The National Security Agency is doggedly courting laid-off Big Tech workers as the spy agency undertakes one of its largest hiring surges in the last 30 years.
The NSA began privately reaching out to Big Tech employees over LinkedIn last fall, as word spread that major American companies such as Meta and Amazon were bleeding tens of thousands of skilled workers.
NSA talent management senior strategist Christine Parker said the spy agency also saw predictions of more job cuts, and sprung into action.
“NSA started reaching out through LinkedIn, through some of our career boards, specifically sending messages to people that we thought might be linked to some companies that either were in the news saying they are going to lay-off or were predicted to be laid off,” Ms. Parker said in an interview. “Just kind of let them know that we’re here and that we have this robust, ongoing hiring program.”
Using the social platform LinkedIn in tandem with job boards such as Glassdoor and Indeed, plus tech message boards like Stack Overflow, the agency saw nearly 30,000 people clicked on the NSA’s overtures and about 2,000 people applied, Ms. Parker said.
The NSA is currently hiring 3,000 new employees to work across the country, from the D.C.-area to Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Texas and Utah, according to Molly Moore, NSA deputy director of workforce support activities.
The NSA declined to say how much taxpayer money is allotted for the hiring effort. Total spending on the intelligence community for fiscal 2022 was $89.8 billion.
Meta said in November it would shed 11,000 workers and freeze hiring. Amazon said last month it would eliminate more than 18,000 jobs, and Google’s parent company said in January it would cut about 12,000 positions. Other large tech companies have similarly announced layoffs for thousands of employees, and additional cuts are expected this year.
Ms. Moore, who has spent several decades at the NSA, said the agency’s pitch to Big Tech workers involves promoting job security and the opportunity to try different things. She said she started as a Farsi linguist before working in other parts of the agency, including the cybersecurity directorate.
“We certainly offer stability, and that’s what’s really kind of front of mind for a lot of people these days in the wake of these layoffs,” Ms. Moore said. “But we offer amazing missions, things that people can’t do in private sector companies for the most part. This is not just a job, it’s a mission.”
The NSA is also looking to change its image from having a buttoned-up culture known for the smirking moniker “No Such Agency” to a much more permissive environment.
NSA cybersecurity director Rob Joyce has deployed the slogan of “you do you” in Twitter posts encouraging people to apply for work. He noted that previous marijuana use is no longer prohibitive for employment, but ongoing drug use would be unacceptable.
When one Twitter user noted that Mr. Joyce was replying to an anonymous user with a pink teddy bear in January, Mr. Joyce took the chance to deploy his it-takes-all-kinds mantra.
“NSA is actually a place that embraces diversity,” Mr. Joyce said on Twitter. “I’m definitely down with pink teddy bears.”
A pink teddy bear yes, a Cozy Bear no. Cozy Bear is a hacking group connected to Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service that the Biden administration said was responsible for the Solarwinds hack breaching federal agencies’ computer networks, discovered in 2020.
Russia’s hackers are in the market for tech workers too, despite economic sanctions. One sanctioned cybersecurity firm’s annual hacker conference in Russia grew from 500 attendees in 2011 to 8,700 attendees in 2022 after COVID pandemic restrictions were lifted, according to a Brookings Institution report in January. The Positive Hack Days event appears to be one of several gatherings facilitating recruitment for Russia’s intelligence services, according to Brookings.
Ms. Moore said the NSA’s attention to Big Tech workers was not intended to prevent them from finding employment elsewhere, including with foreign governments. She also noted that the NSA had a demand for Russian and Chinese language analysts.
More than half of the NSA’s 3,000 open positions are for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics work. The spy agency, which is focused on signals intelligence collection, is in the market for data and computer scientists, software engineers, cybersecurity experts, human-machine teaming experts, and mathematicians, according to NSA director of operations Natalie Lang.
The NSA’s hiring needs are similar to some tech companies. Bill Driscoll, senior district president of the Washington-area firm Robert Half, handles technology staffing in the northeast and midwest U.S. and said he sees companies hiring for cybersecurity professionals, front- and back-end developers, and user-experience and user-interface designers.
He has spotted government agencies looking to hire in his regions of expertise, and he thinks some of the Big Tech companies “got over their skis” in terms of headcount during the COVID pandemic.
“On the one hand it’s cyclical, but on the other hand the pandemic has changed things and the nature of conflict has changed in cyber,” Mr. Driscoll said of the churn of tech workers away from business and into government.
As the NSA competes for Big Tech talent, its major opponents may be midsize employers offering hybrid work, rather than hostile adversaries or foreign businesses.
While the biggest tech companies have shed workers, staffing firm Robert Half said an overwhelming majority, 70%, of managers at midsize technology companies it surveyed are looking to expand and add new positions in the first half of 2023, according to data the firm compiled in October and November 2022. The firm defines midsize companies as those with annual revenues between $50 million and $1 billion.