INTERVIEW

DISA won't get derailed by changes in location, culture

Paige Atkins is in charge of keeping DISA running smoothly despite big changes

The Defense Information Systems Agency’s Paige Atkins recently made the jump from director of the Defense Spectrum Organization to director of the Strategic Planning and Information Directorate and has been running at top speed ever since. The agency is taking a lead role in government IT and collaboration, and it’s also moving from its longtime Arlington, Va., location to Fort Meade, Md., under the Base Realignment and Closure Act.

The two challenges would be tough separately, but DISA’s evolving mission and impending relocation are happening simultaneously. And Atkins is in the middle, coordinating strategy and policy to make sure it all happens smoothly.

She met recently with staff writer Amber Corrin to talk about balancing priorities, managing key partnerships and coordinating a relocation without losing sight of the mission.

FCW: What are your top priorities?

Atkins: Well, No. 1 is BRAC. BRAC specifically, but in general, people — taking care of our folks. You can’t accomplish the mission without the folks who are doing it day to day. So that’s definitely our top priority.

Another priority is aligning the agency’s processes and resources to ensure that we can rapidly adapt to changes in requirements and priorities. Our current and future state is largely wrapped around unpredictability and complexity. We have to be postured to deliver our capabilities in that changing environment, so we need to be ensuring that our processes and resources can adapt to that. That’s very important.

The last priority I’ll mention — and this isn’t all-inclusive by any stretch, but I’m giving you my top three — is all about the partnerships, particularly with our customers and the stakeholders we work with but also industry. We can’t be successful without those partnerships. Everything we do is reliant and enabled through those partnerships, so that’s another key priority both for me personally and for the agency.

FCW: How are you dealing with the move from Arlington to Fort Meade?

Atkins: From an agency perspective, the leadership focus is going to be the most important part of making the move successfully. Coupled with that is a lot of detailed planning. We have a lot of rehearsal of concept drills, where we walk through the move in terms of people, equipment, execution and ensuring there is no degradation to our mission during the process, ensuring we’re synchronized.

It’s going to start in the January timeframe and go through July. And it’s going to require constant communication and also understanding the environment we’re moving to, both in terms of the building, the capabilities and the Fort Meade area. We’re helping people understand what it’s going to be like and, if they’re interested in moving, helping them look at the area and the school system, transportation options, all of that. We’re focused on minimizing the impact to the workforce. We’re aggressively trying to retain our talent in a lot of ways, especially by getting people excited about the mission and leveraging things like telework and more forward-looking capabilities.

And we’re aggressively recruiting to fill the anticipated gaps. We’ve had job fairs that have drawn thousands of people. We didn’t turn anyone away. There’s a lot of excitement in the area.

FCW: How do you see DISA’s mission evolving, and what is contributing to its growing complexity?

Atkins: Part of the complexity is around the nature of how we go to war today. It’s about coalitions, working with partners that we haven’t traditionally worked with before and the complement of those partners changing depending on the engagement at hand. Iraq looks one way, Afghanistan looks a different way. Both require different coalition and interagency partners.

Then you get into something like the Haiti response, and that’s a whole different [complexity]. It’s heavier on interagency and nongovernmental organization collaboration, so it’s a different dynamic you’re working with.

There’s also the complexity of dealing with technology. Part of that complexity is tied to the aforementioned partners because you might have engagement at lower echelons and those echelons may have differing levels of technological maturity. How do you ensure that you can communicate and have effective command and control as you’re dealing with those differing levels of technology and systems?

It’s really a combination of things, and a large part of that complexity is the unpredictability of what’s next — what the engagement will look like, what the enemy will look like, so to speak.

FCW: Where do you see the most progress being made and how?

Atkins: The most significant progress I’ve seen, particularly over the past few years, really is the partnership. The progress that we’ve made and the synergy that we’ve gained have been tremendous — with the services and combatant commands in particular but also with [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] and the Joint Staff.

We’ve collectively accelerated our ability to deliver our capabilities because we are working together and garnering that synergy. The 100 percent increase in bandwidth in Afghanistan that [DISA Director Lt. Gen. Carroll Pollett] has talked about, the diversity and robustness of the fiber we use, the common and improved security architecture, the deployment of enterprise services such as our work with the Army to deliver enterprise e-mail in a way that it’s scalable and can be a joint solution in the future — all of those things have been enabled by these partnerships. That’s been a very powerful opportunity for [the Defense Department].

FCW: What are some of the challenges you expect to face in the future?

Atkins: In general, as we look toward the future, the biggest challenge I see is the challenge of change. We are fundamentally changing how we do things. If you look at our enterprise infrastructure, we traditionally delivered services and capabilities in a stratified model where we deliver network services, computing services or other enterprise services. Essentially, what we’re doing is moving from that stratified model and collapsing those layers and really providing a service that’s integrating and seamless.

It requires a different perspective where you’re thinking end to end rather than just the network piece or just the computing piece. And it’s not just one person but pervasively everyone thinking end to end, starting at the edge. People have to understand how these things interrelate to each other, technically and in terms of processes, operations and security. Not that we don’t do some of that today — we do — but it’s a fundamental culture shift in approach.

Culture is one of the hardest things to change. You approach it in different ways. Personally, I think the most significant impact you can have on culture is for people to understand what you’re trying to achieve and how important it is. When people embrace that thought process and get excited, inevitably you start changing that mindset.

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