Misadventures in Teaching —
Surprising NSA Clothing Standards
Teaching Cybersecurity to the National Security Agency
Around 2000 I was asked if I would teach a course to a group from the NSA. Yes, that sounds interesting, potentially a challenge, but I think you're asking me about the wrong course. There must be a couple of transposed digits in the course number. Don't you mean the firewall course instead of the very introductory first course on computer and network security? No, they really want the introductory course. They said they have some people who still need that.
I took the job, and found that yes, they do have a number of people who need the introductory course. A manager who sat in on the first or second course I taught for them took me aside before the start of the first day and said "Look, one big problem we know we have as an agency is that we are very isolated from the outside world. Many of our employees don't know what people really do, either the good guys or the bad guys. So, please give them plenty of practical real-world examples."
That was very helpful. Off I went, teaching introductory cybersecurity to an agency for whom "Security" is quite literally their middle name. A later episode really highlighted the isolation and the need for the very introductory material.
Things were going OK, then I had a week where one of the attendees gave the course an awful evaluation. She gave the course the next-to-worst possible score, and me, the instructor, the very worst possible.
Let me look at the evaluation form, maybe she got mixed up while filling in the little circles and accidentally said the opposite of what she meant.
Hmmm. There's a lot of furious scribbling in the space for comments.
A bit of background before going on: It had been impressed upon me that I needed to dress nicely to teach these courses. So, I had gone out and purchased five white long-sleeved dress shirts. Those plus dark dress pants and some colorful neckties should make me the well-dressed instructor.
Here's what I found in that furiously scribbled comment block:
The instructor wore the same color of shirt
Therefore, I was unable to determine if they
really were different shirts!
This is completely unacceptable!!
Well, that was the first time for that specific complaint. And so far, the last.
Goodwill received five white dress shirts, and I bought a collection of dress shirts in bold and obviously differing colors.
If I'm teaching a course with open enrollment where I suspect someone from NSA or one of their contractors might be in the room, I make sure to tell them this story and point out the varying color of my shirts.