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News | March 29, 2019

Valuing Diversity: The Women Behind the Dragon

By Heidi Fosnaught, NSA/CSS Communications Officer and Natalie Pittore, NSA Public Affairs Officer NSA

Gwen Lilly - member of NSA's Ghidra Team
NSA Photographer
Gwen Lilly - member of NSA's Ghidra Team
Photo By: Gwen Lilly
VIRIN: 190328-D-IM742-1001
Back in 1994, when Gwen Lilly started as an intern in the National Security Agency’s CryptoMath Program (CMP), she had no idea that she’d be contributing to the creation and eventual release of one of the most publicly appreciated cyber defense tools - but that’s exactly where her career led her. After graduation from the CMP, Lilly took an assignment in the research office that would ultimately create Ghidra. “At the time, we were doing software reverse engineering (SRE) using an array of tools, both government-developed and commercial,” reflects Lilly. “The office was full of smart people with plenty of ideas on how to improve the SRE process by advancing the technology.” 

Lilly was pleased to discover she was not the only female on this dynamic team. There were already two women working on SRE and that group became integral to the birth of Ghidra. Lilly remembers both of these women had a keen aptitude for reverse engineering which they leveraged to influence the development of this new research effort. They were also responsible for some of the early training development in SRE, helping NSA grow expertise to apply to mission problems. 

With the birth of Ghidra, came the birth of Lilly’s children, work-life balance became a priority. “I was single when I started working at the agency, now I’m married with three daughters, two of whom are in college and one who graduated last May. I worked part-time early in my career because at that time, my family was my priority.” NSA’s flexible work schedules and part-time opportunities gave Lilly the chance to stay involved in all the initiatives that interested her, and manage her level of responsibility with a flexible schedule to help meet demands. Now 25 years later, Lilly is part of the core leadership team for the Ghidra project and was played a critical role in facilitating the release to the public at the RSA Conference this year.  “As a researcher who works on an enabling technology, Ghidra’s success is very gratifying. Over the years, Ghidra’s mission successes have also felt like wins for our team, the open software release is our next big win.”

Reflecting on her career, Lilly is proof NSA values diversity and strives to create a diverse teaming environment. “Ghidra is a diverse team of women and men, offering differences in perspectives, which stems from each person’s academic background and field experience.” Lilly hopes that by sharing her story, more women choose careers in the field of engineering. 

She offers a piece of advice to women in STEM: “Always recognize the options available, and especially don’t self-eliminate for any opportunities.”