Career Notes 8.22.21
Ep 63 | 8.22.21

Jennifer Walsmith: Pioneering and defining possible. [Cyber Solutions]


Jennifer Walsmith: My name is Jennifer Walsmith. I'm the Vice President for Cyber and Information Solutions within Mission Systems, Northrop Grumman. 

Jennifer Walsmith: I actually thought I wanted to be a vet when I grew up. But when I reflect, I really worked very closely with my father and he was a big part of my life. He was a electrical engineer and I helped him as his somewhat "son" outside of the house, doing everything from rewiring, building, anything that he needed done I learned in his shadow. He worked for NSA and ultimately I followed in his footsteps to NSA, not exactly in the path that he wanted me to take, but ultimately, he was a huge influence both, because I was a woman headed into a technical field and ultimately, the organization and the community I supported was one that, that I learned from him. 

Jennifer Walsmith: When my siblings who are both older than I, knew my father, he worked in a "candy store" according to him and he had business cards and so forth. That's how secretive NSA was in the times that they were growing up. That gradually changed, and I joined NSA in 1982. It still was not an openly acknowledged agency. In fact, it was "No Such Agency," but in my journey , they changed and they became an organization that was more transparent, with the with the nation on what they were doing and their role. And, uh, it's one that I grew to understand from two lenses. I was one of only three public figures at NSA in my job as the senior acquisition executive for over 10 years and so I had the opportunity to balance both of those equities, and it was a fascinating journey. 

Jennifer Walsmith: NSA actually came to my high school and I , unbeknownst to my parents, I took the, battery testing that they re would go out to the various local high schools. And I scored very well and they offered me a job. My parents wanted me to go to college, but I was quite a challenging a teenager and I said, no, I'm going to work. They knew that a college education was so important. I was hired as a data entry operator, but quickly was fortunate to actually work in the field of computer systems analyst. I quickly realized that this college degree was a very important thing. In parallel with starting at NSA, they convinced me to enroll at the community college as a night school student. And so I did both of those things. Ultimately NSA supported me to finish my college career at UMBC as a computer science major. 

Jennifer Walsmith: The Agency had a rich history of supporting women. If you look at the cryptologic museum, you'll see a lot of history about women. Nonetheless, it was still challenging and I really thought I would become an electrical engineer just like my father, but he saw women's struggle. What he said was why not try this new emerging field called computer science and so you can be part of the group that pioneered this field. And, and that is ultimately what I did. I think it remained challenging, uh, in the 80s and even in the 90s. 

Jennifer Walsmith: When I became a senior executive at NSA, there weren't women senior executives that had children. While there were many seniors that had been successful, they had to give up their opportunity in motherhood. What I pioneered with those around me and a tremendous support network was that I could do both. I could be a mother with two children I was raising, and yet still have a successful career. And having the courage to say, no, I I'm room parent today, and I need to leave, but still meeting the responsibilities that I had by having others support me. It wasn't until much later close to my retirement that I had so many women come to me and say, you showed me we could do this. And I didn't even realize it. And so that that's very nostalgic for me because I didn't set forth to have that impact. It did take bravery, and it did have a few arrows in my back, but I would say really not that many. It was about making sure we serve the mission, but also supported one another in having lives beyond the mission. 

Jennifer Walsmith: So it was retirement and, I had the wonderful opportunity to join a company that had a lot of similar values to that, which I had, and that was tremendous technical acumen, a deep commitment to diversity, diversity of thought, diversity of ideas. When I think of the ideas that we set forth such as we are pioneers, we define possible, we promote and inspire inclusion and diversity of thought. That's exactly what I hired on. 

Jennifer Walsmith: I run a business which, we have a set of financial numbers that we have to achieve but what I do more of is orchestrating and inspiring teams. The heart of my job is helping them define possible where they sometimes think they can't. 

Jennifer Walsmith: My advice to them all be bold, embrace failure, never stop learning. And we're all leaders. Whether it's your first day out of college, whether it's 10 years into your career, or whether it's one day before retirement, regardless of your job title, we are all leaders. That's what will help us keep our nation safe, especially in a field of cyber where if we don't pioneer, if we don't continue to define possible, we will not be successful against our adversaries. That's my advice.