There’s an easy way to gauge whether you love your job. Just ask Ellen McCarthy.
“I wake up every morning and can’t wait to see the folks who make up our great team,” says McCarthy, vice president of the national security and intelligence group for the Falls Church, Virginia-based nonprofit research corporation Noblis. “My excitement comes from working at a place — a Washington Post top places to work — where people truly enjoy working together to grow our impact on our clients’ missions.”
That benchmark guides McCarthy as she helps Noblis and its advanced research-and-development solutions on behalf of the intelligence community, as well as the Defense Department and law enforcement customers. Having previously served in government, most recently as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s plans and programs director, McCarthy feels just as strong a sense of mission and purpose on the private sector side.
“I think we are in a far different place now, in 2018, where you don’t only have to be in government to be as passionate about the mission,” says McCarthy, who got her start as a submarine analyst with the Office of Naval Intelligence, before moving on to greater leadership positions with the U.S. Atlantic Command, U.S. Coast Guard, Office of Under Secretary of Defense Intelligence, Intelligence and National Security Alliance, and finally, with the NGA, before coming to Noblis in November 2015. The dedication to the mission of enhancing national security, McCarthy says, remains just as strong.
“Working for a not-for-profit is also very public mission-focused because we don’t have competing corporate priorities that could create conflicts of interest,” McCarthy says.
“Our employees supporting our cyber line of business, for example, are tasked with protecting our nation’s critical infrastructure — these people are as passionate about their jobs as it relates to national security as I was as a submarine analyst for the Navy.”
That passion for mission continues to guide McCarthy as she leads the Noblis national security and intelligence portfolio along two main lines of business: cyber and special intelligence programs.
On the cyber side, that work encompasses cyber threat-hunting and intelligence. The nonprofit’s development of open source and advanced data analytics capabilities, which incorporate machine learning technologies, underpin those efforts. That focus, in turn, supports Noblis customers at DOD, as well as within the intelligence and law enforcement communities.
“I couldn’t be more proud of what our team does every day,” McCarthy says. “We are developing, in the cyber space, advanced technical capabilities that our customers can only get from a nonprofit that makes a significant investment in R&D — that will change the intelligence landscape.”
That significant investment takes center stage at Noblis’ headquarters — a “state-of-the-art facility,” as McCarthy calls it, where the organization moved in January 2017.
“It is very open, very collaborative,” says McCarthy, noting an expansive display of labs, encased by glass, which comprise the first floor. Among the research facilities — roughly 10 in all — is an internet of things lab, where visitors may easily spot drones flying around on any given day.
“It’s not hard to get excited by all of this,” says McCarthy, citing additional R&D focus areas for Noblis NSP such as high-performance computing, data analytics, cyber operations, web development, geospatial technology, and biometrics with facial recognition. “We’ve made significant investments in developing technologies and capabilities in these areas as well.”
Among those capabilities is BioPortal, an in-depth, online, collaborative resource geared toward colleagues in academia, government and the private sector. The resource offers the capability of easily exploring the nonprofit’s advanced bioinformatics research and tools. McCarthy’s team has also expanded its presence in agencies focused on providing new capabilities to the intelligence community.
For McCarthy, that focus on collaboration — and the special place it holds in advancing the needs of the intelligence community, in particular — isn’t limited to the walls of Noblis.
McCarthy is equally passionate about fostering collaboration through side ventures such as the “Amazing Women of the IC” — a grassroots organization McCarthy calls “near and dear to my heart.” What began as an idea sparked by an impromptu conversation with industry colleague Karen Diener at a conference, has since gone from informal gatherings of a few dozen women in McCarthy’s living room, to more than 550 members who meet on a regular basis. While the group’s initial focus was on reverse mentoring, it has since grown into so much more, McCarthy says.
“This group is a place [for members]to share their worries and celebrate their achievements, and I’m just so proud of this,” says McCarthy, who, in addition to Diener, credits industry colleagues Tish Long, Carmen Medina and Megan McNair in ensuring the group recently marked its two-year anniversary. “This is all volunteers, we don’t have staff — it just shows you how much something like this is needed,” McCarthy says.
While balancing a larger commitment to the intelligence community, McCarthy is just as busy implementing Noblis NSP objectives for the year ahead.
“You hear about algorithmic warfare and how the intelligence community is going to leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to do its mission — these are programs that we’ve made investments in for many, many years,” McCarthy says. “So we have a lot of lessons that we can share with our partners, in terms of introducing capabilities that will help analysts in the intelligence community do their jobs better, as well as offer them more freedom to think creatively about tackling problems.”
That focus sustains McCarthy as she looks to the year ahead.
“You are going to see our footprint expand, as Noblis enhances [its]impact on our clients’ national security and intelligence [missions],” McCarthy says. “That is definitely a top priority.”