‘I Gained The Tools To Be Successful’

Hacking for Defense alum-turned-CISA employee shares how course made a difference for her future

Alex Gallo

May 30, 2023

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles looking at the latest progress of the Hacking for X series of academic classes. Find earlier articles here

Hacking for Defense (H4D), the national academic course that is changing how critical national security challenges are addressed, gives students skills and insights that not only inspire public service involvement, but also translate directly to careers in the public sector. 

For Claire Casalnova, an H4D alum from Rochester Institute of Technology, the course gave her important skills for thriving in her job at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). She shared her journey through the course and its impact on her work in the public sector at a recent Congressional briefing the Common Mission Project hosted to showcase the progress of H4D and its sister classes. 

At RIT, where Claire pursued a BS/MS in Computer Science and Computing Security, she took H4D in 2021 while working as an intern at CISA. Her H4D team originally looked to address the National Geospatial Agency problem of how to make satellite imagery analysis less laborious and time-consuming for analysts. 

Coming into the class, neither she nor her team had in-depth understanding of satellite imagery so they took time for intensive customer discovery. They quickly learned their biggest challenges would come from factors beyond their control and would lead them into a demanding but developmental semester.

Claire Casalnova shares her journey through Hacking for Defense at a recent Congressional briefing.

Building a determined spirit and creative responses to problems

Early in the semester, Claire’s team experienced the fundamental realities of real-world problem-solving. Bureaucratic hurdles and other challenges forced them to pivot their focus and apply their newfound understanding of satellite imagery in a different realm: natural disaster prediction. 

“After brainstorming, our team realized that if satellite images are used for weather and fire, we can make this useful for NOAA, FEMA, the USDA or other like-minded organizations. We took our setback and turned it into a positive,” she explained.  

Her team devised a proposal for creating a natural disaster prediction algorithm, which thrilled  the problem sponsor with its ingenuity and potential. That experience taught her that grit and determination always pay off in the face of daunting challenges. Claire now brings those traits to work every day at CISA.

Sharpened skills for a successful career

Claire is now a Cybersecurity IT Specialist for CISA at the Department of Homeland Security, a role she earned following her graduation and internship. She is able to trace specific skills she relies on daily directly back to the H4D course. These include developing and providing presentations, conducting robust discovery interviews, and learning how to accept feedback. Communicating effectively continues to define her daily work. She relies on the presentation skills she honed in H4D to effectively engage clients and DHS leadership. Within the workplace, she regularly pitches projects to her senior leadership to gain their buy-in. 

“Taking H4D allowed me to converse with a number of individuals in government through the beneficiary discovery process. Through this, my team and I learned the language of government and how the government operates. These interviews helped our team learn how to communicate like a government employee,” she said.

A two-way benefit

Now that she works as a federal employee, Claire can look at H4D and the other Hacking4 classes through a different lens than that of a student. She recognizes the benefit of involving students in government problems goes both ways. 

“Students love gaining real-world experience with industry and agencies, but the program is invaluable for agencies themselves. They gain students with fresh ideas to attack their problems that may have been a struggle for many years. They bring a new mindset and perspective to it,” she said.

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