Career Notes 10.10.21
Ep 70 | 10.10.21

Brandon Karpf: A sailor of the 21st century. [Transitioning service member]


Brandon Karpf: Hello. My name is Brandon Karpf. I am a Lieutenant in the US Navy and currently the Skillbridge Fellow at the CyberWire. 

Brandon Karpf: From a young age, knew I wanted to join the military. I remember my first thought of joining the military on 9/11. Being from New Jersey, the, uh, the events of that day hit my community pretty hard. Had a classmate whose father was killed in one of the towers and I remember turning my dad that night and saying we have to do something, and what I'm going to do is I'm going to join the military. My grandfather served in World War II. He was an army infantry officer in the South Pacific and he spent the entire war, uh, doing the island hopping campaign under MacArthur. Growing up, I was his only grandson and I got a lot of the war stories. He instilled in me that sense of service. 

Brandon Karpf: Getting to the Naval Academy is not necessarily the easiest thing, but I knew I wanted to serve. My dad knew about the academies. He took me around to all of the various academies growing up. As soon as I stepped foot in Annapolis, Maryland with the water and the blue skies and the, the gold gilded dome, uh, of, of the Naval Academy chapel and all the midshipmen in their whites, I knew that this was the place for me.  

Brandon Karpf: I played sports, uh, was on the crew team throughout high school. So even before I started my senior year, in fact, a week before I started my senior year of high school, I had my appointment to the Naval Academy because I'd been recruited to the heavyweight rowing team. 

Brandon Karpf: I just didn't really know what I wanted to do in the military. Originally. I thought I wanted to be a, in explosive ordinance disposal, one of the special warfare, uh, communities. After some serious injuries that I had at the Academy, that wasn't in the cards and one of my advisors was a naval cryptologist, and I remember him bringing me in and I was lamenting the fact that I had just gotten an ankle surgery after fracturing my ankle and wasn't going to be able to go do explosive ordinance disposal. He kind of laughs at me and he looks and says, it's funny that you think you have a choice, or that you ever did have a choice, you were always going to go be a cryptologist. And I look at him having no idea what cryptology is. And I say what's that? And he had just come off a tour at NSA and he said, you know, I can't really tell you, but it is very cool. As a 21 year old, all you want to hear is you're going to go do something really cool, so I was sold. I did end up commissioning into the cryptologic field as a cryptologic warfare officer. They sent me to MIT to get a graduate degree, which was totally unique and not a normal thing. Um, but this was right after CYBERCOM stood up and they knew that we wanted to bring in academia and research and the hard sciences of computer science. And so they sent me up to MIT basically to be a civilian for two years and just go to school and learn from the best. 

Brandon Karpf: MIT is as unique an institution as the Naval Academy is, except entirely on the other side of the spectrum. So the Naval Academy is strict and rigid and structured. MIT is the absence of rigidity. It is open. It is interesting and exciting and dynamic. I got to this place that was open and my research advisor, my first meeting with him and he was paying for the whole experience for me. And I said, what do you want me to do? And he looks at me and goes, what do you want to do? Because this is your time. Take it and enjoy it. 

Brandon Karpf: When working at the NSA and when working at Cyber Command as a active duty member of the Navy, in which there is a constant tension between maritime Navy, traditional Navy leadership and career paths, and your role and your job at NSA and Cyber Command. When I was working that mission at NSA, it was fulfilling. The most impactful moment of that is I, I was there during the 2018 midterm elections, and there's been quite a bit in the news about what we accomplished during that time, and that felt good. It felt like I was doing what eight year old Brandon wanted to do, which was defend our country. I would say my heart was in being a sailor of the 21st century, which was not a sailor on ships. I was still leading sailors and my sailors were not sailors that would ever deploy on ships, but I was still expected to do so at some point. And as I learned the cyber operations path and the cyber operations skills, it pulled me away from the traditional sailor mindset. 

Brandon Karpf: Part of this transition from active duty into the private sector was going within myself and figuring out what excites me. What motivates me? What do I like about what I do? And what do I not like about what I do? For me, that was working in a small team at cyber command and working in a small team at NSA. Those experiences that I had at NSA and Cyber Command helped me realize that that's the environment I feel most comfortable in, and it's hard and it's stressful and it's not easy, but it's also the most fulfilling because you get to grow and you get to learn and you get to be someone who is constantly expanding what they think is possible of themselves. And to me, the startup culture, at least in successful startups, like the CyberWire, that is the culture. 

Brandon Karpf: Everything from eight to 18 was to get me to the military. And then I did it and I got there and I was almost like a dog that caught their tail. I didn't know what to do with it once I had it and I did some great stuff, and I enjoyed it and I had fun and I learned a lot. I like to say that they made me a better citizen. The Navy made me a better husband, a better leader, a better engineer, and human being. It is hard for me to, to accept the fact that that stage of my life is, is ending. And I'm moving on to the next stage. Uh, that causes anxiety. I've had moments where I wake up in the middle of the night having an anxiety attack. I've had moments of deep depression where I have had to go to a therapist and, and seek help. What I realized through this transition is that is not who I am. That's not my identity. I worked as a Naval officer, but that is not who Brandon is. And being comfortable with myself, being comfortable with just like MIT, the lack of structure, the lack of rigidity, the fact that there are a myriad of paths, none of which have a defined left or right boundary, none of which have a defined end or start, being comfortable in that environment is very important. And it took me a long time to get there, but I did get there. 

Brandon Karpf: A big part of this next stage of life is I want to enjoy my time with my wife. Uh, do fun things together. Professionally, I'm really excited about this tech cybersecurity domain, especially in the private sector. I think it's important. It feels incredibly mission oriented. The people are fun and fascinating. I want to be a member of that community. It's not just an industry. Everyone is passionate and driven towards securing the world against the bad guys. And I'm really excited to be a part of that. And I just want to contribute. I want to be a member. I want to help make that community as strong as it possibly can be.