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Alex W.

As advances across the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) continue to be pivotal in the way NSA accomplishes our mission, we are committed to empowering women to take an active role in that transformation.

Background Information

Alex is a Computer Software Developer who specializes in embedded systems programming. Embedded systems are specialized programs meant to run in environments with limited resources and are often part of a larger system. Programming these systems requires knowledge of not only the limitations of the environment (small memory, low processing power, etc.), but the capabilities of the language used to write the program in order to maximize the program’s efficiency.

Question: What do you like about the work you do at NSA?

Answer: I like solving programming challenges and enjoy aiding and interacting with other members of the Agency. NSA does a lot to protect the country and combat the adversary, and making tools that help them do so is its own reward. I also enjoy learning about what each Agency division does, as each one has its own role to play. From hackers and linguists, to photographers, and even bookmakers, the more I learn about what our Agency members do, the more I gain an appreciation for not only how we’re interconnected, but how my work creates a positive impact. It’s one thing to be informed that your product helps a mission, but another to observe it being used.

Question: Was there a defining STEM moment in your life?

Answer: After graduating high school, I took part in the Gifted & Talented NSA summer internship program at the Center for the Study of Advanced Language (CASL). While there, I helped to maintain and beta-test an electronic language dictionary, experimenting with its features to detect errors. At the end of each day, I always found myself looking forward to the next round of beta-testing. I enjoyed predicting how the dictionary would react to various commands and which commands could uncover bugs. By the end of my internship, I had found multiple errors, including a major one that prevented two of the dictionary’s features from working properly. While I was already studying computer science at the time, this was my first time applying my skills in a professional setting and, ultimately, the internship convinced me I would enjoy a computer science career.

Question: What advice would you give someone looking to enter your field?

Answer: Study the programming languages you work with each and every day. Do not just look over the documentation for the language, but practice writing code with it, and read or listen to experts’ presentations and discussions about it. By practicing daily, you reinforce your programming knowledge, build up a knowledge base, and learn how to use the proper programming vocabulary in a professional setting. The more you understand the languages you use, the less you risk misusing their features and making mistakes. You also gain more opportunities to simplify and improve your code, as you have a better grasp of when and how to use specific coding features. Knowing proper programming vocabulary is also important, as it allows you to communicate effectively with other programmers, especially those in your division, or those that your division works with.

Question: How do you think we can get more women in STEM? Why is that important?

Answer: We can get more women in STEM by studying the history of women in the IC, and informing others of that history, particularly women considering a job in the IC. By studying the past, we can gain a better understanding of what challenges women faced, what challenges they may still face, and how their STEM experience has changed over the years. We can also get a sense for which programs or decisions have been put into place to help those women, whether they successfully aided those women, and why they did or didn’t work. This would help us create effective strategies to encourage women to enter STEM fields and aid them once they have entered. Teaching other women this history can also serve as a source of inspiration and encouragement. STEM fields may seem inaccessible to women because not enough credit is given to the women of the past who served in those fields. How many people know that it was women who operated the computers used to translate the Enigma cipher or that it was women who first cracked Japanese naval codes during World War II?

By giving the women of the past proper credit, and shining the spotlight on them, a job in a STEM field may not seem as intimidating.

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