Women’s History Month Spotlight: PDDNI Sue Gordon
In honor of Women’s History Month, ODNI.gov sat down with Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon, the highest ranking woman serving in the U.S. Intelligence Community.
Read PDDNI Gordon’s responses to learn more about how she got started in the IC, find out what she enjoys most about her work, and hear her advice for young women beginning their professional careers.
Tell us about your background (where you are from, education, etc.)
I’m the third child of a naval officer. I was born in Knoxville, TN, (my parent’s hometown) while my dad was on some deployment. I spent my youth moving every year and a half, driving across the country sitting in the middle of the back seat, as we bounced between coasts. I was pretty nerdy, but mostly a jock when it wasn’t as cool for girls to be jocks. I went to Duke where I learned to think, developed strong, lasting friendships, and met the love of my life. I studied zoology because it is one of the fundamental sciences and a great point of departure for any technical discipline. Oh, and I played ball.
How did you get started in the Intelligence Community?
I signed up for an on-campus interview with the CIA my junior year. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to pursue a PhD in biomechanics or go to law school, so I figured I should get a job. My dad and Stan Turner (then CIA Director) were best buds from their time on Robert McNamara’s Systems Analysis Staff, and Stan thought I’d be a great ops officer. So I applied, got offered a job as a Soviet Biological Warfare Analyst—which I never became because by the time I was cleared, the position had been eliminated—changed to being a Soviet satellite telemetry analyst and the rest is history.
Describe a project that you were a part of that you really enjoyed.
Oh my gosh, so so many. I think all the “first” things I’ve gotten to do have to be my favorites—and, offering advice here, if you ever get asked to do something that’s never been done before, say “yes!” Probably in the summer of 1998 when I was asked to figure out how to get CIA access to the innovation engine that was/is Silicon Valley and I came up with the idea that is today, In-Q-Tel. Now 20 years old, and having delivered some amazing capability to the world and the IC, I am still in awe that the Agency was bold enough to try it because in 1998 it was revolutionary, that we delivered it from tasking to incorporation in seven months, and that it is today almost as we imagined. The project was awesome, but I keep it as a reminder that we can do really big, really revolutionary things.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
I love what we do: keep America safe. I am genetically encoded to be a public servant, and I am inspired every day to be worthy of our mission, our Community, and our women and men. I love that we deal with possibility—it satisfies my insatiable curiosity. “What if we could?” is one of my favorite questions. I love that, in my experience, the IC believes it can do anything, and then figures out what solutions it must find to make it so. Finally, I love this perch atop the Community because from my vantage point there are no boundaries standing in the way of delivering on our imagination—only partnership and work.
What advice do you have for young women at the beginning of their professional careers?
Three things: don’t decide ahead of time what you can’t do—try it, and if it doesn’t work, be the first to admit it and find a different path; be good and learn to make decisions—A or B, right or wrong, start or stop, decisions impel progress and decision-makers are rare and valued; and trust yourself more than you trust the system—though you have to account for the system. OK, one more, the key to happiness is believing you have choice—the key to success is understanding there are consequences, and you don’t control those.
What is a book you recommend?
So many, so many, but today I’ll choose “The Hard Thing about Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. It’s the story of being a founding CEO and how hard it is, how many will tell you you’re doing it wrong, and how if it’s messy, uncertain, and you’re a minute away from giving up, you’re probably doing it right. And, being a reader is key to critical thinking, to making decisions, and to being a fabulously entertaining dinner guest. So, take time for this—even if it has to be an audio book.
What do you enjoy doing away from the office?
I prefer doing everything with my family over anything without my family, including my 130-lb Swissie puppy. And, I love sports—now watching more than playing, though the day will come again. It’s the quest, the competition, and the uncertainty of outcome that draws me to any game. Plus, I really do love to sweat. There’s something awesome about being physically tired.
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