At NSA, Williams Encourages Innovation from “Idea Champions”

Meet Dr. Yul Williams. He is a technical director at the National Security Agency, focused on strategic innovation, which translates into staying ahead of the bad guys who want to break into the nation’s computer systems.

His job is to look a few years into the future to identify critical issues and to produce new ideas, processes and technologies to keep the nation safe; to determine existing and future capability gaps and to recommend the path forward.

Dr. Yul Williams

Williams also is a UMUC adjunct professor.

He teaches undergraduate computer science courses and is among the university’s faculty of highly successful and experienced scholar-practitioners who go beyond theory and teach real-world applications.

For him, UMUC’s practical approach to teaching is what works.

“Students don’t necessarily want to do all of the formulas just for the sake of doing the formulas,” Williams said. “They want to put their knowledge to work. People want to know how to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it in their daily lives. That’s one of the things I like about UMUC’s program.”

Many courses require hands-on programming, delve into computer architecture, and look at the ways people engage on the network, he said. Students can take that information and apply it in their careers.

Williams grew up in the small Alabama town of Dothan near the Florida and Georgia borders. While certain foreign cultures say that his name, Yul, means “beyond the horizon,” the fact of the matter, Williams said, is that in 1961 when he was born, his father was a huge fan of the actor Yul Brenner.

“I can’t say I get it,” he laughed, “but I just got tagged at the wrong time.”

Williams’ father was an entrepreneur who opened restaurants around Dothan, while his mother, an educator, spent her career in the Dothan city schools.  Attaining a good education was difficult for African-Americans during the Civil Rights era, but this didn’t stop the Williams family. Yul has a brother with a Ph.D. from Stanford who is a condensed-matter physicist, while his young sister is a budding entrepreneur.

Williams graduated from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with a degree in electrical engineering. How he ended up at NSA, he said, was one of those chance happenings that make life interesting.

He had plans to return to IBM where he interned during the summer in Colorado, he said. But during career day at Southern College, a recruiter that Williams was scheduled to interview with was a no-show. As he was gatherings his things to leave, he noticed an NSA recruiter waiting for her last interviewee who also never showed.

“We sort of stared at each other, and the next thing you know I was in an interview,” he said. “I’d never heard of the NSA. She told me NSA was the place to do the type of engineering I had dreamed about. She said I could learn from the best and the brightest. I thought, ‘Why not?’  It was a free trip to D.C., if nothing else. I took the leap and just loved the place.”

Now, 33 years later, Williams completed both his master’s degree and Ph.D. at George Washington University, focusing first on microelectronics and chip design, and then something called Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing (EPIC) Architectures.

In his job now as a technical director at NSA, he said, the goal is to eliminate the bureaucracy that stands between new ideas and their implementation. He wants to seek out problems and find a way to deal with them in a more structured way.

“We are leveraging the potential of the entire NSA workforce as people put forth their ideas and take them through an organized process to figure out whether those ideas are viable and can help our mission,” he said.

NSA begins by crowdsourcing ideas for improvements from everyone who works there. Employees putting forth ideas are called “idea champions,” and the promising ideas are assigned to “innovators in residence” who are coaches that help hone the ideas into specific proposals to present to senior management.

The goal, Williams explained, is to shrink the hierarchy of such a huge, bureaucratic institution.  In the past, an idea had to go through so many bureaucratic levels that when it finally was approved and came back for implementation, it was no longer recognizable.

“It was like the whispering game,” he said.  “By the time the idea got to the other side, it didn’t resemble [what] it started out as, and it cost three times as much.”

Now, a well-formed, vetted idea can be presented once a week, Williams said, meaning that as many as 52 ideas can be presented by lower level employees to senior management every year.

“The idea champion is always celebrated,” he said, “even though the idea may not pan out all the way to the end.”

Still, Williams insists the basics of cybersecurity boil down to reaching the masses; the individual at a keyboard making decisions that could inadvertently open whole systems to attack.

“You have to teach people when they first crawl up to a keyboard—here are the things you have to look out for; here are the things you have to do,” he said.

According to Williams, more than half of the bad things that happen could be avoided if people upgraded their software when required. And offering too much information on social media opens people up for attack.

The goal of any cybersecurity team should be to determine what information within a network is valuable and needs to be protected, and then devise a system of authentication and encryption to keep that information from prying eyes while still making it available to people who need it.

“I want to make certain that people understand that NSA is about the real business of protecting American citizens,” Williams said. “We recognize that the adversaries are early adopters of new technology. You can never say that you are winning all the time, but we do our best to stay on top.”

That’s why there’s such a need for new people to get the skills to join the fight, he said.

“We could use the additional help because we recognize that the new folks coming up will have new ideas in computing, which is second nature to them,” he said. “We could use that big infusion of knowledge and enthusiasm.”

 

 

 

 

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