Central Washington University graduate Ryan Hillsberg (‘03) and his wife, Christina Hillsberg, are pulling back the curtain on the CIA and sharing how espionage techniques can be applied to parenting in their new book, “License to Parent: How My Career as a Spy Helped Me Raise Resourceful Self-Sufficient Kids."
The book was released this summer by G.P. Putnam & Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and is already getting rave reviews with Working Mother naming it one of their best books of 2021 and saying, “If Mr. and Mrs. Smith had kids and wrote a parenting book, this is what you’d get: a practical guide for how to utilize key spy tactics to teach kids important life skills–from self-defense to effective communication to conflict resolution.”
Ryan left Central Washington University in style when he graduated in 2003, giving the commencement address as valedictorian of his graduating class.
After CWU, Ryan became a CIA intelligence officer. Fluent in French, Danish, and Portuguese, Ryan spent his CIA career recruiting spies and stealing secrets in Europe and around the world.
As an operations officer, Ryan was tasked with running foreign intelligence operations and collecting strategic intelligence on issues such as counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, nuclear security, political instability, covert action, and other various state secrets. He received several CIA Exceptional Performance Awards and was CIA’s top regional intelligence producer during two separate CIA tours overseas.
While working as a field operative, Ryan met and fell in love with Christina, a CIA analyst and fellow spy.
Christina spent the majority of her career with the CIA working on and traveling to Africa as one of the intelligence community's few Swahili and Zulu linguists. As an analyst in the Directorate of Intelligence, she wrote analytic assessments on topics such as political unrest, insurgencies, and authoritarian regimes for the President, his Cabinet, and other senior level policy makers.
She spent the final portion of her time at the agency working alongside her colleagues in the Directorate of Operations, where she learned firsthand how to clandestinely collect intelligence in the field and is the recipient of multiple CIA Exceptional Performance Awards.
While at CWU, Ryan’s philosophy professor Peter Burkholder would say, “One should know something about everything, and everything about something." This has held true for Ryan throughout the years, especially during his career at the CIA. As an operations officer, Ryan built relationships of trust with intelligence targets with a goal of persuading them to agree to a clandestine relationship with the CIA. The most successful operations officers were the ones who were well rounded because it gave them an array of topics about which they could bond with a target.
Ryan and Christina have also passed down Burkholder’s advice to their kids, who they seek to make well rounded and security-conscious through the adaptation of CIA principles and techniques.
The two left the CIA in 2015 for the private sector to put down roots in Ryan’s native Pacific Northwest. Immediately following his role at the CIA, Ryan worked for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and a Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science laboratory focused on national security.
He later joined Amazon where he led worldwide security for Amazon Prime Air—the drone delivery program—and was responsible for the security of worldwide facilities, personnel, and intellectual property. In addition, he was the Global Security Operations representative for Amazon’s enterprise-wide Insider Threat Program. He is currently the director of corporate security at Seagen, a global biotechnology company.
After leaving the CIA, Christina worked in information security at Amazon, where she stood up the company’s first Insider Threat Program, created a new global framework to analyze cyber risks, and established new processes to utilize intelligence tradecraft to analyze information security threats.
She then transitioned to Amazon Public Relations where she incorporated security awareness techniques into PR guidance for employees to ensure confidentiality of drones and test sites for Amazon Prime Air, the company’s drone delivery program. She left Amazon in 2016 to stay at home with their two youngest children and become a full time writer.
Ryan and Christina live near Seattle with their five children and two Rhodesian ridgebacks. You can follow along with Christina on Twitter at @christinahillsb, or on Instagram at @christinahillsberg. Please visit the Penguin Random House website to learn more about License to Parent or to purchase your copy.
Story by: Robin Burck
July 26, 2021