Col. Heather McGee relaxing with her family.
The work that Col. Heather McGee does is vital to America’s national security.
Col. McGee is the chief of the Cyberspace Strategy and Policy Division for the United States Air Force. In that capacity, she writes the policy governing the cyber networks that keeps U.S. troops safe during combat. Those cyber policies safeguard America’s computer communications from adverse actions while protecting valuable information systems.
“My job is all about preserving our national security and preventing our troops from being harmed,” says Col. McGee, who graduated in 1993 with a civil engineering degree. “It’s rewarding work and I feel that I am making a difference in helping to keep our country secure.”
In recognition of her work, during Alumni Weekend NJIT recently honored her with an Alumni Achievement Award. She was one of five successful graduates (Ehsanollah Bayat ’86, Harry Ettlinger ’50, Ramon Gonzalez ’09 and Bob Rossi ’67) to receive the award.
And this summer she'll begin a new job in the Air Force. She will be the ROTC commander and professor of Aerospace Studies at the University of Central Florida. It has one of the largest ROTC Air Force programs in the country, and she’ll train hundreds of cadets. It’s a new job and a new challenge and one she’s looking forward to. In this Q&A, she discusses her 23-year-long career in the Air Force.
Can you discuss what it was like to write the Air Force’s cyberspace strategy?
Generally speaking, I can say I managed a team whose mission was to develop the strategy and policy that helps to hinder our enemies’ capabilities in combat. By safeguarding our systems and networks, our troops both in the air and on the ground are more secure. It’s about protecting our information and network systems.
Where is your office?
My office is in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., but sometimes I’m called up to go into field. I spent a year, for instance, serving in Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014.
How did you join the Air Force?
At NJIT, I was part of the Air Force ROTC. I received an Air Force scholarship to attend NJIT, and after I graduated I was commissioned a second lieutenant. I’m now a Colonel and I held various jobs and titles over the years.
What was your first commission after you graduated from NJIT?
I was placed in nuclear missile command and control operations in North Dakota. We have underground silos there, and it was my job to ensure the safety of our nuclear missiles.
What do you enjoy about your work?
The people I work with. The military has a lot of great people and it also offers you opportunities to see a lot of different things and parts of the world. But what has kept me in for 23 years is the relationships and friendships I’ve made over the years.
Has being an engineer helped you in your work?
Engineering is the ability to solve problems. It’s looking at the big picture and being able to synthesize and analyze a lot of information and ideas and then make good decisions and sound strategies. An engineering degree gives you the critical thinking skills you need to do that. I always encourage young people to study engineering
What are your thoughts on gender?
I never saw gender as a help or a hindrance. The Air Force is working hard to promote gender equity, and I think that’s great. I know there are more men still in the STEM fields, but that will change since there are a lot of positive things happening in society to encourage girls to study STEM. I was lucky because I took advanced math and science in high school. I think high schools can do more to encourage girls to do that. We have a long way to go, but we are making progress with gender and STEM.
You have a family: Is it challenging being a mother in the military?
Yes, it is. For example in 2013, when my son was 2-years-old, I was deployed to Afghanistan for a year. And though I was happy to serve my country and keep our troops safe, it was really hard, as a mother, to leave my child for such a long period of time.
But you are starting a new job that will give you more stability, right?
I’ll still be in the Air Force but instead of developing cyberspace strategy and policy, I’ll be the ROTC commander at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. I’ll also be a professor of aerospace studies. I’m really looking forward to it. I clearly remember when I was a cadet at NJIT, and I think I’ll be able to identify with the cadets and train them well. And in four years, after they graduate, they will be the ones to safeguard our national security. So it’s a great honor for me to educate the next generation of Air Force officers.
By Robert Florida (firstname.lastname@example.org)