As advances across the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) continue to be pivotal in the way NSA accomplishes our mission, NSA’s office of Capabilities is committed to empowering women to take an active role in that transformation. This new series aims to highlight the women working in STEM fields across Capabilities. Read on to find out how Deputy Authorizing Official, Julie Dhanraj found her passion at an early age and how she thinks we can continue to advance women in STEM at NSA.
What is your STEM field? What led you to this field?
Julie: I am a member of the Computer Science Skill community. In high school, I wanted to get a degree in marine architecture and the service academies were the only colleges that offered a degree with that title. I wasn’t successful in obtaining a nomination to either the Naval or Coast Guard Academies so, being local, my fall back was University of Maryland and a degree in mechanical engineering. After graduating from high school, I started an internship with Naval Surface Weapons Center (NSWC) and worked in the Engineering Department. During the internship I had the opportunity to learn a variety of things, from Fortran programming to coding modeling and simulation problems, and found that I was pretty good at programming and really enjoyed it. I started at the University of Maryland that fall in engineering but switched my degree to Computer Science with a minor in Astronomy (another passion as a kid). After a few years at NSWC as an intern, I moved on and got a job running the computer labs in the Math Department at Maryland while finishing up my degree.
Was there a defining STEM moment in your life?
Julie: My father was a mechanical engineer at NSWC and an architect. He built the house I grew up in and always did all his own auto repair work; he had me help him with all of those projects. He wanted me to understand how things worked and what it took to do that work so that no one would take advantage of me later in life. From a young age he had me working on calculus problems, so I guess I always knew I would go into the STEM field.
What do you like about the work you do at NSA?
Julie: I have done a variety of technical jobs here at NSA from COMPUSEC evaluations to cryptanalytic field exploitation, vocoder analysis to reverse engineering, and finally computer network operations; all of which had a reverse engineering component which led me to join the Senior Technical Development Program to enhance my expertise in that field. I have enjoyed all of my jobs at the Agency and love that there are opportunities to remake yourself through furthering your education and exposure to broad technical experiences. Probably two of the accomplishments I am most proud of aside from the mission accomplishments were being one of the original developers on the Ghidra project, which is now an award-winning open source project; the second being one of the original Code Breaker Challenge team members; the Code Breaker Challenge started with just five universities participating and now has several hundred universities and colleges participate annually.
What advice would you give someone looking to enter your field?
Julie: Get your degree and join a development program so that you have the opportunity to test out the waters in a variety of offices then pick the one that you were most excited about. Remember, the Agency is a world into itself and there are plenty of opportunities here to remake yourself throughout your career.
How do you think we can get more women in STEM? Why is that important?
Julie: I am not sure why we don’t have more women in STEM. When I started the whole workforce was definitely male dominated, but I think that has changed now. One of the things we need to focus on is keeping the women in the technical positions and not suggesting or recommending the management track as the way to get ahead.