Working in cybersecurity is a high-pressure job—one that Priyanka Ranade is already exceling at, despite only graduating from college last year. That’s because she got her start as an intern at Northrop Grumman, a Virginia-based security technology company with more than 85,000 employees worldwide that is especially dedicated to nurturing young talent.
Ranade’s internship recently turned into a full-time role, and she already feels proud that her work is making a big impact. “As an engineer, it’s fulfilling knowing that the technology I put out every day is used for the common goal of protecting and advancing our nation,” she says.
We asked her to break down what her day is like as a software engineer working on cutting-edge technology, the hardest part about her job, and advice for others looking to pursue a similar path.
Tell us about your career journey, and what led you to your job at Northrop Grumman.
My journey to software engineering and cybersecurity started at my alma mater, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. I was in the Cyber Scholars Program, which is funded by Northrop Grumman. It promotes opportunities for students of all backgrounds in the field of cybersecurity by providing access to workshops, classes, and seminars, as well as mentors to help us align our interests with the overwhelmingly huge field. Through the program, I was able to network with Northrop Grumman professionals and ended up landing an internship in the Mission Systems sector, which turned into a full-time role. I also performed artificial intelligence and security research with UMBC’s Ebiquity Lab, which led to my current role as a Cyber Software Engineer in the Advanced Intelligence Systems division.
What attracted you to work at Northrop Grumman?
The company set itself apart in three primary ways: technical diversity, emphasis on exploration, and dedication to promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
Northrop Grumman has business in many areas, from aerospace systems to cyber to healthcare. It’s meaningful when the company you work for has contributed to a range of extremely high impact areas. Northrop Grumman also encourages employees to explore and grow within different areas of the company through its rotational programs. These programs give employees the chance to try out different roles, allowing us to not only find our niche, but also help us become more well-rounded—which is important in a business that is often interdisciplinary. Finally, I respect that the company emphasizes the importance of diversity and inclusion day in and day out. It is beautiful to be part of an organization that values everyone's background and ideas. The power of performance is achieved through togetherness at Northrop Grumman.
What do you like best about the company culture at Northrop Grumman?
My favorite part about the culture is the accessibility to our leadership. This is important to highlight because without leaders who have the intention to help every step of the way—no matter how great the team or the technology—there will always be a gap. Luckily at Northrop Grumman, leadership truly does have an “open-door policy" and I can reach out to my manager, director, and VP for guidance. This makes it very easy to share ideas, collaborate, and bring about concerns. The leadership is also very committed to being involved in employee resource groups such as NGWIN (Northrop Grumman Women’s International Network). It is wonderful to know that you can relate to your leaders beyond a work-related conversation.
What are you responsible for in your role at Northrop Grumman?
I am currently a cyber software engineer in the advanced intelligence systems (AIS) division working on research and development for military/cyber systems. I am responsible for not only helping to develop production-level code for our customers, but also for understanding the theory behind our technology in order to create innovative ideas that address a large range of research problems our customers experience.
What does a normal day in your job look like?
A normal day includes a few hours of coding, reading research papers, and scrum meetings with my team to talk about our project goals, tasks, and progression of our work. A very interesting part of research is also being pulled into lots of other tasks that other research teams are doing. Often times, we share ideas with our peers and have theoretical conversations about the applicability of these ideas as well as the latest areas of artificial intelligence. It is a wonderful part of my day to collaborate with my senior engineers and hear their thoughts on these grand scale ideas for the future. Being in research gives me the opportunity to learn something new every single day.
What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?
I’m currently working on the most cutting-edge technology within the field of artificial intelligence. I would always read about the applicability of many of these ideas in class, but I never thought I would have a hands-on opportunity to actually contribute to the field right out of college. It is incredible to understand that the work that I do daily and the technology that I am passionate about can help make the lives of our warfighters easier and can help protect someone’s life. I’m not only working on something fun or interesting at Northrop Grumman, but also something that is high impact as well. Doing both is truly a dream come true for an engineer!
What do you love most about your job?
My team and how multidisciplinary they are. They wear many hats, from software engineer to data scientist to mathematician to consultant. As an associate member, I get to follow in their footsteps and work on our project holistically. I feel especially lucky to get this kind of experience in one role; not a day goes by where I don’t learn something new and I feel that I am really expanding my skill set being surrounded by them. In addition, I’m also a part of the rotational Pathways Program, which allows recent college graduates the opportunity to work in three different roles in the span of three years. There are so many parts to cyber at Northrop Grumman and I am lucky to get exposure in more than one area in such a short amount of time.
What is the hardest part about your job?
Definitely keeping up to date with all of the constantly evolving technology. I work in the center of two fields that are constantly maturing: artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. Although it is definitely a blessing that I get to continuously learn new things, it can be challenging focusing too much on one area without lagging behind in another.
As someone who began at Northrop Grumman as an intern, how does the company help nurture and develop young talent?
The culture at Northrop Grumman is rooted in continual learning. My intern experience here was the perfect mix of comfort and challenge. It was comforting to know that I was in a no-pressure environment and was encouraged to constantly learn through the summer. At the same time, it was challenging enough to keep me at the edge of my seat and push me every day to make as much of an impact as I could. These two experiences are extremely important in the world of cybersecurity. The problems we solve are incredibly complex and there will always be something we don't know. It can feel like a stressful job if you’re not in an environment that supports continual learning.
Also, I’m never hesitant to admit that I don’t understand something; in fact, it’s actually encouraged at any level. This mindset minimizes human error and builds confidence, which is integral in keeping up with the daily challenges of the field. Northrop Grumman also encourages continual learning by providing employees with workshops, certification trainings, and mentoring to help us obtain the skills we need to perform the best we can every day.
What advice do you have for young graduates pursuing a career in cybersecurity?
The most important part in pursuing a cybersecurity career is the willingness to learn the basics thoroughly. The biggest mistake you can make is jumping into the field without understanding the foundation of the technology you want to implement, protect, or ethically exploit. We not only have to understand the security basics, but also the basics in general. Before we ask ourselves how we can secure “x” we have to understand “x” in its entirety. In all, I would say if you are really interested in making a difference and being the best security professional you can be, you have to be dedicated to the journey. The granular details may not be relevant for some fields, but for cybersecurity they are everything.
What skills are necessary to have a successful career in cybersecurity?
The most important skills are to be diligent, analytical, and adventurous. Some days can be extremely overwhelming, so it’s important to be diligent and keep pushing through because the mission of protecting our nation is always worth it. Being analytical is an obvious factor in all cybersecurity professionals, whether you’re a penetration tester or a chief information security officer (CISO). We must always ask questions, do intelligent research, and pay attention to details. Last but not least, cybersecurity presents a range of challenges to the world on a daily basis. We have to be ready to accept these challenges by always being willing to dive in.
What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
“Say yes when new opportunities present themselves!” One of my mentors once told me to always take the risk of trying new things, even if they are opportunities you don’t think you will like. This is especially important early in your career when you have more of an ability to move around and explore your interests. You will never know what you like or don’t like unless you give it a shot. You may even discover hidden talents by expanding your skill set.