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She may not be able to tell you, or her own family, what she does every day as a manager for the National Security Agency (NSA)--the government's code-making and -breaking organization at Fort George Meade in Maryland. She may not be able to tell you how many people NSA employs (it's in the thousands)--or what types of projects they work on or who their targets are. But Judith Stoy is not a spy. "I have worked with some of the most brilliant people that Americans will never know about," she said.
She currently serves as one of three team leaders overseeing 300 people, including civilians, non-civilians and "a whole bunch of others," many with linguistics, math, computer science and engineering backgrounds. "My job isn't to do the work, but to get them the tools to do the work," she explained.
Stoy set out on a career with the NSA nearly 30 years ago as a foreign language analyst. It all began during her senior year at Colby when she walked into the College placement center and asked what she could do with a Russian major. She was pointed toward government work. "Government wasn't considered an employer of first renown at that time," said Stoy. She applied to the NSA figuring she'd work there one to two years and move on.
After passing a background check, lie detector test and psychiatric exam, Stoy joined the agency in 1972. "You do it on a leap of faith, because they don't tell you what you'll be doing," she said. "I'm a very curious person. It was a good fit." Stoy spent the first 15 years as an analyst and gradually moved into management positions.
Of the thousands of people who work at the agency there are two types: the world's experts on one subject (the NSA is reportedly the largest employer of mathematicians in the U.S. and perhaps the world) and others, like Stoy, who shift areas repeatedly. Stoy says the NSA encourages diversification. In crises like Desert Storm the agency needs people who can adapt and do what's needed.
Secrecy is crucial to the NSA's mission. "We have to be careful not to reveal how we do what we do," Stoy said. "The rule is 'need to know.' Just because someone is cleared, doesn't mean they need to know." It's most difficult for families who are kept in the dark. Stoy's husband, Bill, joined the agency as an electrical engineer 18 years ago, so the couple has some understanding of each other's positions. While the NSA can't tell the public specifics about its activities, it has become more open recently. "Up until five years ago most Americans didn't know it existed," said Stoy. "Now it's economics. You can't expect people to pay your bills if they don't know what you do."
With the attention come misconceptions. "Most movies give a negative impression and warped idea of what we do," said Stoy. Generally people tend to focus on the CIA instead. "They're more high profile," Stoy said, and deserving of the spy label. "We're not spies. We do more scientific, technological research."
In three decades at the NSA Stoy has witnessed major transformations, especially with technology. Within a few months of joining she got a personal computer on her desk. "This was unheard of for an average American," she said. "Most didn't have a clue that there was such a thing. Technology revolutionized how we do business and how we go after targets."
She said she has found fulfillment in her career, even if she can't tell you what that is. She'll be eligible for retirement in five years. "I've heard from friends that the hard part of retirement is when there's a world crisis and you can't find out what really happened," she said. "I've been involved with a lot of things that are important to the world."
How? She can't say.
--Alicia Nemiccolo MacLeay '97
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