Other than crafting the perfect AIM away message or playing Reader Rabbit and Math Blaster, computers were far from Stone’s mind. “My big computer thing was using tie-dye word art on tie-dye backgrounds in PowerPoint presentations,” she says.

In seventh grade, Stone barely made the tennis team; by the next year she was the top player. “That’s when it switched and became everything I wanted to do,” she says.

Her father, Steve Stone, remembers her independence, drive, and confidence developing at a very young age. But watching her play tennis in those first years revealed something even deeper.

“I remember her first club tennis tournament after she had just picked up tennis in seventh grade,” he says. “Somehow she made it to the finals and was playing against a girl who was ranked. It was three sets and Maddie ended up losing, but she had no business giving this girl such a run. I just thought wow, this kid has something very, very special—there’s a grit that I don’t see often in kids. So that’s when I started calling her ‘Maddog,’ because she just would not give up.”

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.”