DISA's Croom era

Moving away from putting its stamp on projects, agency focuses on collaboration

Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Croom, who became commander of the Defense Information Systems Agency in July, has already started to change the way the agency works with its military service customers by adopting a spirit of collaboration.

Embracing a more easygoing style than his predecessors, Croom has also made his mark on the agency's culture, which affects 7,000 DISA employees.

Croom said DISA does not need to be in the software development business or put its stamp on every project it manages. He said collaboration can deliver better results than working alone.

That's why he decided to adopt the Army Knowledge Online system as a departmentwide Web portal for DISA's No. 1 project, Net-Centric Enterprise Services (NCES). Croom said he does not care which agency or service hosts the portal as long as it does the job. Because he opted to use AKO, Croom tapped a best-of-breed system and saved millions of dollars in development costs.

Croom said he plans to use the same collaborative approach for another major DISA project, the Joint Command and Control (JC2) system, which will replace the aging Global Command and Control System (GCCS).

DISA will ask the military services to provide software modules for JC2, Croom said. For example, the agency might ask the Army to provide JC2 software for ammunition status or artillery fires because the Army knows more about those issues than DISA or defense contractors.

"We want to see what is available from the services that we can adopt" for JC2, Croom said. In addition to the Army's help with battle fire management or ammunition software, Croom wants the Air Force to provide air tasking order modules for JC2, he said.

Croom likes to use commercial analogies to describe what he wants to do at DISA, and he said Travelocity's Web site is a good model for JC2. He said visitors to Travelocity can use the portal to arrange everything they need for a trip, including flight, hotel and car reservations. He wants JC2 to offer the same quality of service for warfighters.

Croom said JC2 should give warfighters the ability to find war-related information as easily as Travelocity lets people find trip information. The system should make information available at warfighters' fingertips quickly and succinctly, instead of scattered throughout GCCS.

Croom said DISA will design JC2 from the ground up to make relevant information easily available to members of different communities of interest.

Bridging the gap

After more than three months at DISA, Croom said he is still learning about the organization, which has a range of functions, such as contracting and spectrum management. He said collaborating with partners and improving conditions for DISA's workers will be hallmarks of the agency's Croom era.

He said one of his goals is to improve relationships with DOD customers who pay for DISA services. He wants their help in developing DISA's plan and vision.

As part of that partnership, Croom added that he plans to revise DISA's billing system, notorious for years because of its opacity. Croom said he will provide full and open disclosure of DISA charges to all customers.

If they have any questions, "we'll open up our books to them," Croom said. He added that DISA bills will have "more than 20 lines they can understand." Croom also promised to provide his customers with an audit of all charges.

Bernie Skoch, executive vice president at Suss Consulting and a retired Air Force general who was DISA's principal director of customer advocacy, said he believes the time has come for the services and DISA to collaborate. And Croom is the right person to make those partnerships work, Skoch added.

NCES will also provide DOD users with search tools so they can more easily find information when they need it. Croom again invokes commercial success stories, such as the Google and Yahoo search engines, as models. He said DISA would opt for a commercial approach, even though the agency has already developed a search tool in-house.

When DISA issues a contract for a search tool, it will offer bidders the in-house tool as government-furnished equipment, Croom said. But the agency would not require vendors to use it.

As part of DISA's communications mission, the agency tends to focus on providing wideband circuits to high-level commands. Croom said the agency also needs to offer communications service to tactical users.

To meet this challenge, Croom said the agency is working in partnership with major commands -- including the Central Command (Centcom), Joint Forces Command, Special Operations Command and Transportation Command -- to dovetail satellite communications with commercial wireless systems.

Croom said DISA is working with the combat commands to develop a package that would provide short-range commercial wireless service. Those nodes would connect to a satellite terminal with long-range commercial WiMax gear, providing tactical forces with a package of mostly commercial hardware that is easy to develop and deploy. The makeshift network could serve as a battlefield extension of the Global Information Grid, Croom said.

Croom also said DOD needs to commercialize its communications infrastructure in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide more bandwidth and foster less reliance on satellite systems. The agency is working with Centcom to develop a network that will endure for the long haul.

Diana Gowen, senior vice president of government services sales at Qwest Communications International, said DOD could upgrade its infrastructure in those two countries with fiber-optic links. She added that Qwest would be interested in the project under the right circumstances, which include a low risk to Qwest employees working in those countries.

House rules

Croom has already started to make his mark with DISA's employees by working to motivate the workforce. For example, he lets agency employees take the afternoon off on their birthdays. A physical fitness buff -- he takes eight-mile runs along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Washington, D.C., on weekends -- Croom urges all DISA employees to develop a physical fitness program.

Croom said he is also trying to manage the move of DISA headquarters from Arlington, Va., to Fort Meade, Md., and determine the impact it will have on workers.

Croom wants to make sure others know about DISA employees' achievements. He commended the employees of the agency's Continuity of Operations and Test Facility in Slidell, La. They "did incredible things to help their teammates" after Hurricane Katrina, Croom said.

For example, Cyndy Gardner, executive assistant at the facility's testing directorate, forwarded a toll-free number to help locate missing employees to her home phone. She answered calls for 72 hours to account for those people. The facility's staff also turned the center into a makeshift barracks and chow hall, serving three meals a day to agency employees and first responders for days after the hurricane, Croom said.

Croom has made one change at DISA headquarters that, according to the people who work there, definitely shows the new boss is a different kind of leader than his predecessors were.

The first time Croom showed up for a meeting at DISA, someone announced his presence and everyone in the room snapped to attention, as they did with previous DISA commanders, a headquarters employee said.

Croom told everyone at the meeting that that was the first and last time anyone was to announce him and have everyone stand at attention. He may wear three stars, but he wears them lightly.

DISA: DOD's IT shop

The Defense Information Systems Agency is the phone company, Internet service provider and data-center operator for the Defense Department. It operates or provides:

  • A global voice, video and data network operating at speeds as fast as 10 gigabits/sec.
  • Classified and unclassified Internet services.
  • Global satellite service based on handheld phones and high-speed broadband.
  • Command and control software, which is the basis of the Global Command and Control System and the next-generation Joint Command and Control capability.
  • Mainframe processing at 15 U.S. data centers.

-- Bob Brewin

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