Teenage Work-Study Programmer Rises to Cyber Challenge at MITRE

By Molly Manchenton

Jhanny Jimenez

Jhanny Jimenez, 16, is a junior at Notre Dame Cristo Rey (NDCR) High School in Methuen, Massachusetts. The Cristo Rey network serves low-income, predominantly underrepresented communities by establishing work-study partnerships with local companies. Since the school year began, Jimenez spends part of the week at school and the remainder at home, learning remotely. On Fridays, he works on a network visualization and optimization project with his mentor, MITRE Chief Scientist for Cyber Operations Les Servi.

Jimenez is one of a handful of NDCR students that MITRE employs through the school. Students gain real workplace experience, and the money they earn goes toward their school tuition. Jimenez is the second student that Servi has mentored. The first, Johvanni Perez, is now a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

“Jhanny is a tribute to his school," Servi says, “Jhanny showed up, and I realized he had a lot of talent. I kept stretching him more and more with increasingly more demanding assignments, and he has never said stop.”

The program operates only during the school year, but Jimenez was making such a difference, Servi obtained funding for him to work full-time as a remote employee during the summer. The project he supports is funded through FY21.

The program operates only during the school year, but Jimenez was making such a difference, Servi obtained funding for him to work full-time as a remote employee during the summer. The project he supports is funded through FY21.

“The relationship between Jhanny and Les is mutually beneficial. This is the power of MITRE. We seize unique opportunities to identify talent with incredible potential,” says Nicole Gilmore, Director, Talent Development and Student Programs. “Les created a space to allow Jhanny to work alongside other problem solvers. Jhanny is contributing to our work today while at the same time expanding his potential to solve the problems of the future.”

Hear directly from Jimenez about his experience.

When I was a freshman, my school asked questions about what my work interests are. I had already taught myself basic coding, and then the program assigned me to MITRE. It was exciting because MITRE is a big place, and there’s a lot of people around you. As soon as I figured out I’d be working with programming and things that I liked, I was excited. I wanted to improve my programming and get work experience.

As a sophomore, I developed a program called PIVOT, a PALMA™ Induced Visualization Optimization Tree. PALMA is a MITRE software that optimizes networks, but it was somewhat challenging for non-experts to use.  

We were trying to improve its visualization capabilities. The goal of Project PIVOT was to create a standard form that PALMA could read and visualize. I’ve given presentations on my project at least five times, including two talks that were MITRE-wide and included some high-level people from my school and MITRE. I recently installed it on the laptop of a Harvard University graduate student who is working part time for Les.

MIT Professor Richard Larson, who is a friend of Les, came into one of my talks before the pandemic. It was nerve wracking. But I later found out that he wrote an article about innovative educational approaches, and it included a reference to my work.

For the summer projects working on network analysis, I had to learn basic calculus and linear algebra, which are college-level courses. It was difficult at first because it was beyond what my [high school] class was learning. In my class we’re working on trigonometry and pre-calculus. I watched YouTube videos to help me learn, but math is already a cakewalk for me anyway.

Overcoming Life’s Distractions to Make a Difference

Working with Les over the summer was fantastic. I learned a lot of different skills, but the most important was time management.

Now that I work from home instead of going into the office, I’ve learned to work in noisy surroundings. My younger brother is obsessed with having my door open and coming in and annoying me. I’ve worked on developing the skill to stay focused in this environment.

I might have been more productive if I were at MITRE. I could have talked with Les more often. Before the pandemic, if I wanted to talk with Les I could just knock on his office door, and we could talk. Because Les has different meetings and we are working in different places, we have to assign a time to meet up.

I’m definitely going to college, but what I will study is still up in the air. I hope that senior year I can work with Les again if he’ll put up with me. [Editor’s note: Servi says yes, he will.]

MITRE is very different from most companies in the way the students are treated. When I’m at MITRE I’m treated like a coworker, not like a student. I’m given real work that’s going to affect people around me. Some of the other students in the NDCR program work at companies where they file paperwork or move data on Excel files. I’m given a job and work to do that’s going to affect something bigger than me.

—as told to Molly Manchenton

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