Starting from scratch
- By Judi Hasson
- Aug 09, 2004
The paint is fresh in Deborah Diaz's office. The carpeting is new, and so is the computer system. But don't be deceived. Although Diaz has been in her new office for only a few weeks, she has been hard at work for months.
As the chief information officer at the Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology Directorate, she is responsible for building the information technology infrastructure for the division that is working overtime to develop new technologies to fight terrorism.
For Diaz, it's a dream job. Forget about the long hours, impossible tasks or, until recently, the crowded quarters. There is so much to do that those things are merely distractions.
There are no legacy systems to dismantle, no embedded culture to fight and no red tape to cut. But the mission is urgent, and the time is short to develop solutions to an impossible problem — detecting terrorism before it happens. "We don't have five years," she said.
If ever there was an agent of change, it is Deborah Diaz.
Diaz "moves people beyond their comfort zone and helps them to arrive at a new level of performance that they were not aware they could achieve," said Bill Piatt, a partner in Unisys Corp.'s federal government group who has known Diaz for 15 years.
Diaz has had a long career in technology and business. During the 1980s, Diaz helped blaze a trail to Africa where she used her background in international business to help forge private-sector development in sub-Saharan countries, first for a consulting firm and then with the U.S. Agency for International Development. At USAID, she introduced public/private technology partnerships overseas.
In 2000, Diaz became one of the first employees at FirstGov, and later she was named the initiative's director. She was part of the team that achieved President Clinton's 90-day goal of creating the Web portal for thousands of federal sites.
For nearly a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she almost single-handedly kept FirstGov operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "Literally, it was me holding the bag," she said.
As the White House was being evacuated that fateful day, Diaz was across the street in her office. Instead of leaving, she drew the blinds, gathered a handful of senior managers and came up with a plan to keep FirstGov updated with current information about how the government was responding to the terrorist attacks. Later, working from their homes, they launched a Web page called "America Responds to 9-11."
The rapid response to a national crisis was a poignant example of the power of the Internet, and it succeeded in providing much-needed information to a public stunned by the worst terrorist attack on American soil. Even CNN directed people to the government Web site to get information, Diaz said.
In her new role at the Science and Technology Directorate, she is helping build an agency from scratch. "So much needs to be done," Diaz said. "Terrorism is worldwide. The mission is critical."
Indeed, Diaz's must-do list is long. Her role is a strategic one: creating the policy to carry out the IT mission and advising undersecretary Charles McQueary on developing and implementing a comprehensive plan. The directorate has grown from only six employees to 300 — and soon to 400, Diaz said.
"As in any start-up, you have to be very careful in setting your priorities," Diaz said. "And because everything is needed yesterday, you have to make certain that you take a broad look and you work on two tracks" to produce short-term and long-term deliverables, she added.
On the one hand, her job is to make sure every desk has a computer and software. On the other, she has the challenge of developing a classified computing center where information is compartmentalized.
"This is a fabulous place to work," Diaz said. "It has the most energy. It has the touch points across the department. If you look at who our stakeholders are — we work with the universities, the private sector. Anyone we can possibly think of, we can touch," she said.
Directorate officials are seeking ideas from the public about how to fight terrorism. They recently held a public symposium in San Diego to explain to vendors what kinds of technologies they are looking for. And they have held a series of town meetings to explain their needs.
Directorate officials also have created a Web site and e-mail address where people can send ideas. Diaz said the officials read e-mail and respond.
This could be a heady job for someone who started her professional life in a different world and time. But those who work with her say that Diaz has always been able to identify opinion leaders and work in an environment where she can get the job done.
"She is a focused professional," said McQueary, Diaz's boss. "Her attention to detail and ability to follow up on all actions give me complete confidence on our IT plan for the directorate. She provides constant feedback to my chief of staff and is always ahead of the game. She sets high standards for herself and then delivers."
Diaz is known for her management style. "I have never seen her lose her cool," said Michael Messinger, who worked with her at FirstGov.
"One of the things I found very interesting and exciting about working with Deborah is that she believes strongly in working with the team she selects and giving them the ability to work without micromanaging them," Messinger said.
Roopangi Kadakia, the directorate's information systems security manager, has worked for Diaz for four years. She followed Diaz from FirstGov to DHS and watched her get things done.
"Whenever Deborah is involved with something, I see how things get done instead of getting caught in the bureaucracy," Kadakia said. "I think [it's] because she's so savvy with understanding people, understanding motivation and all those touch points