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The Unsinkable Maddie Stone, Google’s Bug-Hunting Badass

In high school, Stone had thought that she wanted to pursue interior design. But the idea of serving her country also stuck in her mind. In the summer before her junior year of high school she attended a program focused on national security and intelligence through the National Student Leadership Conference. Visits to the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and Pentagon piqued her interest in defense work, although she still found it opaque.

Meanwhile in high school, she took honors and Advanced Placement courses and had strong grades, but wasn’t focused specifically on math and science. Her high school didn’t offer AP Calculus, so she attempted to do the class as an independent study. Stone struggled to grasp the concepts in such an ad hoc environment, though, and had a similar experience with a computer science independent study. She picked up some rudimentary skills, but “nothing that prepared me for introductory programming at a university.”

When it came time to apply for college, Stone’s father thought her interest in national security and math might open up promising career paths. So standing in the family’s living room he made her an offer: Apply everywhere as an engineering major, and he would give her 15 bucks. “I just needed that $15 to go to the movies with my friends,” Stone says. “So I chose computer engineering. I didn’t even know the difference between computer science and computer engineering.”

She had heard, though, about “computer forensics,” thanks to Tim McGee, the resident hacker in the police procedural NCIS. Stone started watching the show in early high school with her mom after it had already been on the air for a few years. One Christmas, her parents even got her the DVD box sets of the seasons she had missed.

“It always had this very positive ‘we’re helping people, we’re saving the world’ type of direction,” she says. “But there was something about McGee. Through computers he seemed to solve these insolvable problems.”

Stone was waitlisted at all but one of the elite universities she applied to. The exception was Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore—also the (fictional) alma mater of none other than Tim McGee, a coincidence not lost on Stone.

During admitted students day at Johns Hopkins she wasn’t getting a McGee vibe from the electronics and hardware-focused demos at the computer engineering event. So she and her dad went to the computer science open house nearby. “I’m really interested in computer forensics like McGee from NCIS,” she told Gerald Masson, a longtime Hopkins computer scientist who founded the department and was its first chair. She expected him to laugh at her, not get the reference, or both. “We can do that,” Masson replied. “We can make you McGee.”

Especially in the first couple of years, Stone often thought about dropping out of the program. She hadn’t taken the usual foundational courses, she was constantly playing catch-up while learning C and C++, and as the semesters went by she felt mired in esoteric algorithms. With all of this weighing on her, she struggled to get recommendations from professors for internships. But her Maddog determination prevailed.

“My grades and knowledge did not reflect any sort of expertise at that time, but as a student I remember feeling like, ‘why doesn’t everyone see that I’m going to be competent at this?’” she says.

As an undergraduate Stone applied to dozens of computer science-related internships. While other students in her program racked up work experience during summers and school breaks, she landed only a single interview. Since she was a Russian minor—a nod to possible future national security or intelligence work—Stone eventually elected to study abroad in Moscow, an opportunity to differentiate herself from her peers. Finally Stone clinched a technical internship at the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton for the summer before her senior year.