What started out as a summer internship has turned into a nearly two decades-long career with the federal government, which is not something Jennifer Franks had ever expected.

After completing her senior capstone project at Hampton University, Franks was introduced to the National Science Foundation CyberCorps Scholarship for Service Program by a mentor and was accepted at Carnegie Mellon University, where she completed a master’s degree in Information Security Policy & Management.

With the CyberCorps program, students must give back to the federal government for the time invested into their education, so Franks started with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) as an intern in the summer of 2005 and returned as a full-time hire in 2006.

“I completed my CyberCorps commitment to public service in July 2008, and could have departed the federal government,” Franks says. “But my career was just getting started. I was enjoying what I did, where I worked, who I worked with, I loved cybersecurity, and public service provided such a rewarding experience. I wanted to see it through a bit longer. So, here I am, 18 years later.”

As a Director in GAO’s Information Technology and Cybersecurity (ITC) team, Franks oversees work on emerging cybersecurity issues and federal agencies’ abilities to protect privacy, sensitive data and the computing infrastructure.

Franks also leads multidisciplinary teams on reviews of IT management and operations, financial management and reporting, data protection, and IT issues related to healthcare and public health, including COVID-19, as well as directs ITC’s Center for Enhanced Cybersecurity (CEC), which provides technical support within GAO and on cybersecurity engagements.

Ensuring diversity and inclusivity within the cybersecurity industry is an effort close to Franks’ heart, who also serves as a Diversity Champion by leading efforts to increase inclusiveness at GAO. Since 2012, she has facilitated numerous agency-wide diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) courses. Franks also holds facilitator certifications in “Engaging in Bold, Inclusive Conversations” and Green Dot Bystander Intervention training.

“I think the biggest challenge I face is being a young Black woman in tech. That’s three strikes, right?,” Franks says candidly. “I know that we have more youth, more minorities, and more women in the space now, and that helps. It goes back to knowing the lay of the land in the environment you’re in. I believe my 18 years of federal IT and cyber audit experience speaks for itself, but sometimes I have to remember that I am not the most common face in the room. I often find myself amongst individuals who direct questions or comments to whom they perceive to be the senior-most authoritative official in the room, only for the same individuals to find out the younger person is the senior. I am hopeful that as time evolves, my continual presence (and others’) helps to change some of the perceptions and assumptions that exist in tech.”


Mentorship is a key part of developing talent within the cybersecurity industry, and without guidance from the mentors in her life; Franks may not have found the career path she is so passionate about today.

“A good mentor is one that listens. Every good mentor I have had was a great listener, and it is something that I strive to do in my mentoring relationships,” she says.

To effectively mentor, Franks says to tailor the approach to the person being mentored as well as to their current situation.

“I keep going back to understanding condition in order to assess a situation, and in order to truly be of benefit, you need to have situational awareness regarding the person or environment you’re dealing with,” she adds. “No two people are the same, and therefore, no two mentoring relationships will be the same.”

“Mentorship is extremely important in the cybersecurity field because it’s such a vast and deep space, and it can be easy to get lost in everything that is happening because we move so fast,” Franks says. “But to have those lifelines — having someone on your team to help you in the places that you may not be as strong or as knowledgeable is how you become better, and eventually become a mentor to someone else.”

One piece of advice Franks offers to those looking to break into the cybersecurity field is to be open and ready for all opportunities that could present themselves to you: whenever, and however, they may come.

“If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready,” Franks says.

She recalls early in her career, colleagues commenting on why she would be “overdressed” for work.

“But because I was always ready, I was presented with opportunities by directors numerous times during my career to join them at important meetings with customers and clients, congressional hearings, media interviews and conferences,” she says. “In the world of cybersecurity, we are always taking training courses to advance in the field, but the on-the-job training, interpersonal relationship building and networking was where I began to learn so much more.”

Franks believes in having a team of resources to invest in the development of your career — mentors, coaches, advisors. She says no single resource is adequate to provide all the knowledge a person may need or want.

“Through my enhanced connections, I formed my development team and with their guidance, I became the youngest Black female executive for the agency,” she says. “One of my most essential mentors was the previous Black female Managing Director of my team, who encouraged me to pursue the executive track. She guided me through my years as an Assistant Director and supported my efforts to enhance connectivity.”

Franks says it is now her honor to return the favor as a coach, mentor and advisor in the industry.

“While my calendar is always filled to capacity, I enjoy spending time with my staff and mentees assisting them with charting their career paths,” she says.