New CIO has broad-based view of IT issues

Education’s Bill Vajda worries about cybersecurity in the decades to come

Bill Vajda, the new chief information officer at the Education Department, would probably agree that he doesn’t have the best job in Washington, D.C., but no one can tell him he doesn’t have the best view.

His ninth-floor corner office at Potomac Center Plaza offers a vivid panorama of the takeoffs and landings at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, frenetic fish market activity along Maine Avenue and the endless traffic winding its way across the Southeast/Southwest Freeway. But as an avid sailor, Vajda’s favorite sight is the yachts and sailboats that dot the Potomac River as far as he can see.

Vajda joined the department three months ago after tours with the National Security Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and NATO.

Education is a far different place than NSA, he said. Here, he’s free to talk about his work, “but it’s probably very uninteresting to anybody I talk to about it,” he said, laughing. “When you sign into [intelligence work], you sign in for life,” he added, turning serious. “So it’ll be long after I am dead before anybody can ever really talk about some of the things I did, quite literally.”

He said that in his first months on the new job, he has gained an appreciation for the abilities and caliber of the department’s employees. He is also pleased by how quickly they accepted him. “It’s oftentimes very difficult for people to come in at a senior level of an organization,” he said, “because whatever they might bring to the job, they lack the internal understanding of the organization and the culture and the levers available to them to effect change.”

Their quick acceptance may be because of what Vajda’s former Defense Department colleague William Jack said are his exceptional interpersonal skills, concern for government and a great sense of humor. “He’s a hard worker and very dedicated,” said Jack, now a vice president at Science Applications International Corp.

Jack has known Vadja for about five years. “He’s as conscientious as can be,” he said, “and a down-the-middle manager” who cares about his people. He’s also an outstanding ragtime piano player, Jack added.

Vajda said he is concerned about the use and potential misuse of federal databases that contain personally identifiable information. The department’s Federal Student Loan Program is just one example of a vulnerable dataset that only gets bigger.

“We’re dealing predominantly with a group of people who are just beginning their adult life experience, and they have a different view of technology and a different set of expectations of how they’re going to use IT,” he said. Many student borrowers do not think enough about Internet security, he added.

Vajda said he is concerned because no single central oversight body establishes security policy or helps those who may have had their information compromised.

“Who pays to mitigate that?” he asked.

The Bill Vajda FileCurrent position: Chief information officer at the Education Department.

Career highlights:Appointed to the Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service by Gen. Michael Hayden and served as associate director for information technology and CIO at the National Security Agency. During his three years at NSA, he held global responsibility for NSA’s IT capabilities. He supported a number of successful transformational initiatives, including U.S. activities during the war on terrorism. He also served as deputy assistant commissioner for systems development and deputy CIO during the organizational restructuring of the Internal Revenue Service. Vajda spent 11 years in Europe in a variety of NATO and industry roles, including a diplomatic posting to the SHAPE Technical Centre/NATO C3 Agency.

Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Michigan.

Hobbies: Sailing, scuba diving and community volunteer work.

Most unusual recent event: Billionaire Sir Richard Branson slipped into Vajda’s VIP seat at the Virgin Festival rock concert last month to escape the crowd. The two chatted until the press cornered Branson for an impromptu news conference as Vajda looked on.

About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.

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