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First Person Singular: Nathanael Burton, computer scientist, National Security Agency

By Amanda Long,

Most people who work in the government don’t have blue hair and two nose rings. When I was doing an annual review, where you have to write down everything you did that year as part of the promotional cycle, I read this great piece of advice. It said: Be quirky. If you’re interesting, people will remember you; they’ll remember working with the guy with blue hair. Your work has to be as memorable as your look. My job requires me to constantly question if there’s a better way. I don’t want to think like everyone else; I don’t want to look like everyone else. And the great thing is that they know that; they recognize that I have to be creative. People like me can’t work in a box and think outside of it.

I know what I do is helping keep our country safe, but it’s hard to see it day to day. I’ve made it my personal mission to eliminate those policies and procedures that slow down ideas, keep people from getting things done and keep information from being shared. Efficiency is important no matter where you work, but the data I work with and the problem space I work in are different than, say, a computer scientist at IBM. One of the big findings of the 9/11 report was that we had most pieces of the puzzles, just in different places. There’s this massive amount of data, and the only way we can share it is through better systems. One of the most rewarding things I’ve done is turn a procedure that used to take four to six weeks — and six request tickets in different departments — into something that takes, at most, 30 seconds. That might not sound as sexy as tracking down a terrorist, but if that allows a great idea to get out of someone’s head and put into action, you never know the difference that could make in keeping us safe.

Last year, I found out I had a brain tumor — basically the worst thing for someone who’s constantly in their head. When I saw the MRI — the tumor was the size of a small lemon or large walnut — I thought I was done for, but they found it and removed it within 24 hours. I couldn’t go back to work for six weeks; the doctor said it takes time for the brain to fully recuperate. My co-workers really pitched in; they even named my tumor Bob, bought a fake plastic brain, put it in a jar and took it to meetings when I couldn’t be there. They set up a Google calendar of who was bringing me food when — another system at work! I got a lot of emotional support. People may have a certain conception about government employees or tech geeks, but it’s rarely what you think.

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