Christina S., Deputy Director of the Computer Science Skill Community at the National Security Agency, is a computer scientist by trade and an educator at heart.
Whether she’s volunteering, providing mentorship, or spending time with her husband and two daughters, Christina finds ways to infuse learning in every encounter.
We sat down with Christina to hear how she uses her love of education to help others grow in their careers through professional development opportunities and mentorship.
Coming from a long line of educators, it was only natural for Christina to start her career as a high school teacher. After graduating from NC State University, she began teaching math and computer science at a public high school. “I have had the pleasure of teaching a variety of learners,” Christina explains. “I taught students that were previously incarcerated, special needs students, and learning disabled.”
Her time teaching at the high school level gave her a strong foundation for her current role as Deputy Director of the Computer Science Skill Community at NSA. “My teaching experiences helped me understand that acknowledging and emphasizing each student’s unique ideas, thoughts, and talents is critical,” she elaborates. “Every student's unique point of view and perspective matters.”
Helping Others Through Education
Christina joined NSA through a development education program and, nearly 20 years later, she’s the one providing professional development opportunities to other computer scientists that join the agency. In her role in the Computer Science Skill Community, she offers coaching, mentorship, and support to computer scientists who want to improve their knowledge and skills to prepare for their next position.
When a computer scientist joins the community, Christina typically starts their development process by asking them to answer a series of reflection questions. “I ask them to describe their dream job. Then I ask them what they are most passionate about. Lastly, I ask what is stopping them from pursuing their dream job.” She then creates a personalized action plan for the student so they can overcome the roadblocks that prevent them from reaching their professional goals. “We go down a path of identifying obstacles and come up with ways to get around each one until we arrive at a solution,” she explains. She encourages the participants in the community to take advantage of NSA’s tuition assistance and training programs. “NSA has excellent tuition assistance programs that even offer time off to attend class and study, and their National Cryptologic School offers hundreds of courses in various skill fields.”
In fact, NSA offers a number of development programs to help employees “enhance their skills, improve their understanding of a specific discipline, and even cross-train into a new career field.”
Giving Back to the Community
Apart from technical education and development through the Skills Community at the agency, Christina is passionate about furthering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the STEM community. “Some of the ways I do that is by visiting Historically Black Colleges and Universities and conferences such as the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) to recruit, give tech talks, and conduct resume reviews and interviews,” she explains.
NSA offers numerous unique opportunities for employees to work toward furthering DEI efforts. “I volunteer through NSA’s K-12 Mathematics Education Partnership Program (MEPP) and Partners in Education (PIE) programs to give STEM talks, judge science fairs, and tutor at schools in underserved communities.”
She’s also served on NSA’s Graduate Fellowship for STEM Diversity (GFSD) Computer Science committee; she recently became the committee chair where she “emphasized recruitment of a diverse applicant pool.” She is also an active member of the African American and Women’s Employee Resource Groups at NSA where she is able to give back to the community in other ways. “I participate in events and activities for professional development, community involvement, and improving overall work life,” says Christina.
Finding Work-Life Balance at NSA
When Christina first started at the agency 20 years ago, she never imagined she’d have the chance to get involved with all of these extracurricular programs. Switching careers and moving to a new location, she didn’t know if she’d be able to balance her new job and take part in the community and professional development activities she always loved. “I was nervous I wouldn't be able to volunteer in my daughters’ classroom, chaperone field trips, or pursue graduate studies,” explains Christina. “However NSA is one of the best places to work if you need work-life balance and I've been able to do all of those things and more.”
Her best advice for newcomers to the agency is to “not be afraid to bring your true authentic self to the office and offer your unique perspective and ideas to solving problems. Whether you have been working at the agency for 30 days or 30 years, you are an asset to your office and you have great ideas, solutions, and insight.”
One thing Arielle does each day that she wishes more people would do is say 'thank you.' "I may say thank you just as much as I say hello in a day. I think it is important to show people around you that you appreciate even the seemingly small things they do or contribute," she explains. For this track and field coach, sorority member, and doctoral candidate, an attitude of gratitude is key to success.
We sat down with Arielle, a systems engineer at NSA, to learn more about her involvement in ERGs and how they sparked her career growth.
Born and raised in Maryland, Arielle has always strived for success. She is currently less than a year away from completing her doctoral degree in Engineering Management at The George Washington University, all while coaching and training track and field, organizing community service projects with her sorority, and working her way up NSA's organizational ladder.
Arielle joined NSA two years ago after completing her degree and gaining work experience as a mechanical engineer. She was encouraged to apply by a guest lecturer in one of her master's courses who later became her mentor. Once she began her career at NSA, this same mentor suggested she look into the different Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) the agency had to offer.
ERGs and Their Impact
Arielle is currently part of three ERGs – African American (AAERG), Women (WERG), and Next Gen (NERG). "I joined each because they represent parts of me and my experiences as a millennial Black woman. At the time, I did not know just how beneficial they would be to me as I navigated a new career and environment," says Arielle.
Her involvement in each of these ERGs has afforded her opportunities for personal and professional growth. "When my schedule allows, I attend the AAERG general body meetings and take advantage of the learning, professional development and social opportunities they offer."
Similarly, through the WERG, Arielle says she has been able to participate in events such as the Seventh Intelligence Community Women's Summit, as well as lead initiatives such as the 2020 Women's Intelligence Network (WIN) Symposium Cohort 2 – Growing Leadership and Technical Skills. "We are working to identify available resources and develop an IC-wide strategy to build leadership skills for women seeking to advance to higher grades and technical skills for women in specific work roles."
Career Growth Through Mentorship
Apart from social opportunities and events, Arielle's involvement in ERGs has introduced possibilities for professional development as well.
Every year, NSA holds a promotion cycle in which employees have the opportunity to submit promotion packages which include an Employee Performance Assessment (EPA). The purpose of these self-written assessments is to account for professional accomplishments and their impact on the organization. Although she was new to the agency, Arielle was encouraged to submit a promotion package to get familiarized with the process.
After struggling with her self-assessment, Arielle leaned on the support of the AAERG's sponsored EPA reviews during the promotion cycle. "As someone new to NSA and their promotion process, it was overwhelming, but [the AAERG] partnered me with an amazing woman who provided guidance, feedback and encouragement."
She was partnered with a senior-level woman with more than 30 years of experience at NSA. After reading through Arielle's first draft, she offered critiques and encouragement that would give Arielle the motivation she required to push for a higher standard. "I will never forget her kindness during our meeting, and her optimism that I would be a competitive candidate. Then it was back to the drawing board, equipped with her feedback and suggestions," says Arielle.
Arielle excelled at her second attempt at drafting her EPA and was left with the final task of paring down her accomplishments to meet the character limit. "I was fortunate enough to have members of my team and leadership work with me to decipher between my most and least impactful accomplishments." After three more iterations, Arielle finally submitted her package, and was later recommended for promotion.
Not only did Arielle attain experience and a step up the organizational ladder, she also gained a mentor during the process. "During the first in-person meeting with my assigned EPA reviewer, I was inspired by her. When the hustle and bustle of promotion season died down, I reached out to her asking if she was accepting new mentees, and if so, would she be interested in mentoring me. She enthusiastically accepted," she says. Due to the pandemic, in-person meetings have been put on hold, but they are currently working to connect and establish their formal mentoring relationship.
Arielle considers ERGs to be very valuable: "I wish more women and minorities knew that through ERGs, there are opportunities to pursue your interests outside of your formal work role." These versatile groups offer their members the chance to network and impact lives both within the agency and in the community.
Three Tips for Overcoming Hurdles and Excelling in your Career
Arielle knows all too well that there are systemic barriers that will challenge her throughout her career. "I am in no way naïve to the barriers Black people face and I understand I will be met with challenges as a Black woman in STEM due to people's unconscious and conscious biases and prejudices," she says: "However, I cannot allow that to dictate how I navigate my career or life."
Instead, Arielle has leaned into her own strengths, and leveraged the support of her ERG networks and mentors to own her career journey.
We asked Arielle which traits have helped her foster this sense of personal agency and excel at NSA. After some deliberation, she summed them up in 3 P's – Preparation, Presentation and Personality.
Preparation: "As a student and an athlete I have always understood that preparation is vital to success and performance. With any task I am responsible for, I am sure to prepare as much as possible, taking the necessary time to learn and develop my skills and knowledge, and further, be confident in that knowledge," Arielle says.
Presentation: "I am, admittedly, a recovering perfectionist. Even as a child, I wanted everything to be perfect, which forced me to be detail-oriented. At NSA, this has helped me develop, design, structure and deliver content for various topics and audiences, ranging from the general workforce to senior agency leaders," she says.
Personality: "I am a people person. I have been able to make genuine connections with people throughout my life and career. When you make genuine connections with people and show that you care about the person, not just the work they do, it fosters trust and collaboration. People feel more open to sharing ideas and being vulnerable. I have never been afraid to be vulnerable and share my weaknesses because it is an opportunity to grow. I am open, confident, but self-aware, and have been told I have a receiving demeanor," Arielle says.Click here to learn more about NSA's open roles.