The National Security Agency (NSA), home to America’s codemakers and codebreakers, recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. Tom Fox spoke with the agency’s deputy director, John Inglis, about this unique defense agency and its goals for the future. As deputy director, Inglis is the agency’s chief operating officer, responsible for guiding and directing strategies, operations and policy. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
What led you to the National Security Agency?
I literally grew up in the shadow of NSA living about 12 miles away, but I didn’t know the agency existed until I was looking for employment while transitioning from the active Air Force to the Reserves. As in most careers, there was a mixture of serendipity and a spark that fired the imagination. In my case, I was a credentialed computer scientist and began my work life as a technical engineer. NSA was recruiting in this area, and that was attractive to me because what I was looking for was an opportunity to continue my national service.
What are your leadership responsibilities at the NSA?
There is a mix of things that I have to keep my eye on. One is the day-to-day operations to ensure that the organization is delivering on the expectations of the stakeholders. The second thing is transformation. I need to be aware of what changes are taking place in the environment and in the posture of the organization by being attuned to the opportunities and challenges, whether it’s the speed of the changes taking place or the emergence of new cyber threats. I am focused on staying ahead of the curve and not falling into the path of being reactive.
However, my main job as chief operating officer is to ensure that the organization retains its mission and invests in its culture. People are an amazing resource; and at the end of the day, they want to know that they committed their time and their purpose to something that is worth it. As a leader, you are communicating that worth or purpose to the people in the organization — verbally, by your actions, and by how you spend your time.
How do you keep your employees motivated and engaged in the mission of the NSA?
In successful organizations, everyone knows the central purpose and everyone needs to have a personal connection so their contributions add to the collective accomplishments. On the first day, we take our employees to the National Cryptologic Museum, which NSA operates for the public, and tell them the story about how we came to be. Then we turn the spotlight on them and say, “We now need you to extend that history in terms of what we do and how we do it.” Employees then raise their right hand and take an oath of office to the Constitution, reminding them that this oath is to the nation, providing a larger sense of purpose and unifying them to the mission that has been running for 60 years. From there, you make sure they are being mentored and see a path forward in terms of professional development.
NSA recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. What are the agency’s goals for the future?
We need to sustain our ability to innovate, to discern change and to adjust accordingly, because frankly I’m not sure I could describe what the true nature of the world will be like in 10 years, or what kind of technology will be employed. Ultimately the thing that will transcend all of that is the continued goal to keep the nation safe and sustain a culture of defending civil liberties. Those are the things that were true when the organization was created in 1952, they’re equally true today and they should be still true 30 years beyond that.
What is the NSA doing to attract young scientists, engineers and others with technical skills?
We’ve had great success with recruiting when you look at the numbers and depth of talent, but it’s getting harder. There are not enough people in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs, and it’s a very competitive market. We have high-school outreach programs and scholarship programs. We work with colleges across the country to invest in terms of curriculum and identifying pathways to careers at NSA or similar government organizations. We have another great generation coming of age after 9/11 that wants to make a difference for the nation. We work hard to appeal to that.
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