Spotlight on Commerce: Donna F. Dodson, Associate Director and Chief Cyber Security Advisor and Director, National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence, Information Technology Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology


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Donna F. Dodson
Donna F. Dodson, Associate Director and Chief Cyber Security Advisor and Director, National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence, Information Technology Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology

Post by Donna F. Dodson.

Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to an Economy Built to Last.

Each workday, I get up at 4 a.m. to make the drive from Gettysburg, Pa., to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md., or to an event or meeting in the D.C. area.  I have been making the commute for more than 20 years.

People often ask me why I make that drive each day.  My response has always been the same:  I love my job.  This was true when I was a junior researcher contributing to projects and is true today as I help lead the strategic direction of NIST’s growing program in cybersecurity. 

Growing up in a modest household with parents who worked hard to support my sister and I, it never occurred to me that I would have the opportunity to work at a place like NIST.  My father taught me to solve problems in a practical way and my mother always encouraged me to work hard in school.  My parents grew up in West Virginia and had limited employment opportunities when they moved to DC.  We would visit my extended family often and while we did not have much money I did not notice because we were just like everyone else in that community.

When I first began my career at NIST in 1987, I was working on a masters degree in computer science.  I did not have a background in computer security; however to the best of my knowledge, there were no courses or degrees in security. 

Miles Smid, head of the Security Technology Group in the NIST Computer Security Division hired me and was my first true mentor outside of my family.  Miles would host discussion sessions every Wednesday where we would debate the fine points of cryptography.  At that time, businesses were being transformed through information technology (IT).  However many business documents required a signature.   Business applications were automated but when a signature was needed, a paper document was still required. 

We were able to apply cryptographic techniques to generate a replacement for the “wet” or hand written signatures.  I worked with two federal agencies to demonstrate this capability and later helped them to create the first fully automated government business application using electronic signatures.  While this is not the only time in my career that I helped to lead a team that started with a blank canvas and created a platform for innovation, it demonstrated to me the power of collaboration.* 

Each person who worked on this project brought capabilities and skills to realize our vision.  We were all encouraged to contribute and we all listened to the insights from others. 

Today, I have an open door policy and I believe that my role as a manager and leader begins by being a good listener.  Important contributions come from everyone from senior researchers to interns working at NIST for the first time.

This principle has been equally true in my personal life. I have a wonderful husband and son. We work with the Big Brother program and have found that the young man we met with through the program has enriched our lives in so many ways. I’ve enjoyed volunteering as a board member with our local YMCA and I’m currently a mentor for the UMBC Women in Science and Engineering and cyber scholar program.

I also believe the best public service comes from working hand-in-hand with the private sector.  Several years ago, I read Katharine Graham’s Pulitzer-prize-winning memoir, Personal History.  One aspect of the book emphasized the importance of the public and private sectors coming together for collective action in support of the nation.

Given the critical impact of protecting the digital infrastructure that we all rely on each day for many aspects of our lives but no one organization owns, the only way to address our nation’s cybersecurity challenges is to work together.

I have had the opportunity to see the power of collective action in many recent NIST cybersecurity programs and projects.   At the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence, for example, we work collaboratively with private IT companies from the largest billion dollar firms to the smallest startups. We’re developing practical cybersecurity tools using commercially available solutions.  It’s exciting and rewarding work that challenges me every day.

I have opportunity to work with NIST computer scientists and engineers, who are the some of the brightest people in the world, as well as innovative leaders in industry and academia from around the world.   

So it is easy to see why I love my job.  I work with great people on programs that impact the world.  I work with people who take their work seriously but not themselves, creating a collaborative and creative environment and that makes the long commute feel like a small price to pay.

NOTEDodson has received two Department of Commerce Gold Medals and three NIST Bronze Medals.  She’s been selected as a Fed 100 winner for innovations in cybersecurity, as one of the top 10 influential people in government IT in 2011, and as one of Fed Scoop’s Top 50 D.C. Women in Tech.

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Last updated: 2015-03-27 13:49

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