From CIO to battlefield techie

Lisa Schlosser finds technical and leadership challenges as an Army reservist, not to mention sandstorms and oven-hot heat

Another CIO learns in Iraq

Robert Carey, the Navy’s chief information officer, returned from Iraq in March 2007 after a seven-month deployment as a reservist. Carey said the experience gave him a better understanding of how the work he does in civilian life affects warfighters. He also returned with a greater appreciation of the differences between working in a combat environment and the Pentagon.

Federal Computer Week asked Carey to share insights from his tour of active duty.

FCW: What was your biggest adjustment coming back and doing CIO work?

CAREY: My biggest adjustment was transitioning from the tempo of work that was routine yet had a high sense of urgency over in Iraq to the pace of work and change inside the Beltway.

In our deployed status, the work that we did was critical and time-sensitive, lives could hang in the balance, and we worked hard to get it done quickly. Here, because we are not at the tip of the spear, that heightened sense of urgency is not inherent to our environment. One of the areas I’m working on with my staff is increasing our speed and a sense of urgency for the tasks that support the warfighter. I am also working to adjust myself to a normal civilian work pace.

FCW: What advice would you give others who are in similar positions?

CAREY: Take three to four weeks off to decompress before coming back to the job. I didn’t do that. I jumped right in after about 10 days off. The pace of being a major department CIO is hectic at best. It’s been a whirlwind since returning. I am having fun now, but the first few months back were challenging because my expectations had not transitioned to peacetime operations.

FCW: What did you learn while in the Middle East that you have applied back here in the Navy?

CAREY: Serving in Iraq gave me a unique view of the use of information technology in theater. Having the right IT in the right place at the right time is critical to all warfighting decisions. My service in Iraq instilled in me a greater sense of urgency to ensure we meet the needs of the warfighter and rapidly deploy necessary IT solutions. I am focusing my office to deliver information management and IT policy and strategic direction that will bring improved IT services to the naval organization.

I also earned that patience and collaboration are keys to success. There is an enormous amount of people involved in planning and executing a military operation. While these are traits I believed in before I departed, they are at times scarce inside the Beltway. One also learns to separate what is important in life. While we serve the citizens of this nation, the reality of it is that we produce policies and rules. We’re generally not committing lives in operations on a daily basis. What we do on a daily basis can have profound effects on the efficiency and effectiveness of our enterprises, but it does not commit soldiers’, sailors’, Marines’ and airmen’s lives. Just a different perspective or view on challenges.

— Jason Miller

Now on active duty as an Army reservist, Lisa Schlosser faces daily challenges in the Middle East that she doesn’t have back in Washington. However, Schlosser said she is dealing just fine with the 122-degree heat and sandstorms that kick up out of nowhere and the few times she has faced small arms or rocket fire.

The biggest challenge, said Schlosser, chief information officer at the Housing and Urban Development Department, is relearning the necessary tactical skills for her reservist job. Schlosser is on a year’s tour of duty as deputy chief operations officer of a regional computer emergency readiness team in Southwest Asia.

Schlosser said she got used to the heat pretty quickly. Everything is covered with dust, so another sandstorm isn’t such big a deal. And the few times Schlosser has faced any type of attack, the action ended so quickly that she didn’t have time to panic. The hardest part of being in the area, she said, has been getting up to speed with handling possible cyberattacks on the Army’s LandWarNet. As a part of a team that monitors and detects attacks on the network, Schlosser said she felt like a technical novice at the beginning of her tour.

Staff members in Washington can picture Schlosser in her new hands-on role. “It scares the hell out of my team at HUD,” Schlosser said jokingly during a phone interview from her base in Kuwait, south of the Iraq border. “I’ve worked more at the strategic level the last six or seven years,” Schlosser said. “Fortunately, the skills of the soldiers and contractors at the center are incredible.”

Now that she has adjusted to her technical role, Schlosser said she wants to use her time in the Army to learn all she can about leadership. She is gaining a better understanding of Army and Defense Department best practices to bring back to HUD when she returns in the fall.

“This experience has reopened my eyes to the absolute necessity of leadership,” Schlosser said.  “Whether you are in a benign environment or one where there are rockets falling, the importance of practicing good leadership skills is critical.”

Being a leader is nothing new for Schlosser. Before the Army called her to active duty, many considered her an exemplary leader. Under Schlosser, HUD has reduced its  cybersecurity risk. As a member of the department’s senior leadership team, she had an important role in the financial and management improvements that led the Government Accountability Office to remove two major housing programs from its list of high-risk programs.

Jim Parenti, senior adviser to HUD Deputy Secretary Roy Bernardi, said the department’s officials miss Schlosser’s leadership. However, they realize that HUD will benefit from Schlosser’s experiences in the Army when she returns.

“The more experience she has, the better for the agency,” Parenti said. “Lisa is the type of person who will dive into a situation that she is presented with and take away anything that is positive from it.”

Schlosser’s experience in Kuwait has opened her eyes in many ways. She was eager to talk about network-centric warfare, communications capabilities in the desert and contractors. She described what it is like to work in the desert and the experiences she misses.  

Collaboration enabled by networked systems is a reality for warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The systems talk to each other to get information from the flagpole to the foxhole,” she said. “I’ve been impressed with what the military has been able to do with its net-centric warfare strategy.”

Schlosser’s job has taken her to Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar and Bahrain to work on Army systems. She travels from one base to another but never leaves the base. And each facility is basically the same, she said. She sleeps in buildings, some o f them as large as airplane hangars, which house other service women.

The heat during the summer feels like the hot air that its hits you when you open the door of a kitchen oven, Schlosser said. Everywhere there is sand, sand and more sand. It covers your clothes, seeps under the door and into the hardware. “The bottom line is this is the desert. You get used to it,” she said.

Schlosser works at least six days a week and spends most of her down time at the gym. Schlosser said she will be disappointed if she doesn’t come back in better physical shape than she has ever been.

“Most folks here are up by 5 a.m. or so and at work by 6 a.m.,” she said. “We work until 7 or 8 p.m. and spend one to two hours in the gym every day. That plus all the equipment you have to wear has built up my stamina and strength.”

The Army’s recreation and relaxation facilities are excellent, Schlosser said. She has access to a pool, track and basketball courts. Recent movies and the United Service Organization’s tours provide entertainment.

On one USO tour Schlosser saw comic Robin Williams. “In the middle of his show, retreat sounded,” she said. “So we all stood up and faced the flag, which happened to be behind us. About 1,000 troops stood up all at once and turned their back on him for more than one minute.”

Williams later recounted that experience on the David Letterman show.

A military routine
Schlosser said she misses her family and her dogs. She also misses having a glass of wine with her friends and colleagues. Alcoholic drinks are not allowed on any Army base.

“I also miss the freedom of movement,” she said. “The routine is pretty much the same every day: work, mess hall, gym and bed.”

Schlosser exchanges e-mail messages or has phone conversations with her family two or three times a week. She has access to the Internet, Yahoo messaging and videoconferencing. “I was stationed in Korea in 1988, and it is amazing how much easier it is to connect to home now,” she said. “The connection is great and reliable.”

The connection she uses to call home is the same one the Army relies on for its mission.

Although the connectivity is reliable, inadequate bandwidth and storage pose challenges, Schlosser said. For example, lead times for ordering another server or increasing bandwidth are greater in Southwest Asia than they are in Washington.

The Army is always looking for ways to increase bandwidth and data storage capacity. “We constantly are making sure the network is stable and monitoring bandwidth,” Schlosser said. “Rarely do we have outages, which show how far things have come.”

The Army uses Panasonic Toughbooks, which hold up well, Schlosser said.  “The Army evaluated and tested the right equipment because it is pretty darn reliable,” she said. “We rarely have equipment issues.”

Schlosser credits some of that reliability to the work of contractors, who provide technical expertise in several areas. She works with many of the large contractors, including AT&T, ITT, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.

“There is a pretty good balance of military and contractors,” Schlosser said. “The military provides the command and control, mission parameters and boundaries, while the contractors do some of the more complex technical work.”

Schlosser said contractors help the Army solve problems quickly and provide a level of continuity that is lacking in the military because servicemen and women rotate in and out of the command.

In addition to her appreciation of contractors’ work, Schlosser has great respect for the emerging leaders in the military whom she has observed in action. “It has been an amazing experie ce to ee the role they play and the role they will play in government and industry when they get back,” she said.

Schlosser said she hopes to return home for a short period of time in the spring and finish her one-year tour this summer. “I assume I will go back to HUD after my tour is over,” she said.

Parenti said HUD expects Schlosser to resume her CIO duties in the fall.

“If she had her way, Lisa would be involved in every aspect of the CIO department and its affect on every program,” Parenti said. However, he added, “we make a great effort to limit our outreach to her. We try to do it only when it is important because we don’t want to distract her.”

Despite their best intentions to avoid distracting her, Schlosser’s HUD colleagues have stayed in close touch with Schlosser. “She has shown, with the right technology, you can get your job done from anywhere,” Parenti said. “She is the ultimate teleworker.”

Miller wrote this article when he was news editor at Federal Computer Week.

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