NSA hiring reforms serve as model for government

Wednesday - 6/6/2012, 2:46am EDT

Kathy Hutson, director of human resources, NSA

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By Julia Ziegler
Federal News Radio

Kathy Hutson is proud of her agency's hiring process. The National Security Agency's director of human resources says the agency has really taken OPM's hiring reforms to heart.

"I would say, the hiring practices and protocols at NSA demonstrate today all the reforms that OPM is talking about and recommending for the rest of the federal government," said Hutson in an interview for Federal News Radio's Agency of the Month show.

The agency recently completed a year-long, Lean Six Sigma study of its hiring and recruitment practices. One of the biggest takeaways — more communication with job applicants.

"We need to really be high tough when it comes to applicants," Hutson said. "And because our process takes a little bit longer than it would in the private sector, we want to make sure that people are informed every step of the way. So they can hang tight with us, so we can get them in and really show them a great career."

Kathy Hutson, NSA (Full bio)

It now takes the agency only three to six months to bring a new employee completely onboard, which includes a full security check. That's beneficial for an agency currently in the middle of a hiring blitz. NSA plans to hire more than 3,000 employees, most in the cybersecurity realm, by the end of fiscal year 2012. Hutson said about 2,800 of those have already been hired by the agency.

NSA is also using specific hiring authorities afforded to it to help cut down on the time it takes to hire a new employee.

"Those special authorities allow us to execute hiring and recruitment very similar to how it would be done on the private-sector side," said Hutson. "I think they allow us to get out there and get to a variety of places, including colleges, universities, private sector conferences and organizations, where it could be more difficult for other members of the federal government to get to."

In addition, NSA uses its own website to post and collect job applications, instead of USAJobs.gov, the government's main job portal.

Recruitment with a twist

In 2011, NSA was one of several government agencies that took a trip to the annual DEF CON hackers conference in Las Vegas looking for some new talent. It's just one of several ways, Hutson said, the agency is taking advantage of unique opportunities to find the next wave of cybersecurity professionals.

NSA is also on Facebook and Twitter, and has developed an iPhone app where all of its job openings are listed. In addition, it's created an iPhone game called CryptoChallenge where players are asked to decipher encrypted quotes, factoids, and historical events.

"We are using what we call the 'cool tools,'" said Hutson. "We have to leverage technology in order to get our message out because that's really where the applicants of the future are residing."

But Hutson also acknowledged as budgets have tightened, the agency has had to get even more strategic with how and where it recruits.

"We are really fortunate that our senior leadership understands the importance of hiring and recruiting, marketing NSA, and building that next generation. So, like everybody else, we are operating in a constrained environment. We have to be very conscious of all the decisions we're making with regard to recruitment — travel, expenses around hiring — to ensure we're being as efficient as possible."

Hutson said the agency is also focused on recruiting at universities that make the most sense for NSA.

"We have a pretty rigorous process of vetting colleges and universities across the country and determining which campuses we're going to go to and dedicate a lot of time to build a deep relationship."

Last month, the agency announced the creation of a new National Centers of Academic Excellence, focused on cyber operations. Through the program, some students will be hired as temporary NSA employees and will attend seminars at NSA.

"The primary goal is to expose students to the scientific and intellectual foundation of cyber operations, giving them a glimpse of how such knowledge could be applied in innovative cyber careers with the government," NSA said in a press release announcing the program.

NSA has teamed with four schools initially, including Dakota State University, the Naval Postgraduate School, Northeastern University and the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

The agency doesn't just partner with universities for the technical expertise its students can provide. Hutson said the agency also looks at what kind of diverse workforce those schools can offer.

"Our diversity strategy is quite broad...We think of diversity across a very big spectrum. It is diversity of people — and by that I mean — race, culture, gender. It's also diversity of thought. It's diversity of your technical skills. And the underlying element, I think, we need across all of that is, we're really focused on critical thinkers. So, we're trying to come at diversity from a really big picture perspective."

Also in this interview, Hutson discusses the potential of a retirement tsunami and developing leaders within the agency. Listen below.

Listen to the full interview with Kathy Hutson.

Other interviews this month:

  • Debora Plunkett, director, Information Assurance Directorate, NSA - (June 13)
  • John DeLong, compliance director, NSA - (June 20)
  • John (Chris) Inglis, deputy director and chief operating officer, NSA - (June 27)