How to Keep a Spy: Retention Issues in the Intelligence World … and Beyond

National Security Agency, NSAA January 2, 2018 article in the Washington Post, entitled “NSA’s top talent is leaving because of low pay, slumping morale and unpopular reorganization” pretty much says it all right in the title itself.

I worked at the National Security Agency from June, 2002 until July 2006, during which time I was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal for service in Iraq in 2004. I was an Arabic linguist at the prestigious Counter Terrorism Office. In other words, I was doing what outsiders would consider to the be the sexiest thing imaginable in that Cryptic Top Secret Agency.

But I left.

I left for my own very personal reasons. Shortly after coming back from Iraq, I had gotten married to a woman who was a Spanish teacher in New Jersey. We lived apart for two years after our wedding, seeing each other on most weekends. And there came a point in which we decided that the long distance marriage was just tiring and we needed to be together.

National Security Agency, NSAWhen we finally decided to be together, we crunched the numbers and the solution was obvious. She, as a teacher in a public school in New Jersey, was making way more money than I was. She also had an actual pension (as opposed to a matching funds 403B that government employees had). She also had summers off. It made no sense for her to quit her job and try to find something in my area. Instead, what made perfect sense was for me to quit my job and move to her location.

When I was first starting work there, I recall clearly an official at one of the orientation presentations saying words to the effect that the future of the Agency required them being able to find a way to have people work from home, even process classified information from home.

At the time, all classified information had to be kept behind multiple layers of security. And he said that unless we find some way for people to work from home, we will not be able to remain agile and keep the best talent working for us.

And in my case, the man who originally hired me even looked for the possibility that I might be able to keep working for the NSA from New Jersey from within some Top Secret area on a nearby military base. But nothing panned out.

If I could have worked from home, if I could work from home even now, I would love to serve my country in that capacity–even for less money. But I do need some money, hence I now am a teacher myself in a public school, making more than I did as an Arabic linguist at the NSA.

So the challenge is real. The Intelligence Agencies attract the best and the brightest minds continually from a combination of patriotism and cache. But keeping the best and the brightest minds will require a more dynamic approach to accommodating human needs than they currently seem able to do.

I am certain that issues related to the retention of significant talent are the same everywhere, including the business world. At my school we had a new, young, and fantastic calculus teacher, one whose AP scores were through the roof. He was an underrepresented minority to boot. He ended up leaving to go to a better paying district simply because, well, why shouldn’t he be making every penny he is entitled to for how talented he is? And I was confused as to why our district was not even able to cut him some kind of deal, like offer him a boost in pay steps to put him on the pay scale comparable to what he left to achieve. But we apparently couldn’t. And so we lost him.

What it all comes down to is that organizations are just not very flexible when it comes to making considerations for particular talent. It seems unfair to all the rest, and so we hope that we can find someone as good as we wave goodbye to them when keeping them might have involved just a little out-of-the-box thinking.

In my case, the vision I heard at orientation–the ability to work from home–would let them have me back tomorrow.






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