Curt Barker: The man who mastered deadlines

As a pro bono project manager at NIST, he unlocked the secrets of teamwork

William “Curt” Barker said his biggest problem in grade school was starting projects and never finishing them. So he decided to drum that weakness out of himself. “Finishing what I start has become a passion,” he said.

Call it ironic or appropriate, but the child who couldn’t complete anything is now the man whom government and industry experts applaud for keeping on track a high-stakes process to create a new standard for secure federal credentials.

Barker oversaw federal efforts to produce the Federal Information Processing Standard 201 for Personal Identity Verification of Federal Employees and Contractors. FIPS 201 lays out the requirements for meeting Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (HSPD-12), which requires agencies to start issuing interoperable smart card identity credentials to federal employees and contractors by Oct. 27. He helped Bush administration officials and federal agencies implement the first phase of the PIV program.

Barker supervised the development and implementation of technical guidelines for biometric and smart card interfaces and cryptographic algorithms and key sizes. He also established guidelines and references for conformance testing at 10 labs.

In summer 2004, it was clear that the Bush administration would issue a presidential directive to require a standard for secure credentials within six months, Barker said. He started work before President Bush announced the directive. “If I’m pretty sure something is going to happen, I try to do my homework in advance,” he said.

In June 2004, Barker created a “straw man” card, a basic concept of what the new cards could look like to jump-start discussions and reach a solution faster. He started working on the PIV standard in July 2004. Bush issued HSPD-12 a month later.

Creating a standard usually takes two years; Barker and his team had six months. “He did what must have been the fastest FIPS turnaround ever,” said Neville Pattinson, director of technology and government affairs at Axalto, which sells smart cards.

Barker got approval from the Homeland Security, Defense, Justice and State departments and administration officials a week before the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Feb. 27 submission deadline. On the evening of Feb. 24, he and his wife delivered the final version of the standard to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

The delivery was classic Barker: They drove in a snowstorm to the department in downtown Washington, D.C., so Gutierrez could sign it before he left town the next day for Florida.

Barker excels at handling a broad range of technical challenges involved in creating the PIV cards — biometrics, identity management, interoperability and more, Pattinson said. Barker knows how to coach government and industry to move them forward, he said. It was Barker’s idea to pare down FIPS 201 to the essentials to meet the February deadline and address subsidiary issues in the Special Publication 800 series of documents, he said.

Timothy Grance, manager of NIST’s Systems and Networks Security Group, said Barker’s people skills are top-notch. “Perhaps his greatest gift is the ability to win the confidence, trust and respect of others in a topic with very high stakes and many contentious and spirited voices,” he said.

Barker said it helps that he had done a lot of proposal work in industry, all under hard deadlines. His master’s degree in liberal arts helped him express technical concepts in terms that operations and policy experts understand, he said.

Barker has helped the federal government move toward adopting more secure and adaptable credentials that all federal agencies recognize, said David Ferraiolo, a supervisory computer scientist at NIST. Cross-credentialing will revolutionize access control and government efficiency, he said. The PIV cards’ biometric and cryptographic features should wean the government from using computer passwords, which are less secure, he said.

Above all, Barker’s personal generosity made federal progress on PIV cards possible, Ferraiolo said. As a guest researcher, Barker worked pro bono for four years, until May 2005. NIST could not have complied with the unfunded mandate for HSPD-12 on schedule without Barker’s willingness to work without a salary, he said.

William ‘Curt’ BarkerCurrent position:Computer scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Career highlights: Barker worked for the National Security Agency in the 1960s and 1970s and then worked in the private sector for 19 years. He joined a successful information technology start-up and took early retirement in 1997. He became a guest researcher at NIST in November 2001, working on cryptography, card technologies and computer security. He became a full-time employee in May 2005.

Education: Barker earned a bachelor’s degree in English from University of Texas Pan-American and a master’s degree in liberal arts from Johns Hopkins University.

Family: Barker has been married for 38 years and has two children. He met his wife, an encryption expert, when they worked at NSA.

Hobbies: Barker enjoys Latin dance, running and operating a longhorn cattle ranch, which he owns outside Austin, Texas.

Heroes: Barker respects his brother-in-law, a successful businessman who is a low-profile but generous philanthropist. He also admires Sam Houston, the 19th-century Texas governor who opposed Texas’ secession in the Civil War. “It showed moral courage,” Barker said. “To stand by one’s principles in the face of almost universal condemnation shows a strength of character that you don’t see very often.”

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