High assurance security work offers job security
As a kid growing up in Ballwin, Mo., Jon Rolf thought he might like to be an eye doctor or a dentist when he grew up, until one day it dawned on him that the profession might involve cutting — as in a razor sharp instrument on human flesh. He looked for new inspiration.
“Personal computers showed up when I was in high school,” said the 1988 University of Missouri graduate of electrical and computer engineering. “I found I enjoyed the problem-solving nature of computer programming.”
Rolf came to MU in 1986 as a transfer student from Rolla for the dual ECE major, Mizzou sports and a wider offering of classes. Additionally, both of his parents are alumni — Chris Rolf, DVM ’64, and Carol Mittenzwey Rolf, BSN ’63 — and his sister, Laurie Rolf Charow, BS BA’89, was attending MU at the time. Once on campus, he was introduced to fresh inspiration: telecommunications, computer architecture and programming and basic security principles.
At a job fair during his senior year, Rolf saw a job announcement from the National Security Agency (NSA) for a position in Washington, D.C., that required a polygraph and background check for employment consideration. “A lot of my friends were scared by the testing and background checks. It just seemed like a new adventure to me!” he said.
Rolf went to work for NSA in 1988 as an embedded software evaluator and quickly entered a three-year internship program to learn the information assurance mission area. He spent 10 years developing and supporting secure phones, and now serves as a trusted computing portfolio lead in the Department of Defense, working to develop secure computer platforms.
“As a portfolio lead, I get to look at new technologies, decide how we invest in them, initiate programs to address agency needs and propose how we might use them to execute our mission and protect national security systems. There’s never a lack of problems to solve,” Rolf said.
With new technological capabilities come new challenges. Rolf’s office relies heavily on industry — from market leaders to small start-ups — to develop technologies that will protect data, imagery and telecommunications. His office funds research and development and hosts Industry Days so that developers understand the direction NSA is headed and where they might help.
It frustrates Rolf that when budgets shrink, security — not a revenue generator — is the first thing companies cut.
“A dangerous current practice is risk management where companies are willing to trade-off data losses as long as it is cheaper than solving the problem. We are investing significantly in new technologies that could help solve problems before such catastrophic decisions are made,” said Rolf.
On a individual user level, trusted identities, single e-mail addresses and protected data are fundamental social challenges that Rolf’s team considers daily.
“People want to be anonymous, but also want security,” he said. “That’s a tough call but at the end of the day, fielding a new capability that solves a problem and meets a user’s requirement is what makes my job rewarding.”
Rolf’s wife, Sara, and children, Ashley and David, are what make his life outside of work rewarding. The entire family greatly enjoys living in the Washington, D.C. area.
“There’s so much to do and so much that’s close by — the ocean, the mountains, New York City, Philadelphia — and the history is awesome,” said Rolf.
Career engineer profile
What fond memories do you have of your days as a student in the College of Engineering?
My fondest memories would be the interactions in and out of class and the close working relationships with classmates. Most of my learning occurred in the group study sessions we had before tests and labs. We also did our share of celebrating after the tests were over!
I would never trade the games at Faurot Field or the Hearnes Center. We didn’t win any championships, but we had a lot of fun.
What professor or class most influenced you, and how?
I always loved computers, and given that focus, the classes in digital logic, computer architecture and computer programming were my favorites, especially Microcomputer Architecture and the Digital Design lab. I had a blast building and programming the 8-bit controller.
What do you consider the greatest achievements of your career so far?
I was responsible for managing development of the first handheld secure cellular phone and the secure Iridium handset program, and I established a program to develop a trusted workstation for accessing multiple classified networks using current commercial trusted computing technology.
What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
My hobby is roller coasters and amusement parks. I’ve ridden over 100 different roller coasters. There’s something about the speed, height, and thrill that draws me in. I also enjoy video games and traveling. With work, I’ve been able to travel all over the U.S.— including Hawaii — and Europe, sometimes with my family.
What is your best advice for engineering students?
When I entered engineering school back in 1984, I didn’t even know what NSA was. My advice is keep all your options open and be open for new opportunities. Look for opportunities to intern. Make sure you have a well-rounded background — getting an MBA here in Maryland was so valuable to my career. Learn presentation skills because the ability to present and communicate your position is vital to career progression. Never stop learning. There are so many new technologies that it’s hard to keep up, but keep reading, attending conferences, and training.