Engineering a career in the intelligence field

It’s a twisty path from chemical engineering to intelligence and analysis.

On this episode of Women of Washington, hosts Gigi Schumm and Aileen Black welcomed Teresa Smetzer, director of digital features and digital innovation at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Math and science are two subjects Smetzer said have always held a special place in her heart, though she said it wasn’t until she was older that she understood why. Her father was a college professor both at the University of Illinois and Ohio State University and he encouraged her to pursue her interests in those fields.

“I really grew up not understanding that my interest in math and science was atypical,” she said. “I always loved math and science and he encouraged that, and never made me feel like that was odd or unusual.”

Advertisement

In high school, she took to calculus and statistics very easily and her teachers noticed. Smetzer was in turn boosted up to community college-level math courses. As an undergrad at the University of Illinois, she wanted to major in a field that would use both math and science — she chose chemical engineering.

When a hands-on career didn’t appeal to Smetzer, she relocated and took on a job as an intelligence analyst in Washington, D.C. Her boyfriend at the time, and first husband, worked in the intelligence space and encouraged her to pursue the same.

“Ironically, it was an accident. I never intended to stay in the public sector, but I fell in love with the work and really thrived in that environment,” she said. “He was the one that said, ‘You really should try this. … I think you’d like it,’ and so, he encouraged me to apply and so that really was the whole kind of start of my journey.”

Before joining the public sector, Smetzer spent six or seven years in the engineering community. She said the work that she did as an engineer and the background she learned helps her in her current work to understand how things operate, and how better to use data and information.

“I really migrated at that point more toward the IT strategy business management side of intelligence,” she said. “And that really set me on course the last 20 years … [with] more management and leadership, and thinking about technology and data, and mission, and how do you align those.”

Smetzer encourages more young women to pursue careers in the STEM field, and has often acted as a mentor with the University of Texas’ engineering program. She said school programs often push students into a routinized type of career in engineering and she tries her best to show the students just how versatile the field can be.

“I’ve always supported women in science and engineering, especially early in my career to help with that mentoring,” she said. “With chemical engineering, there’s such a broad applicability, or any engineering for that matter.”

Some of the skills that have helped her in her career thus far (aside from the engineering) are her problem solving skills and ability to navigate through the politics. A lot of these skills came from her boss’ trust and mentoring.

“It was very unusual to have a young chemical engineer female in that environment,” she said. “And so he really helped me understand politically what was going on and how to navigate that in a way that was most beneficial for me professionally today.”W