How diversity defeats hackers

Differences of thought, background and experience foster culture of innovation on company’s cyber programs

Her son was having trouble solving a geometry problem. Cobb knew the trick was to use the Pythagorean theorem – something her teen had learned in algebra the year before. Only she couldn’t just tell him that. He had to figure it out for himself.

“Instead of getting upset and saying, ‘How could you forget ‘a2 + b2 = c2? I stepped back and said, ‘Let’s start at the beginning and think about what you learned last year,’” Cobb recalled. “I do the same thing at work. Just last week, I was struggling to reverse-engineer a product, and instead of banging my head against the wall, I went back to basics. I looked at the project from the beginning, then made three fixes, and I solved the problem.”

Her patience and persistence, honed through years of parenting, are also hallmarks of successful hackers. That gives her an edge at work. And it’s just one example of how diversity – of thought, of style, of background, and of experience – helps her team at Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business, as they defend the U.S. government’s infrastructure against cyberattacks.

“You need individuals with unique backgrounds, exposures and experiences to recognize different patterns than others,” said Clinton Thomas, principal researcher for RI&S’ Cyber Offense and Defense Experts.

When he sees a repeating pattern of numbers, for example, he concludes that it’s ASCII text. But a biologist might see an RNA strand, and a physicist might see force vectors.

“We look for the patterns we are trained to see,” Thomas said. “By incorporating different perspectives, we can identify novel patterns we’d otherwise never consider, then use those findings to develop new, exciting solutions for our customer’s technical challenges.”

Part of achieving diversity is defining it. At Raytheon Technologies, the term expands beyond traditional parameters like race, gender, age and sexual orientation, said Jocelyn Williams, who leads diversity, equity and inclusion for Raytheon Intelligence & Space.

Williams is one of several leaders in diversity, equity and inclusion across Raytheon Technologies who partner with company executives to create a culture of equitable opportunities for employees of all backgrounds to work, grow and belong. 

“If everybody thinks the same, you can get consensus very quickly … but that may not be the best answer. It just means everybody agreed,” Williams said. “When you get a set of people together who have different backgrounds and experiences, they start asking, ‘Have we thought about this? Did we think about that?’ That’s when you’ll find your most innovative solution.”

Developing a broad talent pool

Raytheon Technologies is engaged in strategic partnerships to expand its ability to attract, retain and develop a broad-based talent pool. Its Connect Up initiative aims to advance equitable opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math education; career development; and community well-being. The company has formed a number of partnerships focused on STEM education with groups including Girls Who CodeFIRST Robotics and NAF.

Another STEM partnership with the organization, Advancing Minorities’ Interest in Engineering, also focuses on building a long-term talent pipeline in traditionally underrepresented and underserved communities. That organization, also known as AMIE, is a coalition of corporations, government agencies and engineering schools at Historically Black Colleges and Universities or HBCUs.

Raytheon Technologies and two other major corporations are working with AMIE on an HBCU cybersecurity pilot, which will help build curricula at HBCU engineering schools. The goal: to position these schools as premier academic institutions for cybersecurity and prepare students for careers in a field that is critical to our national security.

“We have advisers who are going into these HBCUs and mentoring students, letting them know how they can be competitive cyber candidates at Raytheon Technologies and in aerospace and defense,” Williams said. “Creating and cultivating relationships with these HBCU engineering schools benefits our company by helping to fill the cyber talent gap.”

Syreeta “Sy” Dukes, an RI&S senior database administrator, serves as Raytheon Technologies’ campus outreach manager at Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C. Dukes, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Howard, now works on a contract protecting a government agency’s computer networks. She uses herself as an example when she tells students you don’t need a computer science degree to work in cyber.

“I tell students at Howard that if they’re smart, inquisitive and determined that they too could excel here at Raytheon Technologies,” she said. “If everybody came from the same discipline, college major, career field or even ethnicity, then we’d get the same suggestions over and over again. None of that’s innovative. And that’s what I love about our company: innovation.”

Like Dukes, Cobb majored in biology as a pre-med student, and both found their way to cybersecurity. Each cited examples where they say their biology backgrounds helped them with information security.

“In college, when I was amplifying genetic material, PCRs, to study DNA, I would put it in a machine, and it would spit out data,” Cobb said. “When I began reverse engineering, I used disassembler software that generates a graphic very similar to when I was studying DNA. Both disciplines are very methodical and require certain steps that must be followed.”

James Weser packs boxes of food at the Metropolitan USO

James Weser packs boxes of food at the Metropolitan USO of Washington-Baltimore at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, during Turkey for Troops, which Raytheon Technologies supports.

Drawing on a wealth of experience 

When U.S. Army veteran James Weser joined Raytheon Intelligence & Space, he brought not only his technical expertise, but his military experience. 

“If everybody comes from the same upbringing, looking at things from the same angle, they’re going to see the same things. You need those other angles, perspectives and thought processes to see the bigger picture,” said Weser, an Information Systems Security Manager for a government customer.

Weser explained that while in uniform he learned to get the mission done on time, every time – an attitude he practices to this day.

“I still have the same mindset: get the job done and go for it. Now, I’m wearing jeans and Chuck Taylors instead of a flak jacket and combat boots,” he said.

Opportunities abound for professional development

For 20 years, Sheryl Tolbert wanted to get her Project Management Professional certification, but the companies she worked for didn’t aggressively support professional development. After taking a position at Raytheon Intelligence & Space, she earned it within a year.

Tolbert is a senior manager who oversees more than a dozen teams supporting a cyber program with a government customer. She has about 80 people on those teams, which she said will soon triple as it grows into a 24/7 operation.

“I’ve been in the business for 25 years, which I can’t believe, working with some of the big hitters in the industry, and I’ve never seen a company like Raytheon Technologies push for professional growth like they do here,” Tolbert said. “Within a year, I was able to get my PMP and [IT Infrastructure Library] certs, which is something that I never got a chance to do before now.”

In addition to the support for her earning those credentials, highly valued for IT and cyber project managers, she said one thing that impressed her about Raytheon Technologies was its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I have never seen that emphasis at a corporate level,” she said. “As someone who has been a trailblazer in a lot of different ways, not just scholastically but also because of the business that I’m in, it’s not unusual to be an ‘only’ or ‘one of the first,’" she said, recalling times throughout her education and career when she was the lone woman, Black person or Black woman in an academic program, on a team or in a meeting. "While it’s a blessing, it can also be challenging because I always wanted to be respected for what I do and what I know. So, I was very, very much impressed by [Raytheon Technologies] focus on diversity because right off the bat, starting day one, it was top of mind. I stand by that today.”