11 February 1999

Date: 11 Feb 1999 04:40:23 -0000
From: proff@iq.org
To: aucrypto@suburbia.net
Subject: AUCRYPTO: A job interview with the NSA

                         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
     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.

See also at the NSA Web site:

Employment Opportunities

Mathematics & NSA: A Long Term Partnership

Mathematics Education Partnership Program