Life on the edge

Lee Holcomb, the acting chief technology officer at the Homeland Security Department, has always been standing on the edge of the frontier.

A second-generation aerospace engineer, he remembers spending the Cold War's early days following his father from outpost to outpost while Don Holcomb experimented with rockets in the desert.

Later, Lee Holcomb also experimented with rockets. While working on advanced technologies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., he helped develop the propulsion system for the spacecraft Voyager. Nearly 25 years after Voyager's launch, his part in creating the most distant human-made object in the universe remains one of his proudest accomplishments.

Now Holcomb faces a new task. He must assess DHS' information technology and develop the enterprise architecture for the 180,000-employee department created by the merger of 22 agencies.

"I like big challenges," he said. "I went to work in the space program because I like big challenges."

It was a challenge that brought him to DHS, too, taking a leave from his post as NASA's chief information officer.

"The challenge of integrating the department to more effectively deal with homeland security is the equivalent to the space race of the 1960s," Holcomb said. "It's also a challenge technology, particularly information technology, plays a foundational piece in solving."

No Easy Task

His colleagues and friends say Holcomb has the brain of an engineer: He can analyze information, articulate the problem and find the solution.

"He has a fascinating ability to look at very large, complex business and technology issues or problems and understand all the components and also how they interrelate and tie the solution set back, both strategically and technically," said Andrea Norris, the deputy CIO at the National Science Foundation who was Holcomb's deputy at NASA.

A self-described introvert, Holcomb inspires confidence among many people who have worked with him. Norris describes Holcomb as "very thoughtful, very well-respected. When he speaks, there is a lot of value in what he says."

Right now, he is trying to use technology to share information more effectively and improve the job for employees, analysts and first responders.

Holcomb and the department have moved at warp speed to bring up the external and internal portals in three weeks each, develop the initial version of the enterprise architecture, and identify technologies that need to move forward and those that should be abandoned.

"We need to move very quickly because our enemy is not waiting," he said. "We have made some significant strides in some very short time."

He knows that it's a very different world from the Cold War in many ways — not just in security, but in technology, too.

Holcomb said that back when his father worked on developing rockets, "you built 200 different rocket engines and saw what blew up and what didn't."

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