center for Women in Technology at UMBC. I mentor and attend networking events with students to help them in their careers and their futures in the cyber workforce, or in STEM in general. That helps me find motivation.

What are the next challenges you’re looking to pursue in your cleared career?

One of the good things about mission work is there are so many missions out there and so many different domains, from on the ground to in the air, to space and different military and government customers as well. So when I was in a rotational program, I tried to select rotations that would expose me either to different missions or different domains. Now that I’ve graduated from that rotational program, that’s still my mindset. I want to continue learning about our various government needs and national needs to find different opportunities and build my career from there.

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

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 11, 2021 12:41 pm

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