In 2009, Robert McInvale joined the Navy because college wasn’t a good fit. The Navy recognized his knack for languages and trained him to be a cryptologic linguist, focusing on Arabic. Then he worked at the National Security Agency for four years. He worked as a signal analyst, a networks operations analyst and an intelligence liaison. But as he grew in the organization, he realized that the people regulating his team didn’t understand the technology they were working with.
Then in 2013, Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor, leaked top-secret documents about mass surveillance. It was a shock inside and outside the intelligence community. Robert was on the inside. His takeaway: Leaders and citizens need to be better informed about technology in their lives. Shortly afterward, he left the Navy and returned to college. Studying computer science at The University of Texas at Austin was now a perfect fit. After graduating, he plans to attend Yale Law School, and he wants to apply his tech experience to fill the gap he sees in policy and law.
What was it like working at the NSA when Snowden leaked those documents about the surveillance by the NSA? How did that affect your thinking about returning to school?
I wouldn’t say that he was even necessarily the primary motivator for my ambition to become a lawyer and to work in the field of technology and national security, but certainly my experience with the NSA was the main reason why. It was apparent that the people in charge didn’t understand very well what we were doing, even the ones directly regulating us.
Why is digital literacy in the government a problem?
When the government doesn’t understand basic things about technology, which is a critical tool in every aspect of life around the world, it is not a good state of affairs.
Why did you come to UT?
At first I went to A&M, but I transferred to UT because of the reputation of the computer science program. The faculty makes a huge difference. You get personal attention, better office hours, better classrooms and better research. I’m not trying to flatter, but I really think UT is better in every conceivable way.
Do you have any examples of projects you worked on at UT that you are particularly proud of?
I worked on an app called BeVote. Young people are historically very underrepresented at the polls. BeVote is trying to get those people to go out and cast a vote. I was brought onto the project and told to develop a full-featured app in about six weeks working alone part-time with no mobile app development experience except a five-week summer course. I don’t even own an iPhone myself. The goals were noble, but it also felt very satisfying to succeed in such conditions.
What else would you like people to know about your story?
I’ve made bad choices more than just about anyone, and yet I’m still here. I’m graduating with highest honors from UT in two majors that originally scared me, and then heading to Yale Law School. It’s never too late to figure yourself out.
Robert McInvale is graduating with honors in computer science and math from the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also a Distinguished College Scholar.