PEO deputy ready for budget challenges

Terry Watson was recently named deputy program executive officer for Army enterprise information systems, but she’s hardly new to the program. When Gary Winkler, leader of the Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems, announced her promotion, he made sure to highlight her extensive Army career, noting that she “has been with the PEO since before it was a PEO.”

Although Watson laughingly says Winkler's announcement might reveal more about her age than she would prefer, she said her years of experience have prepared her well for the many challenges the Army and Defense Department are facing. In an era of budgetary uncertainty, rapid technological development and continuously evolving needs, PEO-EIS must deal with hurdles familiar to the entire defense community. But unlike many DOD organizations, PEO-EIS must take on the difficulties while acting as a communications backbone that stretches from the Pentagon to the last tactical mile, where the lives of soldiers are on the line.

In her new role, Watson is determined to improve the way PEO-EIS does its job and hopes to help with the broader transformation of the Army and DOD. “It is a matter of being in a position where I can help influence change,” she said. “I can bring out that creative side and try to get others to adopt new ways of doing things.”

Watson recently sat down with Federal Computer Week’s Amber Corrin to talk about her hopes, plans and priorities as she takes on some daunting responsibilities while keeping her sights set on helping troops on the ground.

FCW: Tell us more about your background and how it’s coming into play with what you’re doing now.

Watson: I have 32 years of federal service and finished my degree while in the working world. My background started in the accounting world, so I at least had a feel for [the financial side]. I wanted to be a bean counter; prior to my government life I was a bank teller. So I went from the numbers to the software to the hardware side, then went into the fielding arena and the deployment of computer systems and dealt with soldiers actually using the equipment. That was probably one of the most rewarding parts — seeing the change from the old, antiquated ways of doing business to the automated side, the acceptance of the soldiers of what we were building for the field. Then I went full circle and back to the acquisition side.

So I’ve seen all the requirements of systems to how the systems have evolved, from cradle to grave. That’s given me a good perspective.… It gave me the full picture of what it took, and I can appreciate what it was going to evolve to in the end-state when it got into the soldiers’ hands.

Does that make the bureaucracy any less cumbersome? It’ll probably put me in a good position to know that there needs to be some change. That will probably be my challenge.

FCW: What’s something you’re working on now that you’re excited about?

Watson: I’ve actually been given the opportunity to sit on the IT acquisition reform task force, on the contracting team. It’s chaired by [Elizabeth McGrath, DOD’s deputy chief management officer], and it’s really just getting started. Right now, we’re focusing on requirements, acquisition, funding and government…[in addition to] contracting and metrics. We have sessions every two weeks with the [deputy chief management officer] and [will meet with] the new DOD CIO, so there’s some high-level influence on this to ensure that we’re going to do things that really make a difference.

We’re even being asked to look at some statutes, things that we think maybe the senior leadership could go forward with to Congress and try to influence some changes. In a lot of cases, we have a lot of regulations and policies on top of statutes…so a lot of the time we have redundant layers that really aren’t providing any value added. So we’re going to take a look at some of those things and hopefully make them a little less cumbersome.

We’re not at a point where we’re disclosing any of the results of the task force yet. We’re still midstream in it, so I can’t go too far [describing] that. But we’re recognizing there are challenges out there, and the challenges have to do with balancing requirements with the allowable funding, with all of the statutes that are in place and there for a reason.

FCW: How helpful is your background in finance when it comes to dealing with the budgetary issues DOD is facing?

Watson: It is a big issue right now. All of our [program managers] are being challenged right now to manage within their budget, and we’re juggling spending plans. I can say that’s not in my arena anymore [as much as] it used to be, but it does touch every one of our PMs. We look at what they had last year [to spend] and hope they can still be productive with the budgets they have. It’s creative financing at its best. And we need to help with that to any extent we can. We need to be able to move the money where we can to meet the demand and the priorities that are handed down [from higher up within DOD].

That’s not easy when you’re dealing with the different colors of money. It’s a lot different than when it’s our own bank accounts and we move money from checking to savings or vice versa. It’s different with reprogramming actions and congressional interest and prior-year budgets. It all makes it very complex. But in the end, we have to put the money where it will do best for the soldier and get the most bang.

I think the biggest constraining element right now is going to be our ability to function in fiscal 2011. And let’s talk about the people who are doing the work — their salaries were just frozen recently. We’ve got morale to deal with. Hiring freezes. The constant adage of "do more with less." That sometimes is not a reality, so we have to be creative and look at some different ways of doing business.

FCW: There seems to be a trend toward appointing women to top military positions: Teri Takai recently took over as DOD's CIO and Maj. Gen. Susan Lawrence has been nominated to be the Army’s CIO. Can you talk about what it’s like to be a woman in that kind of position?

Watson: I haven’t looked at it like that. I’m glad to be part of it and glad to hear that’s something you all are seeing. I’ll be working very closely with Maj. Gen. Lawrence…and in the past, one of the people I’ve interacted with the most was [Brig. Gen. Lee Price, leader of the Army’s PEO for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical]. She’s been a wonderful influence on the [acquisition] community and worked here as a PM at one point. And there’s the leader of our task force, Ms. McGrath, and she’s the [deputy chief management officer].

So there is a change there.… But really it’s like any other opportunity. It’s a matter of putting yourself out there, and if you’re qualified, worthy, energetic and anxious to do it, then you can compete with the best. The opportunities are there for everyone…. [Women] shouldn’t feel like they’re held back. I don’t think it’s a barrier for any of us. I think the glass ceiling is dissipating.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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