Adrienne White – From NASA Intern to NSA Cybersecurity Leader
When an NSA recruiter first approached Adrienne White during her senior year of college, she told them she wasn’t interested. She didn’t even know what NSA was. Eleven years later, she’s worked in everything from cybersecurity, to counterterrorism, to business management at the Agency and loves it.
“The impact we have on the Nation is unimaginable,” she said. “Sometimes we have to take a step back and recognize the effect we have.”
White attended Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts women’s college in Atlanta, on a full scholarship – half from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A math major, she spent every summer interning at NASA.
“My first summer at NASA, I inventoried rocket engine components and witnessed rocket engine tests every day. That was cool! The following summers, I worked at the help desk, and I liked being able to help people get back on the network,” she said. “My experience at NASA influenced me to minor in computer science, which piqued my interest in computer networking.”
During her last internship at NASA, her team lead asked her what was next. She confidently replied that she was headed to NSA.
“I was ready for something different,” she said. “Without having much information, I believed by faith that NSA would have that.”
Before applying to NSA, however, she wanted to continue her education. She saw a poster at Spelman advertising Carnegie Mellon University’s Information Networking Institute.
“I knew nothing about Carnegie Mellon, but based on that poster in the hallway, I was intrigued and curious,” she said. “I thought if there were an entire school for networking, it was for me.”
While working toward her master’s degree in Information Security Technology and Management at CMU, she applied for an internship at NSA, having no idea just how hard it might be to secure a position. To her surprise, she got the job. She spent the summer in a cybersecurity internship program and liked it so much she decided to go into a cybersecurity development program. Over the next four years, she rotated through several cybersecurity offices. Counterterrorism was one of her favorites.
“Working that mission got my adrenaline pumping every day,” she said. She also enjoyed working in risk analysis. “I love digging deep into data, finding nuggets of information, and telling a story.”
White is currently on a two-year assignment with United States Cyber Command – the unified military command responsible for directing and coordinating all cyberspace operations across the Department of Defense. Wanting to learn more about business management, she is now working as a program manager.
“I felt I needed to do this to be able to make greater contributions to the NSA mission,” she said. “I hope to return to the technical mission soon. I love analysis, I love data and digging in, but I also love leading people.”
White affirms that opportunities are endless at NSA. Outside of her regular job, she’s led the Agency’s African-American Employee Resource Group. She is passionate about increasing diversity in STEM fields and is also a part of a resource group for women at NSA.
A native of Louisiana, she said she has experienced her fair share of racism. Her grandparents were both involved in the civil rights movement. Her grandfather was an activist and was the first African American to work in the computer center at their local paper mill. Her grandmother was the first African American faculty member and full professor at Louisiana Tech University.
“I’ve gone through enough marginalization in my life that I don’t roll over easily,” she said. “I’m not afraid to speak up.”
White feels that both CMU and NSA are making progress on the front of minorities and women in STEM – but there’s always room for improvement.
“We have made lots of progress, but we have to do more,” she said.
The summer before coming to NSA, White traveled to Ghana to participate in the CMU program called “Technology Consulting in the Global Community.”
Reflecting on her time in Ghana, she said, “It changed me for the better. It expanded my view of world cultures and made me appreciate differences even more. It made me want to stay and do more. Even today, I continue to seek ways to help and promote capacity building.”
White encourages students interested in STEM fields to make sure they focus on the basics.
“Don’t undervalue the fundamentals,” she said. “Get that coding done, spend time in the lab, but also finish your writing assignments – writing well is important! Be inquisitive, study hard, and find balance. We will need people like you to enter our workforce in the future.”