The veterinarian becomes a CIO
Gregory Parham, who has spent much of his career at the Agriculture Department, likes to talk about his youth in Reynoldsburg, a small town in central Ohio that professes to be the birthplace of the commercial tomato. By sharing that historical detail, Parham reveals that his agricultural roots run deep.
Besides coming from a town that is proud of its tomatoes, Parham has other agricultural ties. His father was a veterinarian who worked at the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Parham, who is also a veterinarian, became APHIS’ chief information officer in March.
In his new role, Parham said he will focus on maximizing the agency’s information technology resources. Since taking the position, Parham said, he has tried to learn all he can about the agency and has spent much of his time learning about APHIS’ mission.
The position is not quite what he expected. Parham said he knew that APHIS had an expansive mission, but its breadth and depth are greater than he realized.
Preventing bioterrorism, for example, is a major part of that mission. APHIS responds to new bioterrorism threats in the same way it deals with animal diseases. It identifies potential problems and tries to mitigate the risks they pose. APHIS has faced many unfamiliar threats and found practices and procedures to deal with them, he said.
One important program in development is a national animal identification system that would control disease outbreaks by using IT to track livestock from the farm to the slaughterhouse, Parham said. It requires close partnerships with states and the livestock industry.
Parham’s colleagues said they are glad to see him in his new position as CIO. “He understands the fundamental issues of the agency in a way that very few CIOs could because of his background” in IT and veterinary research, said Anne Reed, president of Acquisition Solutions and former USDA CIO. She said Parham is focused and intellectually curious.
Several years ago, Reed asked Parham to be executive leader of the USDA’s Year 2000 code-conversion program. He performed that role well and continued to work in the CIO’s office, she said. As APHIS’ CIO, “he’ll bring a level of professionalism to the position” and will find ways to use IT to improve how the agency performs its mission, she added.
Another former colleague described Parham as an excellent fit at APHIS. “First and foremost, Greg Parham is a fine human being,” said Ira Hobbs, CIO of the Treasury Department and a former USDA deputy CIO. He said Parham is a dependable man with integrity, compassion and conviction. “It’s been a fine tribute that he’s become a CIO,” Hobbs said.
As a former associate CIO at the USDA, Parham reduced the department’s IT portfolio costs by 30 percent in a two-year period, mostly by eliminating redundant information systems.
Parham keeps up with his health science interest. The spread of disease among animals and from animals to humans fascinates him.
“I was very interested in diseases and populations,” he said, adding that he studied epidemiology within the field of veterinary medicine.
Parham’s transition from veterinary medicine to IT occurred after he graduated from vet school and got a job as an epidemic intelligence officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “To be able to have that kind of an opportunity…gave me a real sense of the kinds of things you can do in the government,” he said.
Parham studied rabies in wild animals throughout the central United States by using computers to generate maps and models that showed how the disease spread. At that time, mainframes were dominant in the computing world, and PCs were new.
That experience and other opportunities offered by the government drew Parham into a life of public service. Many of the jobs that interest him would be difficult to do elsewhere, he said. Working in the federal government, he can combine his veterinary expertise with IT.
“When you look at what the opportunities are to do a lot of varied kinds of things, the government is a pretty good place,” he said.