A Passion for Law Leads to an Unexpected Career in Cybersecurity

October 2018
Nickyra Jackson
Nickyra Jackson

When Nickyra Jackson was a teenager, she deeply respected her father's work as an engineer—at NASA, no less—but she had absolutely no interest becoming one herself. "He took me to work with him, and I liked how engineers problem-solved together. But my passion was for law."

Ultimately, Jackson studied criminology, pre-law, at the University of Maryland. Then, during an internship in the Office of the Chief Information Officer at the U.S. Department of the Treasury headquarters, she found her niche. "It was a turning point for me, working both in technology and policy. I was surrounded by engineers, policy, and security experts. I loved it."

In the end, she veered from a dedicated legal career. Instead, she continued at the University of Maryland, receiving both a Master of Science in Information Systems Management and a Master of Business Administration. She became a systems engineer focusing on cybersecurity and privacy.

After 10 years at MITRE, she still enjoys working with a pool of systems engineering, policy, and cybersecurity experts. "You need people at the table from different disciplines to build a system that not only satisfies a variety of requirements, but also works. Is it truly functional? Is it secure? How do you test both and be sure?"

Protecting IT Systems on Land and at Sea

Securing our military's cyber systems is a critical part of our defense system, and Jackson appreciates the opportunity to work directly with our nation's warfighters. Collectively, she spent two years in Hawaii working onsite at the United States Pacific Command and Pacific Air Forces, alongside personnel from all military branches. "One of the pleasures of working at MITRE is helping the warfighters. I always give my very best but supporting them brings about an even greater sense of pride and commitment. I ramp it up another notch."

In Hawaii, Jackson assisted with testing and operationalizing a MITRE-developed tool called Cyber Command System (CyCS) to provide situational awareness to command leaders about their critical assets, including their information technology. "If a router or switch becomes degraded, CyCS will show what kind of impact that might have on the mission. This particular project really hit home for me the importance of the work we do at MITRE—how we make a difference and keep our nation safe." 

More recently, Jackson has worked on a project for U.S. Army Central, where she led a continuous monitoring task to develop a strategy and plan. The U.S. Army Central functions as America’s land domain experts in the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia—providing continuous oversight and control of Army operations throughout the region. Jackson says, "We ensure the right safeguards are implemented so their network will remain secure and resilient, and the warfighters can accomplish their mission."

In addition, Jackson has helped many government sponsors with systems security and privacy issues, including the Department of Health and Human Services (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, National Institutes of Health, and Food and Drug Administration), the Department of Homeland Security (Office of Intelligence & Analysis, National Cyber Security Division, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and the Department of the Treasury (Internal Revenue Service).

Room to Grow, Room to Run

"MITRE has been very good to me," Jackson says. "It offers what I look for in a career: meaningful work, the opportunity to grow, and the sense that each new project is stretching me. That's what motivates me. For people who want the same things, they'll find them at MITRE.

"Any time I get the opportunity, I talk to college students about working in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.] I’m proud to tell them about MITRE and the opportunities they'll find here."

Jackson is also active in her church and in numerous community events, including a mentoring program for adolescent and teenage girls. She has been married for just over a year and is enjoying this new phase of life with her husband. In addition to loving music, newlywed life, and her work, she graduated from running half marathons to the full Marine Corps Marathon. "That was very rewarding—and it felt good."

Not surprisingly, Jackson is a strong believer in the value of perseverance and fortitude. "I tell the young women that I mentor that you should always press forward for the things you're really passionate about. Be relentless in the pursuit of it, no matter how difficult it may be."

—by Bill Eidson

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