By Kimberly Fornek firstname.lastname@example.org March 27, 2012 2:20PM
New Trier High School alum and U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Michael S. Rogers talks with students at the school March 15 in Winnetka. Rogers has received an alumni achievement award. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media
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Updated: April 2, 2012 5:07PM
When successful New Trier High School graduates return to their alma mater, they often are invited to talk to students about their experiences. Many who achieve national recognition in their careers were not the leaders of the pack in high school. Vice Adm. Michael S. Rogers, a 1977 graduate and a recipient of New Trier’s Alumni Achievement Award this year, who spoke to students in a math class which covers analytic geometry, algorithms and precalculus, is no exception.
In his 30-year career in the U.S. Navy, Rogers moved through the ranks from anti-submarine warfare officer to head of the Computer Network Attack/Defense Branch, to director for intelligence of the U.S. Pacific Command. Vice Adm. Rogers currently serves as commander, U.S. Fleet Cyber Command and commander, U.S. 10th Fleet.
“I was terrible at math,” Rogers admitted. “I loved trigonometry and after that I was a total wipeout.”
Rogers was invited to talk to math teacher Peggy Stetsko’s class because it includes cryptology, and Rogers’ long list of military positions includes fleet cryptologist.
Historically, cryptology has meant code breaking, Rogers said. The job description now calls for specially trained people to decipher and analyze foreign information in every possible form of communication.
“I work with incredibly smart people who love mathematics,” Rogers said. Their backgrounds commonly include physics, electrical engineering or calculus.
“Calculus is really big for us, differential-based calculus.”
Linguists, specifically those who speak, Mandarin, Persian, Farsi or Arabic are in demand, too.
As a young boy growing up in Wilmette, “all I ever wanted to do was be a naval officer,” Rogers said. But reaching that goal involved compromise and some good luck.
Rogers had hoped to attend the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. after high school. His congressman sponsored him, but applicants also had to pass a physical exam and compete to meet the school’s academic requirements.
He got through the first two steps, but the third tripped him up.
Academically, he was “in the middle of the pack at New Trier,” he said, with no athletic achievements or student leadership activities to shore up his application. At that point, he was not the well-rounded applicant the academy wanted, but he was highly motivated.
“I applied for an ROTC scholarship.” That did not come through either. “So I decided okay, I’ll go to a school that has an ROTC program.” and enrolled in Auburn University. He received his commission via the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, although he dropped one of the required calculus courses rather than get a failing grade.
“I told them I’m a can-do guy, but I can’t do this.”
Rogers explained how a less than brilliant student was able to become an expert cryptologist and intelligence officer.
“Early in my career I was responsible for placing cryptologists, assigning them around the world,” Rogers said. He didn’t expect them to be experts at the outset, but he wanted people who were “comfortable with technology.”
“I’m not a computer engineer. I’m not a computer scientist. I’m not a mathematician. But I’m comfortable with it.”
Second, Rogers said, “As an officer in the military, the thing we prize first and foremost is leadership. I can lead. I can bring groups together. I can motivate people.”
The third factor that contributed to his rise through the ranks, was he was assigned to jobs in different places with a variety of responsibilities. “I just lucked out and got a broad range of exposure,” such as when he became assistant to Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“He told me he hired me to be his thinker,” Rogers said. “He told me, ‘I want you to think about the things I don’t have time to think about. I want you to think about the things I’m not thinking about, but I should be.’”
Rogers traveled all over the world with Pace. After meetings with other officials, Pace liked to talk things out with Rogers.
“He loved to have a dialogue.”
When Rogers was named director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he asked why he was chosen for the position and not an intelligence officer. His superior told him, “I’ve heard you like to think strategically and I’ve heard you like to build teams.”
In the New Trier math class earlier this month, Rogers invited questions from the students. Emma Davis, a junior, asked if Rogers thinks cyber wars will ever replace actual wars. Rogers said no, but cyber warfare “will continue to grow in importance.” Already, cyber criminals are stealing information and intellectual property from systems around the world, he said.
Sophomore Kyle Berglund asked if part of the cryptologist’s job is breaking into other people’s communications systems.
“I really can’t get into that,” Rogers said. But then he added, “We try to insure we have a wide range of capabilities: operating networks, defending networks and using networks to get insight into other people’s networks and systems.”
When a student asked him what percentage of codes they crack, Rogers said, “We have some measure of success.”
“That’s code by the way,” said Tim Dohrer, the Winnetka campus principal who was listening to Rogers’ talk.