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Ask Molly: Innovation at CIA

February 3, 2021


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Dear Molly,

I’ll be graduating with an engineering degree in a few months and am really interested in joining the CIA, but I hear that most of the cutting-edge work in my field happens in the private sector. Is that true? What kind of opportunities would I have to innovate and create at CIA?

Feels Great to Innovate


Dear Feels Great to Innovate,

Firstly, congratulations on your upcoming graduation! The world needs talented engineers who can bring their knowledge and skills to bear in pursuit of solutions to the most complex and evolving challenges. It is refreshing to see so many young people—like you—who are drawn to apply those talents in a career with the federal government.

As someone who has a deep interest in CIA’s history, I chuckle when I hear people tell me that “real innovation happens in the private sector.” Don’t get me wrong, private sector innovation has been a game-changer in countless industries, and the world is better for their contributions. What I do take issue with, however, is the notion that the federal government doesn’t innovate, that bureaucracy is a killer of ingenuity. History tells us otherwise.

In the 1960s, researchers in CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T) created the (now commonplace) lithium iodine battery to improve the longevity and performance of surveillance equipment and reconnaissance satellites. Declassification of the technology led to drastic improvements in consumer manufacturing, most importantly in the medical and technology fields.

Similarly, in the early 2000s, technology that began as a way for intelligence officers to easily navigate and visualize large datasets would end up laying the groundwork for what would become Google Earth.

I won’t belabor the point here, but suffice to say that the federal government—and more specifically the CIA—has a long history of innovation that continues today. While I can’t really dive into the specifics of ongoing projects, I can tell you what CIA is doing to foster creativity and innovation that rivals some of the top companies in the private sector.

  • CIA Labs: In September 2020, CIA announced the launch of CIA Labs, a federal laboratory and in-house research and development arm created to drive science and technology innovation across the Agency. In addition to joining a network of over 300 federal labs, the mechanism will allow officers to obtain patents and licenses of any intellectual property they develop, earning above and beyond their government salaries.
  • Directorate of Digital Innovation (DDI): The newest of CIA’s five directorates, DDI can best be described as CIA’s engine of creativity. Officers working here are charged with deploying the tools and techniques needed to compete in a cyber-world. They are software developers, data engineers, applications developers and so much more.
  • MakerSpace: Yes, CIA has its very own MakerSpace, which I liken to an innovation playground where our tech wizards can let their imaginations run wild. Equipped with all the latest gadgets and tools, MakerSpace is a collaborative hub where officers can dream up solutions to our most complex problems.
  • In-Q-Tel: In-Q-Tel (IQT) is CIA’s venture capital firm which was created in 1999 to help identify private sector innovations that may be beneficial to CIA’s core mission. While CIA does push innovation in-house, it’s important for us to stay in-the-know of private sector innovation. That’s where IQT steps in; officers here work hard to identify those technologies which could be beneficial to CIA’s mission.

So, Feels Great to Innovate, what do you think? From where I’m sitting, it looks like there are plenty of opportunities to put that engineering degree to the test—all while advancing national security and maybe even making more money than you’d expect in government.

What are you waiting for? Check out some of our STEM openings here.


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