Profile: For Rear Adm. Clifford Pearson, success at the Coast Guard means making users happy
Rear Adm. Clifford Pearson has built a career on understanding the interplay between information technology and people, specifically the end users who rely on computer systems to fulfill the Coast Guard's mission.
"They're the ones you're developing the systems for," said Pearson, the agency's chief information officer and director of information and technology. "It's easy to make assumptions that everybody's IT literate and that's not always the case."
From his office near the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., he recalled his frustration when he tried to use a particular software program, thinking, "This could have been done better."
That knowledge — "that almost any application can be enhanced," he said — has guided Pearson's work in the federal government.
But Pearson, 53, didn't start off so systems savvy. He came to the Coast Guard to serve in the Coast Guard, not for the opportunities in IT. He found those along the way.
"I was attracted to the missions the Coast Guard had and the people I met," he said, adding that his father served at the agency before he did. With a bachelor of science degree in physics from the University of Maryland-College Park, he entered the agency in 1972.
He was then drawn to IT.
"I have always enjoyed thinking about what technology could do for an organization," he said, "the challenge to [get] users and developers aligned."
Tapping into that passion, Pearson bolstered his technical background with a master's degree in computer systems management in 1984, also from Maryland. Almost all of his tours with the Coast Guard since have involved command, control, communications and computers.
After a year as chief of the Engineering Computer Center at agency headquarters, he went into the field, working as chief of the information resources management/command, control and communications staff in Portsmouth, Va.
"He comes with a wealth of experience and years in the technical field in the Coast Guard," said Capt. Dave McLeish, chief of the IT enterprise architecture office at the Coast Guard.
For Pearson, one type of experience stood out: Collaborating with end users and seeing firsthand how a new application's rollout impacted them on the job.
"I think having been in this field for quite a number of years, [I] appreciate the challenges and the opportunities," he said. "When you're removed from the user level, it can be easy to forget how they're going to use it."
There's a world of difference, for instance, between putting a program into action at headquarters and on "a 41-footer at night in typical stormy seas," Pearson continued.
Pearson left Portsmouth for Chesapeake, Va., in 1990, where he became commanding officer of the communications area master station. Three years later, he returned to headquarters as chief of IT strategic planning and architecture. In that role, he did "early work in what we now call enterprise architecture."
Pearson stayed at headquarters in his next two positions, focused on deploying a standard workstation agencywide. In late September 2002, he assumed the role of CIO.
Today, his main motivation is creating a business plan for e-Coast Guard, an initiative to achieve synergy agencywide. With about 40,000 employees spread across 1,500 units, officials must take many variables into account. "Satellite connectivity is a whole different ball game than network access to shoreside," Pearson said.
Two major IT programs are under way at the Coast Guard: the Integrated Deepwater System, a massive upgrade of its aging assets, and Rescue 21, the modernization of its maritime emergency response system.
Another top priority — one connected to those projects — is protecting the nation's home front; the Coast Guard transferred to the new Homeland Security Department March 1.
The move excites Pearson, who sees it as an occasion to use innovative solutions.
For Pearson, however, future successes will be measured by people, not by new programs.
"If the Coast Guard were to be able to achieve full integration of operational and support systems that support end users," he said, that would feel like an accomplishment.
That emphasis on end users is "critical to what we do now," McLeish said. "He emphasizes that continually — that we have to design systems with the end users in mind."
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