Interview with Jackie Morin on her journey from intern to senior engineer

Cameron Boozarjomehri (Left) and Jackie Morin (Right). Photo: Jefferson (Holden) Dinerman

Interviewer: Cameron Boozarjomehri

Welcome to the latest installment of the Knowledge-Driven Podcast. In this series, Software Systems Engineer Cameron Boozarjomehri interviews technical leaders at MITRE who have made knowledge sharing and collaboration an integral part of their practice. 

Jackie Morin is a Senior Software Engineer whose journey at MITRE started when she was a high school intern. Now she guides new interns as they journey from academia to industry! Enjoy a discussion on what it takes to be an intern (and employee) here at MITRE, as well as the steps MITRE is taking to pave the way for future employees. It’s an exploration of excellence at all levels.

Click below to listen to podcast:


Podcast Transcript
Cameron: 00:14 Hello everyone, and welcome to MITRE’s Knowledge-Driven Podcast, a show where we talk to engineers all over MITRE. Today, I am joined by the incredibly talented and unfortunately leaving our department, Jackie Morin. I understand you’re a software engineer.
Jackie: 00:26 Yes, I am.
Cameron: 00:28 You carry a much bigger mantle within this department. You, for the longest time, were both the hiring manager and intern coordinator for, I believe, Software Solutions is the more or less title of this department.
Jackie: 00:41 Yup. Software Solutions and Technologies.
Cameron: 00:44 It’s a name that seems to change with the tides.
Jackie: 00:46 Yeah.
Cameron: 00:47 It’s fair to have a hard time locking it down, but before you left, I really wanted to get a chance to talk to you because I have had so much respect for the incredible work you do, not just being a talented software engineer, but finding us talent for our intern program, new hires.
Jackie: 01:03 Thank you. It’s a part of a much larger team effort, but thank you still.
Cameron: 01:07 The reason I wanted to talk to you today was, since you’re leaving, I thought it was important to get your perspective because you are yourself a product of the intern program. You started with MITRE as an intern, joined the official MITRE ranks as a full-time employee and have done nothing but excellent work the entire time.
Jackie: 01:23 Thank you, yeah. I actually started off as an intern in what was J85A at the time, and now after multiple reorgs is T851, and they’re a department that’s spread out over a couple of sites. I started off as a mentee, so I actually came in through a high school program. After my mentorship ended, I asked if I could apply to be an actual intern and was given an offer to come intern, and did that every summer and winter break through all of college.
Cameron: 01:56 See, that’s what I love about this is MITRE’s always looking for talent at all levels at all ages. It’s not like we’re just waiting for the best software engineer to come out of, I don’t know, university or wherever. It’s…we’re cultivating talent. We’re looking for bright young talent like you who can come in and be like, “I was good in high school. Imagine what I’m going to be like after I graduate college.”
Jackie: 02:16 Yeah, and like, even right now in our department, we have interns who are, I have an intern who’s a sophomore in high school, and that’s not uncommon. Some people will shy away from that. You know, in all honesty, even when we were doing our interviews and we saw a couple of high schoolers’ resumes come across our desk, we were a little hesitant because sometimes it can be a little bit more hand holding just because high schoolers have normally almost no professional experience and they’re just learning. Right? They’re just starting out.
Jackie: 02:44 But, we interview this high school student and he blew us away. I mean, just absolutely blew us away. We were like, “Well, this is an easy choice. I mean, it’s a no brainer.” We don’t, by any means, have a cap on like, “Oh, you need to be in college. Oh, you need to be, you know, somebody who we can convert to a full-time hire next month or next year.” We can easily take talent from high school and build it up.
Cameron: 03:10 I feel like I’ve worked at a lot of places where they were always looking for talent, but there was never this formal pipeline. In this context, it’s beautiful to see that we have a game plan. That’s the other thing is, I have to say this definitely comes down to each department.
Jackie: 03:26 Yeah, and that’s what’s really interesting about MITRE is that, just from my experience, it almost feels like every department is kind of run entirely on its own. I think that it’s one of those things where, you know, it’s so unique that it’s kind of hard because sometimes people will be like, “Oh, how does MITRE hire?” I’m like, it depends. Right? That’s the biggest answer that I have to give people whenever I’m doing any sort of career fair or just talking to people outside of MITRE about MITRE, is, it depends.
Cameron: 03:52 Yeah, I’ve definitely, when I applied to MITRE I think I applied for the role of data scientist, and then became a software engineer because that was where the opportunity actually was. The funny thing was, when you are applying to MITRE, it’s the weirdest thing. It’s like, you will be hired for a position, but that in almost no way inhibits your ability to do other work. I am doing all sorts of different research and work, and I’m pretty sure most of it was not intended for a software engineer.
Jackie: 04:21 That’s actually one of the biggest points that I touch on anytime I do recruiting. I’ve gone to a lot of career fairs with MITRE now because I went to the University of Virginia. Nobody can see it, but you can see my water bottle with the UVA logo on it.
Cameron: 04:36 Really great for podcasting, is visual.
Jackie: 04:39 Yeah, exactly. But anyways, I went to UVA and now I help coordinate all of the career fairs that we do down at UVA. There’s fall career fair and the spring career fair, so in going to all of these I’ve really kind of started to develop my schpiel, I guess you could say, about MITRE. Right? Because, after shaking like 50 hands at the booth, and that would [be] say only in like an hour, you eventually develop kind of a pattern of what you talk about.
Jackie: 05:06 I think it’s a really good idea, and honestly, as a side note, I would encourage anybody, especially early career hires to go back to their alma mater and reach out to MITRE’s recruiting team and say, “Hey, do we do any career fairs at my Alma Mater? If so, could I attend one?” Because I’ll have to say this, that one of the things that’s made me appreciate my job the most has come from going out and recruiting. Because, when you’re going out to recruit for MITRE, a lot of times whether you intend to or not, or whether you know what you’re getting into or not, you end up kind of sitting there and like giving a schpiel and talking about like, “This is why I love MITRE.” Because a lot of people, MITRE’s biggest problem when it comes to recruiting in my opinion, is just name brand recognition. Right? It’s just like, people understanding who we are, what we do.
Jackie: 05:54 You know, typically after we go down to UVA, if we talk about MITRE and we talk about this is what it’s like to work here, this is what it’s like in terms of your flexibility and your ability to change careers without changing companies, people are just amazed. But, the really cool thing about going down and doing a career fair is that it makes you kind of have a moment where you sit down, you have to figure out a concrete list of like, why do I love my job? Why do I love this company?
Cameron: 06:19 I think that’s actually an excellent point to make, because the great thing about, I would say most of the hiring is, at a lot of companies, it’s an HR thing. Right?
Jackie: 06:30 Yep.
Cameron: 06:30 It’s like HR is told, “We want a software engineer, this is the req,” whatever.
Jackie: 06:35 Yeah.
Cameron: 06:35 But, when you’re in the pipeline, when you’re the person actively looking for the new talent and you are a software engineer who knows what kind of things that people actually deal with, it makes it, I wouldn’t say easier, but you become more effective at saying, “Yeah, you have these credentials, but a real successful software engineer knows that you need to stick with it,” and being able to just have an eye for those more, I guess, human elements in addition to just, “Yes, you should know what C code is,” or, “yes, you should know a Java is.” I think that plays a very big part into finding effective talent.
Jackie: 07:07 Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. Like I said, when I graduated from college, I did the full job search and went to a ton of companies in the northern Virginia area, and actually all over the country, just to kind of see, you know, hey, what’s out there. You could tell the difference between companies like MITRE where the actual people who do the job are recruiting for that position, versus they have an HR team that’s recruiting for their company. It feels so much more distant. Whereas, when you actually have the people who do that job every day talking about it and selling it, it feels so much more welcoming and inviting and you actually feel like, “Oh, I got a good idea of what a typical day in the life is like.”
Cameron: 07:49 It gives you that confidence that when you start, this person knows exactly what’s going to happen and they hired me expressly because in some way, they know that either I fit this bill or I can be trained to fit this bill.
Jackie: 08:01 Yeah.
Cameron: 08:02 That’s actually something I want to learn more about from you is, as a person who started as a high school intern and went all the way up to your current position now being responsible for other engineers at all levels, what was your journey like and how do you think that your journey starting in high school helped you, not just working with other engineers but also working with people outside of the company or sponsors and all the other elements?
Jackie: 08:26 I guess let me back up all the way to where I started. Like I said, I was a mentee for a while, and just to give some, I guess, insight into my world, when I started working with MITRE, I was a senior in high school. I was by no stretch of the imagination the person who was going home every day and coding in their bedroom. I was just not that person. I was kind of thrown into this environment that was just so new to me.
Jackie: 08:57 It was so interesting. I had taken one computer programming course in my whole life, in which our professor taught us … I guess our professor, I was in high school. Our teacher taught us so little that he was fired the next year, so you can guess how much programming knowledge I had. I basically walk in the door, I’ve maybe taken a couple of weeks of classes with a much better teacher who’s actually starting to teach us the foundations of computer science, and you know, I walk in, it’s my first day and I’m like, “Hi.” I meet all these guys who are insanely smart. Right? They are the guys who go home and code at the end of the day for fun because they love it, because they have passion, and because they have a lot of interest in it.
Jackie: 09:40 It was just mind blowing and I was like, “Wow, you’re, you’re all so intelligent, you care so much,” and it got me really excited about it. I was so passionate about it that at the end of my mentorship, I was like, I really want to actually become an intern. It was a really good developmental period for me where I was kind of learning like, “Okay, this is what it’s like to work in the real world.” Because, I would go and technically I would just go for a couple of hours after school twice a week. But my mentor was fantastic and he was very understanding that I wasn’t necessarily a born-and-bred software developer, which I’ve actually experienced a lot at MITRE.
Jackie: 10:19 There are so many people at MITRE who are ridiculously smart. I think it’s like, almost 50% of our employees or maybe over 50% have either a master’s or a PhD. It’s crazy how many very educated people we have here at MITRE, which can be incredibly intimidating. Right? I walked in the door and I was like, “Oh my goodness, I know nothing compared to these people.” But, that didn’t stop them from wanting to mentor me and help me and teach me how to be a better software developer and how to do it in the real world, which I thought was just so cool, and that’s why I wanted to come back and intern there. It was such a good environment, such a good experience.
Jackie: 11:00 When I came back as an actual intern, I got to start taking on more and more responsibility and more and more technical work. Eventually by, I think maybe my second or third summer coming back, I actually got the opportunity to split my work between two projects which like, whoa, that was crazy. Me and, like, four to maybe seven other interns depending on the summer, we all became very close. I mean, we still, every time they come up to McLean, we all catch up. Some of them are coming up today to bring their interns, and I just thought it was such a fun experience.
Jackie: 11:34 Working at the sites, I’m glad that I had that experience because the sites can be so close knit. There’s not as many people. It feels like you’re working for a small company even though you’re not, because everybody is there. You see everybody every day and there’s a lot of consistency to that. I really enjoy kind of the environment that they created. I think all along, while I was not actively thinking, “Oh, I’m going to go and work for MITRE full time and I’m going to become an intern coordinator,” I wasn’t thinking that, but I was seeing in hindsight how a good intern program is run. My intern coordinators cared.
Cameron: 12:12 Having had that kind of support, that network, and also given that level of ownership over the fact that you didn’t just want to work here, but you’re building this community, this friendship here. I want to know, did that influence how you worked, not just within your own team, but as you eventually became a full- fledged software engineer and was working with sponsors and other people outside of the company? Knowing that you could lean on this community that had invited you in and you built around yourself, how did that affect you as an engineer?
Jackie: 12:44 Yeah, that’s a great question. It is everything. Right? Being somebody who, like I said, didn’t necessarily grow up being like, “I am a coder, I am a software developer,” it took me years to feel confident in my abilities.
Cameron: 13:02 I am a software engineer and I still don’t always feel confident in my ability like, I don’t know why people expect to just suddenly have it flip like a switch. Like, “I am now a full-fledged software engineer.”
Jackie: 13:12 That’s the thing that I think I finally got over, was I was like, “I have this network of people that I can fall back on if I don’t know something. It’s okay.” The hardest and scariest part of anybody giving a presentation to me is the questions. You’re like, “Oh my god, what if somebody asks me a question and I don’t know the answer? I’m going to look like such an idiot.” Having that support system and that network behind you really takes that fear away out of your daily life of being like, “What if somebody asks me something and I don’t know the answer?” Because, you have all of these people who are there supporting you, who want to see you succeed, who are willing to help you and help you gain those skills.
Jackie: 13:50 Even the other day, I have interest in human factors engineering, but I did not go to school for that, did not go to school for anything remotely close to that. But, I was talking to one of the group leaders and he was like, “Hey, let me give you some resources so that if you’re out at the sponsor site and they ask you some questions, like, you’ll be able to look through these and you know, at least give yourself a little bit more of a understanding of what human factors engineering is, aside from just watching us do it.”
Jackie: 14:16 Even that was just like, wow, like just a reinforcement of there are so many people here who just want to see you succeed. What people care more about here is like, “Okay, there are younger software developers and engineers, they are going to be the future of this company. Let’s train them, let’s make sure that they have all the resources that they need to go out there and continue to build these strong relationships that we’ve built with our sponsors throughout the government.”
Cameron: 14:41 That’s not just true for engineers. That’s also true for the interns. I know we have a few interns who, they’re not necessarily working directly with the sponsors, but they are, a lot of times you come in as intern and you’re working on some internal software project or some small thing that I wouldn’t say that there’s not a lot of responsibility for, but it’s not exactly make or break. But, I know that we have interns working on real sponsor problems, real make or break problems that I find most other companies would not feel as eager to put talent that is either straight out of high school or still in college, on.
Jackie: 15:16 Yeah, definitely. I saw that over my internship and have continued to try to provide those kind of opportunities to my interns now, because when I was in college interning at MITRE, there was one day where there was a call and I can’t remember the context of it, but it was with myself, a few other full-time MITRE employees, and the sponsor. My mentor was supposed to be leading the meeting, but something happened, maybe he got caught in traffic and he couldn’t make it. He messaged me and he’s like, “Hey, I need you to lead the meeting.” I was like, “Oh my god, you’re joking.” I’m like, “This is not going to go well.”
Jackie: 15:48 But, I at least had an hour or so to prepare like mentally. I prepared and I was like, “Okay, I think I’ve got this. I’m ready. I’m concerned, but I think I got this.” So, we have this call, I lead it, it goes fine. Afterwards, I had somebody message me and she goes, “Oh my god, I just looked you up because I was like, I think I know that name. I did not realize you’re an intern.” I was like, “Oh yes,” it was such a good feeling. Right? I was like, “Somebody didn’t know that I was an intern,” and somebody let an intern run a meeting. That’s crazy. But, that happens at MITRE. I’ve seen my interns go off and do that. My interns, a bunch of them are going to give presentations at their sponsors sites before they leave.
Cameron: 16:33 In no small way, you’re expected to be not necessarily the expert, but you’re a authority now. Like, you’re not giving that talk unless you or someone else considers you to be an authority.
Jackie: 16:43 Yeah, yeah, definitely.
Cameron: 16:44 These are interns acting as an authority.
Jackie: 16:46 Yeah, which is awesome. Right? Even like, I was talking to the interns and I just remember talking to them about the intern expo where all of the interns basically kind of do like a science fair-esque presentation at the end of the summer. We’re actually having it today. Basically, it’s a really cool opportunity for full-time employees who either weren’t an intern or have never worked with interns to kind of go around and understand, like, what do the interns do? When you go there, you will be mind blown by the amount of fascinating, interesting work that these interns are doing.
Jackie: 17:21 One of the big things that I talk about when I’m recruiting for interns is that you are working alongside full-time employees. I always tell my call example because I’m like, “There’s no difference between you and a full-time employee, except for the fact that the people who are managing you directly, we understand that you’re interns, we understand that you’re not going to know everything,” right? But, I think it’s such a cool opportunity that you literally get to work alongside full-time employees and it’s not like you’re getting people coffee or working on one meaningless thing that’s never going to actually see the light of day. It’s just kind of like, “Give that to the interns.”
Jackie: 17:52 You’re actually doing impactful work. I’ve had interns who are part of teams that got PRAs, program recognition awards, and interns who were part of projects that got Director’s Awards, and all kinds of stuff because they’re just working alongside full-time employees doing the same thing, just maybe with slightly different expectations that, sure, you might not get this done as fast, but that’s okay. We’re here to train you. We’re here to give you the expertise to do what you’re doing, and doing it with confidence.
Cameron: 18:20 For any new intern, as someone who’s survived the gantlet from high school to full-time employee, what would you wish you had known or what would you like to tell interns, not even just at MITRE but anywhere, who are coming in and maybe they’re nervous, maybe this is their first real job, what would you want to tell them?
Jackie: 18:37 Well, a couple things. Honestly, one of the first pieces of advice that I give every intern at MITRE is build your network. I have always been a naturally outgoing person. I’ve always loved to chat with people, and so I did that throughout my internship experience. I cannot tell you how much that helped me for becoming a full-time employee, and I had no idea at the time that it was helping me out. I was just like, being me, meeting people, being like, “Hi, my name is Jackie,” but it actually helped me out so much when I became a full-time employee and I could reach out to those people and say, “Hey, I have project work,” and now I reach out and say, “Hey, I have interns or I have other full-time employees who need project work. Can you help me?” Building your network is such a huge thing at MITRE.
Jackie: 19:20 MITRE is such a cool company because you can really self-direct your own career. Like, and if you are on a project and you’re like, “I kind of want to switch up and try something new,” your network will help you do that. Like I said, there are a lot of people at MITRE who want to support you, who want to see you succeed. The larger you can build that network, the more people you have that you can reach out to you saying, “Hey, do you have project work for me? Do you know what’s going on? I’m interested in moving into this new field,” or, “I’m interested in just switching it up and trying a new project,” and you can go out and find your own work. You’re able to find exactly the specific kind of work that you want to do, not just because you needed coverage, not just because it was available, but because it was something you were interested in, and so that’s one thing that I would say.
Jackie: 20:00 Then really, my bigger thing is this. Have confidence in yourself. I know that that is so much easier said than done, but look for mentors who are going to be your champions. I have recently come to find at MITRE that I have a lot more people who are kind of sticking their neck out there for me and really supporting me than I realized, and I’ve had them all along, I just didn’t know that. I think that the more that you kind of foster these good relationships with people who can be a mentor to you, who can really kind of take you under their wing and say, “Hey look, I can show you how to do this,” like, “I want to see you succeed,” the more that you can foster those kinds of relationships, the more opportunities they’ll be able to open up for you, the more you’ll enjoy your work life.
Jackie: 20:49 You know, it’s just such a good thing to have. When you feel like, we were talking about earlier, you have that support network, it just makes you feel like you can do so much more than if you’re just kind of alone by yourself. There are so many people at MITRE who are willing to be that support network for you who really care, who are willing to help you and want to see you succeed and will help you find project work. I think that is just such a cool thing to take advantage of just because of the culture of our company and how it works.
Cameron: 21:21 Yeah, and if I may add something, I think one of the biggest things when you’re an intern is it’s okay to feel nervous or scared or worried.
Jackie: 21:27 Yeah, for sure.
Cameron: 21:28 I think any successful workplace acknowledges that you are brand new and we want you to do great things, but we also want you to feel comfortable. You should feel comfortable being able to reach out to any staff, even if for some reason the coordinators are too busy because they have to manage all the interns.
Jackie: 21:48 Which, happens sometimes.
Cameron: 21:49 It happens, and that’s the thing is, I find MITRE staff at all levels always eager to just reach out, take a minute, grab lunch, whatever. As long as you are willing to talk to them, that might be the biggest barriers. Just be comfortable talking to people you don’t know.
Jackie: 22:07 Yeah, for sure. Yeah. I mean, I think that there are all these people at MITRE, like I said, who want to help you, but at the same time, it’s sometimes nerve-wracking to reach out. You’re like, “What if they think that I’m stupid? What if they think that I don’t know what I’m talking about?” Newsflash, we didn’t know what we were talking about either. Everybody feels that way. I remember, I talk to interns all the time that are also, it helps when you’re outgoing, when they’re outgoing and they seem confident, I’m like, “Oh, well you obviously know that you’re doing good.” Then, I talk to them towards the end of summer and I’m like, “How did you feel?” They’re like, “I don’t know. I feel like I did okay, but I’m just nowhere near as smart as any of the people on my team.”
Jackie: 22:46 There are always going to be people who are way smarter than you. This is MITRE. Right? We hire incredibly smart people, but don’t let that scare you. They all started off right where you were, not knowing exactly what to do, how to do it, what corporate life was like, and it’s fine. We’ve all been there, we’ve all been nervous, we’ve all been scared. Somebody recently told me, I think it’s a really good piece of advice, if you don’t feel nervous or scared ever, it means that you’re never pushing yourself.
Jackie: 23:15 When you feel like a little in over your head, not completely overwhelmed, but a little in over your head and in a little nervous, that’s when you’re doing things that are going to be really impactful, that are going to be really meaningful. That are going to help you grow and learn, is when you’re just a little scared. So, good on you for taking the initiative and taking that risk to get an internship as a high schooler, or to switch companies and try a new internship with MITRE during college.
Jackie: 23:43 That’s awesome, and don’t let those nerves become fear. Don’t let that be something that prohibits you. Let it be something that drives you to become better at what you’re doing, to become better at working this job, working for this company, working for our sponsors, and you’ll be fine. We were all there, we were all nervous, just as nervous as you were, I promise, and look at where we are now. We’re all doing fine. We’re all enjoying our jobs. We’re enjoying the work that we do, and that will happen for you too. Let it be and keep working towards your goals, and you’ll get there.
Cameron: 24:18 All right, well, unfortunately that’s all the time we have for today. I’d like to take a quick moment to thank MITRE and its Knowledge-Driven Enterprise for making the show possible, and of course a big thank you to you, Jackie, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to come and enlighten us about all the incredible work happening, not just for engineers, but for interns at MITRE.
Jackie: 24:35 Thanks, Cameron.
Cameron: 24:36 This has been my conversation with Jackie Morin, Senior Software Engineer for MITRE.


Cameron Boozarjomehri is a Software Engineer and a member of MITRE’s Privacy Capability. His passion is exploring the applications and implications of emerging technologies and finding new ways to make those technologies accessible to the public.

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