Civilian links the fleet's users

Civil engineers as a rule do not glamorize the tools of their trade. Bulldozers, for example, hold a fascination for small boys but are simply very large machines that are capable of moving large amounts of earth more efficiently than a shovel.

Similarly, Monica Shepherd, who worked as a Navy civil engineer before taking over earlier this year as director of command, control, communications and computers for the Navy's Atlantic Fleet, does not view computers with anything more than the perspective of a person who appreciates applying the right tool to a task.

"Not a Widget Person"

Shepherd, the first woman and the first civilian ever to serve as director, candidly described herself as "not a widget person.'' But she quickly added that she has on staff "technical people who know the details."

Shepherd understands that her relative lack of experience in the information technology field could be viewed as her greatest weakness. But she also said it could be her greatest strength because it prevents her from getting lost in the IT weeds and allows her to focus on what she views as the primary purpose of her job: "[to improve] the survivability of platforms and their crews."

That's a tall order. Her command includes 195 ships, one-fifth of them deployed at any time; 1,360 aircraft; and 18 major shore installations with an active-duty force of 142,000 Navy and Marine Corps personnel. A hodgepodge of incompatible IT systems of varying vintages serves this formidable force, and Shepherd said her main task involves ensuring interoperability between users.

"I spend more time on interoperability than any other issue," Shepherd said. "We cannot afford a lack of interoperability either in terms of financing or efficiency. All systems should be able to talk with each other, and the biggest problem we have is not identifying interoperability issues early on.''

Shepherd's positive outlook shows through in her statement that the fleet's large number of complex and stovepiped systems presents "a lot opportunities to make sure things interoperate.''

The Navy's Information Technology for the 21st Century project, backed by both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, eventually will provide users at sea and on shore with a standard suite of commercial, compatible and interoperable systems. But Shepherd pointed out that IT-21 will not resolve all her interoperability or IT challenges because the project is designed to outfit only about half the ships in each carrier battle group. This means that fleet commands face what she called "tough sourcing decisions.''

"The only sourcing decisions left are the hard ones," she said. "Some folks won't have access.''

Shepherd brings her own personal experience to bear on these tough resource decisions; she lived through them growing up. Her father was a staff sergeant in the Air Force, and she was one of four daughters. "We were poor,'' she said, quickly adding that her parents gave her and her sisters everything they needed, including love, warmth and support.

Asked to assess her success, Shepherd paused and then said she never would have anticipated what she called the "special opportunity'' her new job represents: a chance to obtain the tools that the fleet needs to conduct its mission.

And that's how she repeatedly referred to computer and communications systems: tools to enable ships and sailors to go safely into— and away from— harm's way.

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