Aaron J. Ferguson’s experience as the protective eldest of four siblings seems to have served him well in his 22-year employment with the National Security Agency. Now fulfilling technical duties as a senior executive
technical director in the Encryption Solutions Office of NSA’s Capabilities Directorate, he is still a vital National Security System (NSS) protector, working with a large team of STEM and other professionals to design and develop secure,
interoperable communications to support U.S. warfighters and mitigate cyber and other threats to the nation, all the while ensuring the Fourth Amendment rights of U.S. citizens aren’t violated.
 
Ferguson joined NSBE as an undergraduate at Howard University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering in 1987, and went on to earn a master’s degree in operations research from the University of New Haven
(in Connecticut) and a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in applied mathematics, measurement and statistics from the University of Delaware. He talked with us last fall about his career and the importance of NSBE in his life. 
 
We saw a little bit of your background online. You grew up in Brooklyn, New York?
 
Yes.
 
What did your parents do for a living?
 
Both of my parents are deceased…. My father was an accountant, and my mother was a health care administrator.
 
Were they college graduates?
 
My mother was. My father was not.
 
When you were growing up, did you expect to attend college one day?
 
Yes, I did, absolutely.
 
From a very early age?
 
Pretty much. I read a lot, and I grew an affinity for Thurgood Marshall. He was a lawyer, so I knew I was going to be a lawyer, too. That was the plan. Howard wasn’t one of my first choices for college, because I did not know a lot about
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) back then, but it was definitely on my list, since Thurgood went to Howard Law School.
 
I’m surprised to hear you say that. I thought you were going to say that you were good in math, that like a lot of engineers you liked to take things apart and find out how they worked….
 
Yeah. Not really…. I went to a science and engineering high school in Brooklyn, Brooklyn Technical High School. In middle school, I was a big fish in a small pond, and when I got to high school, I was a little fish in a big pond. So I had to work
really, really hard. I didn’t necessarily like math and science; I just happened to be good at it. And my guidance counselor kind of advised me to pursue that. I wanted to be a lawyer, and he said, “You know you can make $27,000 a year as
an engineer?” I was like, “Wow! I want to make that kind of money.” This was a very long time ago.
 
At some point I imagine you developed an affinity for engineering.
 
Yeah, probably about junior year in high school….
 
I’m wondering whether your language skills, or your affinity for language — which I’m assuming that you had since you desired to be a lawyer — has helped you in your career as a technical director. Has that combination of the engineering training and the language ability helped you in your professional career?
 
English was always my best subject, even much better than math, and I used to read a lot. My father took my sister and me to the library every Saturday when we were smaller, and we would probably bring home no less than 10 books every
week. So I did a lot of reading, and I really liked reading anything that had to do with espionage, mysteries and anything that had to do with law. And so I think I gained a quick competency for reading comprehension. Then in high school I was
in honors English, and I had some really passionate teachers. So I was good in math, but I really, really liked English. So I think it prepared me to pursue a career in engineering. But I think the environment at Howard University (You Know!),
kind of nurtured that.
 
You said NSBE played a very important part in your life. Can you tell us about that?
 
NSBE is very, very important to me…. Back when I was in undergrad, I was really at a crossroads, probably (during) my sophomore year. I was going to actually change my major to something not engineering, e.g., actuarial science, because I
was not doing well, and I was pretty frustrated. A friend of mine suggested that I go to the NSBE regional conference (at Duke University)…. Howard is right across town from George Washington University (GWU), so the GW students and the
Howard students all rode on a bus together (to the conference). It was really enlightening, and I came back from that regional conference really energized and refocused, because I saw so many examples of students who knew how to study,
students who were doing well. And that experience got me back on track, and it helped me kind of stick it out.
So NSBE has a special place in my heart, because if I didn’t go to that regional, I probably would have changed my major.
 
Very few black people get bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields, and even fewer get advanced degrees. You have your doctorate. What made you different?
 
Well, to be honest, I didn’t really have a lot of confidence in my ability to get a doctorate, because I was an average student in undergrad. Getting my master’s degree was a really, really good experience, and it kind of increased my self-
confidence. I said, “If I can do the master’s, I can definitely do a Ph.D.”
 
What can you tell us about your work with the NSA? I’m sure a lot of it you can’t
discuss. 
 
What I can tell about my work is that we (work to) make sure that any foreign threats to the United States are mitigated, primarily in the cyber realm. You know, the CIA is more the human intelligence. The National Security Agency is more the
signals intelligence. So we deal with very technical signals, things of that nature. For the most part, NSA is a combat support agency. So we make sure that the military has the information that they need to make sure that they’re successful
in combat and that their communications are secure and interoperable…. So that’s kind of what I do. As a senior executive, I don’t do much hands-on work, but I have a lot of intelligence analysts, mathematicians, data scientists, computer
scientists and engineers that do these tasks. They don’t work directly for me, but they work in my organization.
 
I read about your work in policy analysis on the University of Delaware website.
Is that still something you do?
 
I’m working on a lot of policy issues that impact technical execution, if that makes sense. For example, we have technologies that allow us to do a lot of correlations between people, places and things in the context of “bad guys.” However, if we
have any inkling that the information we process may have a United States person’s information in it, we have to make sure that we purge it of (that person’s information). So that’s a very serious thing, and there are certain policies that
(govern the process)…. I think people really take the Fourth Amendment for granted, but it really gives them a lot of protections that prevent technology from just going wild, at least as it pertains to an intelligence agency.
 
It sounds like you’re getting close to your original career pursuit, which was the law.
 
(laughs) Yeah…you’re right, I’d never really thought of it like that.
 
How diverse is your current workplace?
 
Very diverse in terms of ethnicity, in the aggregate. We have hundreds and
hundreds of different types of jobs. But as you get into the math, science and
engineering jobs, we have room for improvement in terms of females in some of
the manager and leadership jobs. We have an equality office, which has as its
mission making sure that inclusion and diversity are mission imperatives and
enablers. We have a whole (group) of people and resources committed to this.
Just from my observations, over the last five years, we have made diversity and
inclusion a priority. And it’s not just been lip service: it’s really been put into
action.