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Taking Measure

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A Life in Public Service: A Q&A With NIST's Donna Dodson

Donna Dodson

NIST Fellow and director of the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence (NCCoE) Donna Dodson retired from NIST and as a federal employee on May 8, 2020. 

Credit: NIST

After 33 years in public service, NIST Fellow Donna Dodson retired from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on May 8, 2020. Over her career, she has played a critical leadership role in a number of areas related to cybersecurity, including artificial intelligence, the internet of things, quantum-resistant cryptography and privacy engineering. During her time in IT, she has won numerous awards, including a Presidential Rank Award in 2019, and she was named a finalist for a 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal in the Safety, Security and International Affairs category. We sat down with her for a short chat about her life and career.

What has been most rewarding about working in IT/public service? 

During my career at NIST, I have had the opportunity to work in and sometimes lead public-private partnerships with industry, academia and other government agencies at all levels. My greatest reward is seeing these public-private partnerships in action, solving real challenges facing the country, organizations and individuals.

As a nation, we are dependent on the information technology infrastructure that is shared by businesses, governments and organizations of all sizes. When government and industry leverage their experts to work together on these challenges, we can provide more robust technology for today and a platform for tomorrow’s innovation. Without that coordination and collaboration, we lose the value that comes from taking full advantage of the information and capabilities in our systems and networks. In fact, we actually risk allowing adversaries to use that information unless we work together.

How has NIST’s work in cybersecurity developed and expanded during your career?

NIST has been working in cybersecurity for almost 50 years. The program has strong roots in risk management, cryptography and identity management — and is based on a tradition of collaboration, transparency, outreach and partnerships. We provided the world’s first encryption standard to protect the confidentiality of information. This work was embraced first by the financial community and the federal government but now has truly global impact.

The field has changed over the years, dramatically broadening in scope and audience. NIST continues its work to develop guidance and support standards for risk management, cryptography and identity management. We have expanded our research in areas such as trusted platforms and trusted infrastructure to now address the wide range of technologies that our economy and population rely upon.

We also understand that the customers for our cybersecurity guidance have grown. As one way to address this need, NIST established the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence — an effort that I was fortunate enough to help spearhead. The center amplifies NIST work to cultivate trust in information technology. It is a collaborative hub for public-private partnerships where industry organizations, government agencies and academic institutions work together to address businesses’ most pressing cybersecurity challenges. This rather unique partnership approach is one way that NIST has flexibly responded to the rapidly changing environment.

How has the landscape changed for federal IT experts over your career?

The IT community did not have chief information officers, chief information security officers, or chief technology officers when I first started working. Those of us in the then-nascent field also did not have much infrastructure to work with, and we certainly didn’t have dedicated staff to support our IT systems (which often weren’t connected systems at all!). At NIST, one of our staff would collect a small team to help lay down coax cable on weekends to connect our laboratory building with the internet.

Today, IT experts — and especially, cybersecurity specialists — are in high demand in government and industry. Thanks to the great work of NIST in collaboration with several other agencies as well as private and nonprofit organizations, we now have a cybersecurity workforce framework that is helping to meet the outsized need for more talent in this field. This initiative recognizes the diversity of knowledge, skills and abilities needed for a successful career in cybersecurity across the government and elsewhere.

At NIST, we are bringing together ever more diverse teams to work on IT-related challenges. We are supplementing the efforts of our traditional professionals in mathematics, computer science and engineering with social scientists and privacy experts. With these teams — at NIST and with partners in all parts of government and society — we can provide outcomes that address pressing needs across government and industry.

What about working for the federal government do you think would surprise people unfamiliar with it? 

I think people would be surprised by the desire, capabilities and commitment of really talented people at NIST and across the federal government to improve everyone’s quality of life through initiatives in science and technology. I am so proud of the results we deliver to the taxpayers.

May 8 was your last day at NIST and as a federal employee. What will you miss most?

I will miss my colleagues across NIST. Each day, they bring technical excellence, integrity and inclusivity to their work as they persevere on the nation’s greatest science and technology challenges. They do this with passion, grace and a smile — and epitomize what public service is all about. My life is richer because of the great people at NIST.

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