On the defense
For more than a decade, John Marshall ’01 has channeled his Elon experience to protect the United States from cyber attacks.
By Kyra Gemberling ’14
It’s estimated U.S. military, intelligence, defense contractors and related networks are targeted for hacking hundreds of thousands of times every day. A quick look at the top headlines from the past few months shows just how much cyber threats are on the rise—from a malware attack that resulted in the theft of more than $100 million from the Bangladeshi central bank to the breach into the Democratic National Committee’s computer network by suspected Russian hackers seeking information on the U.S. presidential campaign.
While these might just be blips in the news cycle for most Americans, for Elon alumnus John Marshall ’01, these reports are an everyday concern. “Cyber threats are growing; easy-to-use tools can now inflict more damage with fewer resources,” says Marshall, who has worked for the National Security Agency since 2004. “Millions of times every day cyber adversaries approach our perimeters and test our defenses. The NSA partners with other U.S. government agencies, computer emergency response teams and industry leaders to detect, defend and ultimately prevent those attacks that can inflict severe damage to U.S. national security.”
Since joining the agency, Marshall, a double major in computer science and mathematics, has ascended in rank from a computer systems researcher to software developer to now head of product strategy and manager of software products. The details of his work are as secretive as they are important to the nation’s well-being. Though he’s prohibited from giving specifics, Marshall’s work has involved creating and monitoring cyber defense against foes looking to attack military networks. Despite having a resume that boasts a variety of international accomplishments, Marshall is most proud of his internal successes within the NSA. But when he looks back, Marshall counts his time at Elon as one of the most important stepping-stones to his long-term career success.
Carving out a path
After attending high school in Minnesota, Marshall wanted to go to a university on the East Coast in order to be closer to family. He was attracted to Elon because he could play Division I golf, graduate in no more than four years and have one-on-one access to professors due to the small class sizes.
Computer science wasn’t always his first choice. He started his first year thinking he would major in either psychology or philosophy. He took a computer science class his first semester, and after being the first person to finish the course’s final exam, former Elon professor Jonathan Berry pulled him aside to ask if he was interested in pursuing computer science instead. Berry soon became Marshall’s adviser, mapping out each semester with course recommendations and providing practical advice. The pair also worked together as a research team in the early years of Elon’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience program.
“I am so proud of John’s accomplishments and service in national security,” says Berry, who is now a principal member of technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories. “When we were both at Elon, he told me he wanted a career doing difficult things that require a high level of competence. This confidence and vision distinguished him as an undergraduate and has made him a top professional.”
After graduating from Elon, Marshall attended Florida State University to pursue a master’s degree in computer science. He was offered a scholarship for a graduate program funded by leading technology innovator Harris Corporation, where Marshall interned for a summer and worked for a year following his graduation from Florida State in 2003. But Marshall had his eye on bigger opportunities—at the time, his graduate program was one of only 10 in the nation formally recognized by the NSA. So from the time he started graduate school, Marshall’s intent was to start making connections and make himself competitive for a position within the NSA.
Eventually, his hard work paid off. While he was interning for Harris, NSA recruiters made a site visit, at which time Marshall’s graduate adviser introduced him as one of his best students. Soon, Marshall started receiving calls from NSA hiring managers to come in for an interview. Several months later, while Marshall was working full-time for Harris, he received a job offer. He stayed on at Harris for another four months to finish a final project, and then transitioned into his new role at the NSA in July 2004.
Pursuing new experiences
In his first position at the NSA, Marshall worked for three years in the research directorate as a computer systems researcher, applying his findings to operational groups that defend military cyber networks from attacks. But Marshall developed an interest in working more directly with customers, and in his next role served six years overseas as a software developer and software technical lead, designing and developing solutions for operational networks. After returning to the U.S. in fall 2013, Marshall transitioned to his current role, where he oversees different software product teams.
Tony Kurc, a technical director in mission capabilities at the NSA, has worked with Marshall for more than 10 years on many projects. Since both come from an academic background, Kurc says they have always meshed well. He adds that Marshall’s strong commitment to his work shined through when he first met him at a workshop focused on network defense—Marshall brought a powerful, yet hilariously named, tool called “NOSEHAIR” with him and trained attendees to use the program to achieve their own goals using various network defense techniques.
“It was impressive that he was able to synthesize the knowledge and be a keystone for the workshop activity,” Kurc says. “The end of the workshop had briefings from all participants, and largely due to John’s relentless knowledge sharing, almost every project had been influenced in some way by him. I’ve made it a point to work with John ever since.”
While Marshall has accomplished a great deal in his 12 years with the NSA, he sees much opportunity for him in the future. He aims to continue his efforts to help teams keep up with and adopt industry best practices. “In the technology arena, there are times when we can be so focused on what’s going on currently that we can lose sight of important trends within the industry,” Marshall says. “We’re working to really keep track of these changes and adopt new ideas in product management.” For instance, he is interested in learning from industry-tested approaches to anticipate customer needs and using those insights to inform the development of new products.
It’s a cross-disciplinary approach Marshall was first exposed to at Elon. “We work with people in a variety of different areas, so being able to understand those differences and work across those teams is something I learned how to do at Elon and continued to build on here.” Marshall says he would love to someday return to North Carolina. He adds he would like to grow into a senior technical lead position where he’s heading larger organizations of technical talent. “My focus is on building partnerships that are necessary for our organization to succeed,” he says. “Those partnerships may certainly exist beyond the grounds of the NSA—they exist throughout the U.S. at various government, academic and research organizations.
“The key is in understanding the bigger picture and working with others to meet the needs of our customers and the nation to provide security, no matter where it takes me.”