Taking the (Writing) Leap

There are three steps to getting into a field or industry where you don’t think you belong: write, publish and repeat.
Blog Post
March 8, 2017

Just as budding actors move to Hollywood to become the next big star, I moved to D.C. confident that I was going to work on national security policy in the Middle East. I spoke Arabic, lived in Cairo, had the right degrees, and worked in the right internships. But, like young actors in L.A., it turned out that I wasn’t the first person with this particular dream — and that it was an even more challenging path than I’d imagined. Between an influx of talent, waning support for American involvement in the Middle East, and deep cuts to the Federal budget, the job market had changed. I needed a new strategy. But as a second-year master’s student, I worried that it was too late to refocus my area of study. Fortunately, I tripped over a different path.

Right about that same time, you couldn’t so much as cross campus without hearing about the magic of big data, and I happened to have a statistically improbable density of computer scientists in my social circle. In class, I was talking about the national security implications of data mining; meanwhile, I was surrounded by conversations on machine learning and artificial intelligence with my technologist friends. It didn’t take long to realize that the two groups were looking at totally opposing aspects of the same problem and using entirely different languages to do it. There was clearly an opportunity for a suitably-credentialed expert to define a career at the confluence of these two groups, but I was fairly confident that expert wasn’t me. I saw myself as a mere student of national security and a dilettante — at best — in technology. Who was I to be weighing in on the subject?

Fortunately, necessity is a wonderful motivator, and at that particular moment I was in dire need of a thesis topic. With a generous dose of mentoring from my adviser, who literally wrote the book on the theory of national intelligence, hours upon hours of explanations in the finer points of data science from a number of really patient technologists, and weeks with my nose in artificial intelligence textbooks, I ended up with a final product that allowed me to plant a foot in the study of disruptive technologies in national security. And then I graduated, entered a terrible labor market, and wound up in an administrative job that left little room for research, let alone research on a topic that I was just wrapping my brain around myself. It was disheartening.

About a year into that job, our office hired an editor who — bless him — badgered me, kindly but relentlessly, to pick up my old thesis research and write for our online magazine. I was still unconvinced that I had the wherewithal to make a novel contribution to the public discourse, but I could feel my hard-won writing skills going to waste with each passing spreadsheet. Besides, between me and the editor, at least one of us had faith in my ability to say something useful. What did I have to lose, right?

I put pen to paper and came up with a piece which, candidly, wasn’t very good. So I scrapped it and put together another. Our web editor published that article, and it was met with modest — but meaningful — praise. I wrote a second, and then a third. None of them was a contender for a Pulitzer, but nonetheless, they got noticed here and there. Our editor-in-chief stopped by my desk to encourage me to write more; a professor at my alma mater linked to one of my op-eds in his own article; an editor friend from another publication encouraged me to write for him, and a little bit of momentum started to build.

Completely by accident, I had begun to establish a publication history for myself, and with each article I researched, I learned more about the subject. In learning more, I’d stumble across an issue I didn’t understand well, which would turn into the basis for another article, which inspired more questions. I was waist-deep in research at the nexus of national security and tech before I realized I had found a solution to my career strategy problem. It took a while for the right job to come around, but by the time a position in cybersecurity policy opened up, I had a compelling narrative built into my resume that demonstrated I had an interest in the field and could write about it. As it turns out, that did the trick.

What I hadn’t appreciated when I started is that, although I was not a preeminent scholar on either national security or technology, crossing between the two communities gave me a unique perspective and an ability to translate between the groups. I wasn’t rocking the foundations of either field, but I was connecting ideas on technology in a language that the national security folks understood, and I was surprised to find just how much merit there was in that contribution.

Looking back on it, I was undoubtedly one of the few women in this field who had the advantage of an editor repeatedly sitting me down and explaining why my perspective was valuable. Now that I am aware of it, I often see how readily young people, especially early career women, convince themselves that they need to understand every nuance and detail of a subject before they can offer a credible opinions. It is easy to undervalue your own perspective and research, but the truth is that you don’t need to be the world’s leading expert to contribute to the field; sometimes you just need to come at an issue from a different background. You may not change the course of history with a single article, but odds are good that someone out there is asking the same question you are, and so your informed opinions will likely be valued.

If you, like me, spend hours poking through the news and come away with opinions, questions, and ideas, I have a suggestion: Take a few hours to write up what you learned, and send a short note to a publication describing your topic and your approach (and we do know a few editors over here at #HumansofCybersecurity). Sometimes you’ll get a response and sometimes you may need to try another publication or a different topic. Learning how to pitch, write, and publish takes time, and you won’t always succeed right out of the gate. Write anyway. Take it from me — it’s worth the time. Plus, I’d like to hear what you have to say.