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An interview with the NSA

from TBTF for 1999-02-01



February 1, 1999

A long-time reader sent the following account of a recent job interview at the US National Security Agency.


One striking thing about the interviews was that everybody I talked with knew very well what was on my resume and even in my transcripts — I've never had that happen before. The process is all very humanely organized and well explained in advance. One communicates with the head of the Math Hiring Committee, a mathematician who has taken on hiring responsibilities for a one-year term. There are 24 mathematicians on the hiring committee (there are 600 at NSA altogether); the head runs their monthly meetings and takes care of all sorts of details, but doesn't vote on the hiring decisions.

On the day of the interviews, the candidate first meets a math escort, a mathematician who takes the candidate from one interview to the next (in my case, the interviews were all over Fort Meade and at other office space closer to the airport, i.e., ten miles from Fort Meade) and has the mission of answering questions off the record. My escort was someone who has a minority status in common with me and talked about that first. The math escort does not talk with the hiring committee.

The first interview is with the mathematician who is head of the training program, which lasts three years. The program starts with a quick review of algebra and then launches into crypto stuff, and it's full-time for months at a time, two hours of lecture and six hours of study every day, in a big classroom with forty other newly hired mathematicians, some just out of college, some PhD's. A reliable source informs me that many of them have ego problems. In the program head's office, there are three collections of photos of mathematician trainees, one for each class, with each mathematician posed in front of a flag, like the pictures you see of military recruits except they're wearing math clothes and haircuts.

The remaining interviews are with two or three other mathematicians — two if the candidate has chosen to give a one-hour talk. Interview subjects were what it's like working at NSA, whether I know what according to my transcript I should know, my thesis, and in one case, discussion of a problem. Everybody talked about what a great place NSA is to work — smart people to talk with, important things to do, liberal policies and perqs on every kind of workplace issue.

After the interviews and once all the candidate's letters of reference are in, the lot of it goes to everyone on the hiring committee and the candidate is discussed and voted on at the committee's next monthly meeting. Notification of the committee's decision is given immediately by e-mail.

Comparison with the scene in the movie Good Will Hunting: I didn't see a room anything like the one in which the movie interview took place. The offices and conference rooms I saw had regular overhead lights and were more like shabbily genteel (my vocabulary comes from novels), and everyone I saw, managers included, is sharing an office — a small room with one or two other people or a warren with dozens. My meetings were all one-on-one, and the interviewers exhibited none of the smarmy arrogance of the interviewers in the movie: they were mathematicians, not slick guys in suits. What they did that was like the movie was talk about the opportunity to do big, important, unique kinds of math, and every one of them was molto enthusiastic about it. I was strongly impressed with everybody's team spirit and dedication to the mission. The same goes for other people, like personnel department facilitators, that I met.

Spook factor: Before they decided whether to interview me, I had to submit fingerprints and fill out a long form talking about everything I've done and everywhere I've lived for the past ten years, and getting through that required me to think plenty about whether I wanted to go through it all. However, the full-bore security vetting, including a polygraph exam and the FBI going around to talk to people one has known, does not take place until after the math people have offered a job. I was told that they are changing the sequence of events, so maybe that means that one won't have to do fingerprints and long form before the interviews.

At the entrances of all the buildings there are armed guards, some of them military, and turnstiles into which one must insert a badge with a mag stripe on it. At every office I entered, my presence was announced either verbally ("Red badge!") or by a twirling light, like on a police car, that stayed on as long as I was in the neighborhood. The only decorations in the hallways, which are a maze with room numbers but no other information, are posters of traitors looking sorry in their jail cells — there's a new series featuring the guy who did the legwork for John Walker. (Not Walker's son, the other guy.)

In the cafeteria at Fort Meade, which was more than decent, about one of every six people was in uniform, all branches, many of them enlisted personnel.

There have been several articles published over the last few years in the journal of the American Mathematical Society along the lines of what's it like to work at NSA, whether on sabbatical or permanently, and the gist of them is that the mathematicians there are regular just-like-us people. Now Chinese people are conspicuous in many math departments, but not at NSA, so that's a big difference from "just-like-us"; that said, I was a student in a math department with plenty of good collegial feeling (as opposed to a miserable, back-biting math department) and I got the same good feeling about the people I met at NSA.


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Created 1999-02-01