Mom Inspires NSA Hacker
Sometimes tinkering with technology runs in the family.
When Alexander Woody was born, his mother knew she needed to forge a new path career-wise. She enrolled in an associate's degree program at her local community college and studied computer programming.
“She hit that program really hard back in the '90s and was able to succeed,” says Woody, who is now an Army specialist working as a counter pursuit operator within the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) Cybersecurity Threat Operations Center.
Spc. Woody ended up with the NSA after finding himself also at a career crossroad. He studied chemistry at North Carolina State University and sometimes tutors high school students struggling with chemistry. But he realized it wasn’t the right career choice for him.
“I was majoring in straight chemistry, which does not have a lot of market value. People really value chemical engineering or applied chemistry,” Spc. Woody says. “I was out of college, going, ‘Man I really want to learn another profession. But I really want to be paid to learn that profession, and have a place to live.’ The military was the answer to that.”
Although it was a major redirection from chemistry, cybersecurity seemed a natural fit. “I’ve always been a computer nerd. I built my own computer. I managed my own home network. I was an amateur at it, but I really enjoyed it,” he says.
He sees parallels between his own path and the one his mother took. “I didn’t want to follow in her footsteps. I didn’t want to be another programmer, but I didn’t fall too far from that tree,” he says. “I’m doing the same thing. Cybersecurity is fairly new, and can be lucrative, so I’m going into a new field just like she did.”
After hinting at a small degree of regret for that “crazy mom answer,” he says he also looks up to his NSA teammates, his chain of command and the cybersecurity instructors who prepared him for the mission.
Spc. Woody has been with the NSA for nearly two years. In that time, he has risen from being the most junior analyst on the floor to a senior analyst supervising others. He excels at sifting through massive amounts of data and properly reporting the results using the NSA’s strict reporting protocols. “We have to formulate all of the cyber knowledge into an easily-digestible format for all of our partners. That means taking the cyber jargon and boiling it down to something that the end-line users can understand and act on,” he says. “Anytime anybody has a reporting question or has anything they want to report, I’m the go-to soldier for that.”
His reports were at times presented to Navy Adm. Michael Rogers, the recently retired former NSA commander. “I find it weird that a [specialist] can produce an intelligence report that can cross the desk of an [admiral],” he says.
The one skillset Spc. Woody would most like to sharpen is on the offensive side of network warfare. He reveals he is using his own computer and a Raspberry Pi to develop an exploit that could ultimately be used to train other soldiers. “Network defense and computer network attack go hand-in-hand. To understand the defense, you really need to understand the attack. I would like to practice more attacks in order to understand defense better,” he explains.
The NSA cyber team guards the perimeter of the Defense Department’s network. It uses automation and a variety of other tools to perform the mission. Spc. Woody says he would like a technology that allows him to better understand the adversary’s intent and anticipate aggressive moves. “We’re working to become more predictive, more preventative, instead of reactionary, but a crystal ball would really make that a lot easier,” he says.
Despite agreeing to an interview with SIGNAL Magazine, Spc. Woody usually does not talk about his chosen profession, except with his closest, most trusted friends. Not that it’s top secret or anything, but it’s poor operational security. He also reveals that he prefers not to be described as a hacker. “Hacker doesn’t sound very professional, does it? It sounds like the bad guys who destroy your credit history from Equifax,” he says.
He adds that it also sounds “brutish” to hack something. “We aren’t the bad guys, and we really are precise in what we do. For those of us on defense, we prefer ‘analyst’ or ‘computer network defense analyst.’ People who are on the attack prefer ‘operator’ or ‘exploitation operator.’”
The specialist could fairly be described as a Renaissance man. In addition to chemistry and cybersecurity, he dabbles in graphic design for T-shirts and is a master of board game strategy. Playing video games may be the stereotypical hobby for young cybersecurity professionals, but old-school board games still have fans and may even be growing in popularity, Spc. Woody suggests. “You’ll find a lot of computer analysts like board games because they’re all about problem solving.”
Roll for the Galaxy is one of his favorites. It is a dice game in which players build space empires. They can direct the populace, develop new technologies, settle worlds and ship goods. The player with the most prosperous empire wins. “It’s really rules heavy but actually very intuitive. It helps ease people into the idea that there are a lot of rules here but those rules make sense, and you can make a system work.”
He also enjoys Betrayal at House on the Hill. “You get to explore a haunted mansion with your friends, and one ultimately betrays you, but the betrayal’s always different,” Spc. Woody explains.
The network warrior notes that board games require some of the same skills he uses as a cybersecurity soldier. Each board game is centered around turns with a specific number of actions. “What you need to do with that turn is extract the maximum value for yourself. You need to think creatively and not go with your emotions but with objective truth,” he says.
So, emotionally, purchasing Boardwalk might seem the best course of action, but holding onto that money might be the better move strategically, he says. He points out that passing on the purchase of Boardwalk is just an example and that most Monopoly fans would likely disagree.
But extracting maximum value from every opportunity is the main point. “I apply that to the mission. How do I extract maximum intelligence from this? I don’t want to write what’s sensational or what feels good to report. I actually want to report that truth,” he asserts.
To learn more about Spc. Woody and his network warfighting skills and accomplishments, read this story in the August edition of SIGNAL Magazine.