An intelligence career might sound like an exotic proposition. Maybe you’re thinking that you’ll need to a trench coat big enough to hold gadgets and weapons, possibly cool sunglasses. Or maybe you think you’ll need to speak Mandarin Chinese without an accent and learn to slip into gala dinners undetected.
Actually, that might be a plus – but it’s not the only thing that will get you in the door.
I have been an intelligence analyst for over twenty years now – and I’m definitely in for another twenty. The skill set you acquire, the people you meet, the projects you get to work on – it’s what attracted me to the field two decades ago, and I still enjoy every bit of it. I’d probably say it’s the people – your fellow intelligence practitioners – who are the biggest factor in that. As my dear friend and colleague Arik Johnson says, we’re a Tribe. There are certain factors that are common to those with an intelligence career, shared proclivities and capacities and inside jokes. You get to describe and complain and rejoice over the art and science of trying to change people’s minds about their perception of the world, perchance to an organization or the whole world a better place. There’s a lot to discuss. (In fact, this week is Aurora WDC’s Reconverge G2 meeting. Pop on by!)
So what is it that draws people to an intelligence career? Well, if this sounds like you, then you might want to come hang out with us or dive right in.
If this describes you, maybe you’d like an intelligence career
Look – if you’re a retired Navy SEAL who speaks six languages fluently, yes you’re already in the door. If you are a master of disguise and expert parachutist eligible for a security clearance: well, Langley probably already has your profile; HR will be calling soon.
But what about “regular people?” What makes a good intel analyst?
1. You’re curious.
Bottom line, intelligence peeps are curious cats. The standard narrative never quite appeals to us. By nature we are drawn to unique explanations and uncommon realizations. Or, we’re just nosy.
Either way, if you have an active mind and a taste for nitty-gritty details (that some people would like to obscure for various reasons) then a career where you get to dig into stories is going appeal to you. Think about going spook.
2. You can handle a lot of information – and make sense of it.
If the idea of a 200-page financial report in another language or a 70-page lawsuit gives you hives, an intelligence career might not be for you. But – if you can handle massive amounts of research and information management, this might be your dream job.
I practice in the field of competitive intelligence. In our work, clients might allot us a period of weeks to months – three to six on average – to absorb an intense amount of information. And then we have to learn something new they didn’t know about their own business. And then make the case to them that they need to think differently.
Just in my own career, I’ve worked on: shaving products, nuclear power generation, construction glass, sustainable agriculture, and personalized medicine – just for a small sample over twenty years. Each of those segments of the economy are insanely complex. But if you like the idea of getting smart, quickly, on some subject of use to a senior executive – then you’ll dig this field.
3. You are allergic to bullshit.
So many of the narratives floating around out there are informed by public relations flacks and shallow media execs. That simply isn’t good enough for senior decision makers in business and government. In the field of intelligence, we deal with facts so we can get to the truth. Only then can fair, just, and wise decisions be made.
An intelligence career might be the thing for you if bullshit infuriates you. If press conferences make you mad and inspire you to dig around in databases proving why someone is lying, ooh, you’ll love intelligence. Because our whole professional guild is about depending on people who blindly trust the gauzy, fake narratives while we get the truth for our clients using data collection and superior analytical skill.
4. You like to tell stories.
Intelligence is not about data collection. Nor is analysis the main goal. The value of intelligence is produced when the analysts can put everything together and tell decision makers a persuasive story. Individual data points are merely abstractions of the real world. The analysis of data is merely using tools to point at a story. The true skill is in telling decision makers a story about the past, the present, and how they need to take action for the future.
You need to be able to use stories to educate. All data collection is by definition an exercise in looking at the past – things that have already happened. The time-space continuum being what it is, we inhabit the present. And through our storytelling, we try to sell our clients on a different view of the future. We say, “Hey, we did our research. Here’s what we found. If you don’t take action, here’s a negative future. And if you do, here’s a more positive one.”
It takes until almost age eight for humans to understand abstract reasoning – but they can tell stories age two! So if you’re the one with the best stories at parties, able to hold an audience, an intelligence career might be an awesome fit.
5. You can deal with people hating your amazingly crafted stories.
I like to tell younger professionals that I’ve been thrown out of more board rooms than they’ve ever been in.
You see, not everyone appreciates having their world view challenged. Ego, ideology, fear, cognitive bias, and internal politics are just a few reasons people will listen to your carefully-crafted stories about the future of their organization and get unreasonably angry. You could get fired. Thrown out. Slandered. Just for doing your job! And sometimes, all of this happens when you’re doing your job really well and discovered mind-blowing stuff that you were paid to discover!
Can you handle that? You’ll need to. Intelligence is a service to human beings, and humans are – well – pretty dodgy. Emotional, weird, sometimes distasteful collide with brilliant, professional, and overall useful. You never know what you’ll be in for.
It’s like that time I brought up aging populations as a strategic trend to a board of directors at an executive retreat. The 65-year old president of the division told me I was just trying to tell people the sky was falling.
Anyhow – can you handle this? Will it break your heart to be told you are wrong on easily provable topics because somebody has emotional issues around mortality? Got a thick skin? Able to take criticism basically on a daily basis?
Well, join the crew! It ain’t so bad.
Consider an intelligence career
There are many other advanced skills that go into intelligence. There’s elicitation and collection, ethics and law, implications and scenarios, forecasting and backcasting. It’s an intellectual smorgasbord. But the five character traits above are the ground floor. If that sounds like you and you’re thinking of a new career, come hang out with us. We’ll show you the rest.