News | June 28, 2021

NSA’s Women in STEM: Pursuing Passions in Problem Solving

Deputy Chief Information Officer La’Naia Jones’ path to the National Security Agency began just down the road near Annapolis, Maryland, where her passion for problem solving grew while she attended grade school.

“I loved taking things apart and putting them together. I loved puzzles, riddles, and anything analytic. I was a big puzzle fan just in general,” said Ms. Jones, who went on to graduate from University of Maryland — Eastern Shore and later University of Maryland Global Campus (formerly University of Maryland University College). “It’s not surprising that I ended up in a STEM field.”

Determined to serve the Nation, she entered the NSA a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks while a senior in college pursuing a dual degree in mathematics and computer science — two disciplines in the field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

She has embarked on an Agency career highlighted by overseas deployments, mentorships, and diverse opportunities.

“For anyone reading, there’s a role and a place for everyone and your ideas, your concepts,” Ms. Jones said. “Your way of thinking — it matters and it counts. Be encouraged that the journey isn’t easy but that makes it more worthwhile.”

“When I applied to NSA, I saw it as an opportunity,” she continued. “I didn’t know what NSA did — at least not to the level that I do now — but I saw it as an avenue to go other places and do other things or be able to travel.”

She views her current role as deputy chief information officer (CIO) as a blend of technology, policy, and business. She works across the Intelligence Community (IC) and Department of Defense (DoD) on Enterprise-related efforts, and views the Agency’s many partnerships as a key way to share tools and analysis.

“We are looking at relationships for Enterprise large-scale business processes related to IT, and in some cases that might be with licensing or contracts, or in some cases, that might be how systems operate or how data flows,” she explained. “The CIO portfolio at NSA is broad in that we work across Capabilities, and then work across the other NSA elements, directorates, the IC, and DoD in partnership.”

Ms. Jones has also served in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) as acting IC CIO.

“My last position, working at ODNI, was kind of life-changing because I was able to see government from such a different perspective and have insight as to how we really operate on that scale,” she said. “Being able to participate in meetings at the White House, to be able to go to the Hill and see where democracy was created or how bills come into play was amazing to me. I treasure those opportunities and being in those positions because I know that’s not something that everyone gets to do, so for me, I look at it as a huge honor.”

Deployments have also highlighted her career, and she explained how it took a conversation with a co-worker to eventually alleviate her fear of pursuing an opportunity overseas.

“I deployed a lot over the years and that also started with a colleague [sharing their experience] about how they deployed to a war zone, and they were sharing how exciting it was and rewarding — the work, the team, the camaraderie, the passion. You see one perspective, but hearing it from someone who’s been in that experience is a whole different dynamic. You get a huge sense of what it’s like, and that’s what inspired me to pursue those kinds of opportunities.”

“You never know where you’ll end up,” she added. “Someone told me a while ago that you never see yourself as other people see you. For me, mentorships helped me to become who I am today. Through mentors and allies, people can teach you how to navigate a job, or an overseas assignment, or provide ideas.”

Ms. Jones offered her own thoughts on how to encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM fields and break through barriers.

“I think it’s important to encourage, and sometimes we need a push,” she said.  “Representation matters. It’s important for females to see other females who look like them, and see that they’re able to achieve what some people call those ‘glass ceilings.’ I also say that mentors and advocates don’t have to look like you. There’s nothing wrong with mentors and advocates of different sex or background or experience or career field to help encourage or guide you on your journey.”