Jim Williams: Under pressure
- By Sara Michael
- Jul 14, 2003
Jim Williams is feeling the pressure. As director of the program to develop an automated border control system that could determine the success of the entire Homeland Security Department, Williams has all eyes on him. Although some feel the program is a make-or-break task for the department, he's tackling the challenge head-on.
"It's been thrilling and exhausting," Williams said of his new position as director of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program. "There is a high degree of interest in this program. There is a lot of work to be done."
Williams assumed the post in May, just about the time DHS Secretary Tom Ridge announced the addition of biometric technology to the already aggressive end-of-the-year deadline for US-VISIT. By December, the system, complete with biometrics such as fingerprints or facial recognition, is slated to be in place at all airports and seaports. Regardless of the system's ultimate impact on the new department, it will plug a gaping hole in U.S. security.
Williams is no stranger to complex projects. As the Internal Revenue Service's former deputy associate commissioner for program management, he led applications projects for the agency's business systems modernization effort. The multibillion-dollar project aimed to update information systems and support electronic filing of tax returns. His experience with the IRS project prompted DHS' undersecretary for border and transportation security, Asa Hutchinson, to invite Williams to join the US-VISIT team.
Much like the undertaking at the IRS, US-VISIT requires Williams to rally various stakeholders, implement new business processes and institute change across many organizations. Once again, he said, he is responsible for convincing people there is a better way to do business.
Managing massive modernization programs is one of the toughest jobs in government, Williams said.
"They are career-risky jobs," he said. "This is something where you always feel like you're behind. There's always work to do. They're tough, but I enjoy the challenge."
Williams spends most of his days dashing between meetings and offices. Although he was given work space at DHS headquarters at Nebraska and Massachusetts avenues in northwest Washington, D.C., alongside his bosses — Hutchinson and Ridge — the rest of the US-VISIT team has set up camp in the immigration bureau's I Street office.
US-VISIT officials are working with Congress to approve an expenditure plan for the project, and have gotten a little behind schedule, Williams said. Once they get the money, they can proceed with implementing a system meant to facilitate legitimate travel while preventing possible terrorists' entry into the country.
Despite the pressures, Williams prefers to concentrate on the progress they are making.
"I try to focus on dealing with problems realistically," he said. "I want to make sure we recognize the positives."
The progress is slowed by what Williams described as a daily frustration: unreliable e-mail. When 22 agencies combined to form DHS in March, the various e-mail systems were merged, but not without a host of glitches. Williams said he often receives e-mail messages days after they were sent or not at all, and he often can't open attached files.
"Frankly, the e-mail system here doesn't work," Williams said. "It's one of the growing pains of DHS."
Although Williams may complain about the e-mail system, his wife doesn't. During his work at the IRS, Williams would be tied to e-mail in the evenings, but this system prevents him from doing much messaging from his home in suburban Washington. However, he still struggles to find enough time to spend with his family.
"That is the hardest part of this job — not having time with my family and friends," Williams said. "Nobody who does a job like this just goes home and says goodbye to the job."
When he is not working, Williams spends his days doing yard work (and had a recent bout of poison ivy to show for it), hiking with his family and reading. "Of course, now I'm reading No. 5," he said, referring to the latest in the Harry Potter series.
Lloyd Anderson, head of process improvement efforts for the IRS' business systems modernization effort, worked with Williams for a few years and credited him with setting a positive tone and being the major push behind the IRS project.
"He's a positive influence," Anderson said. "People want to be part of the project with him. He sets a very good culture for success, and he appreciates hard work."
Despite constantly being in the spotlight, Williams said adjusting to his DHS job has been much smoother than he had expected, for which he credits his team's dedication and support.
"The memories of Sept. 11  are still fresh here," he said. "People understand our job is to protect the homeland and provide customer service. I believe we can meet that challenge."