Moments That Matter

command room with monitors

By Dr. Phyllis Schneck, Vice President and Chief Information Security Officer

In September 1993, I drove with my dad from Maryland to Atlanta to start my doctorate in Computer Science at the Georgia Institute of Technology. My dad, a NASA and intelligence community computing pioneer who taught me computer science from the age of three, stayed a few days, helped me get a new stereo and overfed me in preparation for student life.

I dropped him off at the Atlanta airport and reflected on that cherished time with him. I drove onto an unknown dark road, excited for my adventures ahead, on the full tank of gas that my dad thankfully funded.

It was official. I was on my own. My dad was wheels up, and I was unsure about what to expect of school, career and life — and that’s when I realized I was lost. There was no GPS. Interstate 75, south of nowhere, offered little signage and no roadside lights, and I was too proud to use the ginormous 1990s cell phone my dad installed in my car. I pulled over and took a moment to collect myself — yes, I was lost, but I wasn’t going to let it deter me from the opportunity ahead. I wiped the tears away and said out loud, “I am going to make it here.” 

White House photo

A Moment of Opportunity

I supported myself with a fellowship and three jobs while studying high-performance computing. I realized that we could optimize the best of computing technology to accommodate security and cryptography. There was no academic program in cybersecurity at Georgia Tech then, and I was told there’s no future in cybersecurity.

It was a moment of opportunity. I became Georgia Tech’s first doctoral candidate to study computer science and cybersecurity, and my studies led to the field of cybersecurity we know today and the new School of Cybersecurity and Privacy at Georgia Tech. My work there resulted in three patents.

Immediately after Georgia Tech, I found an angel investment on my own, and built a company around my patents, which was later acquired by the company SecureWorks. I helped the FBI establish its largest public-private partnership, InfraGard, and worked at McAfee as a chief technology officer where I developed global cyber threat intelligence. There, I gained valuable insight into technology sales in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Photo credit: White House photo

hands typing on a keyboard

An Unforgettable Moment

Those diverse experiences led me to a moment I’ll never forget: the Obama Administration asked me to serve as the deputy undersecretary for cyber and communications at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). There, I was charged with running the organization that preceded and created the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which focuses on securing our country’s civilian agencies and private sector cyber and physical infrastructure.

While in that role, I found myself back on I-75 in Atlanta, 20 years after that dark 1990s night, but this time, it was after landing at the airport in Coast Guard 2. I was in a long motorcade with the Secret Service, bringing then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to see Georgia Tech’s cybersecurity research.

My mind went back to my first time on I-75, and I reflected on the two decades of experience and opportunities for which I am so grateful. The people I’ve worked with have consistently been the best part about my experiences, especially here at Northrop Grumman. Our values and culture, and the ingenuity that our employees bring to the table every day, is our edge over competition and over cyber adversaries.

A Pioneering Spirit

Our cybersecurity team works 24/7 in operations, engineering, privacy, and policy, protecting the business from the adversaries that strive to capture the innovation that represents our work. While they defend against sophisticated cyber adversaries behind the scenes, our employees take up the fight in their everyday lives by staying safe online, safeguarding company assets and reporting suspicious activity.

In my career, I have argued in the Situation Room and negotiated with government officials from adversarial nations, but truly amazing is the moment I watched the James Webb Space Telescope launch with my little nieces, as it set out on its own long dark road. I remember thinking about what an honor it is to work alongside the intelligent and dedicated people who imagined and created it. I realized that, at Northrop Grumman, I am surrounded by the familiar pioneering spirit I grew up with.

That is what it means to define possible at Northrop Grumman; and as cybersecurity professionals, that is what we are here to enable and protect.

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