IT at core of mission

Debra M. Filippi entered a brave new world 10 months ago when she accepted the post of deputy assistant chief of staff for command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) systems integration for the Marine Corps.

But the 42-year-old Arlington, Va., native brought more than two decades of Navy information technology experience with her when she showed up, giving her a solid understanding of the Navy-Marine team.

Filippi remains close to her Navy roots. Her new office, located in the ever-expanding skyline of Crystal City, Va., is down the hall from the Navy Department's chief information officer— not a bad location for Filippi, who also must carry out the duties of the deputy CIO of the Marine Corps. According to Filippi, the move has helped to put the Marine Corps in the forefront of the Navy CIO's mind.

Filippi's office is unlike most other offices throughout the Marine Corps. The walls are not plastered with plaques, photographs and awards that are typical of the Marine Corps ethos. Rather, the simplicity masks a wealth of experience and a true dedication to the mission at hand.

Filippi began her career in 1978 as computer programmer for the Navy's Worldwide Military Command and Control System. After graduating from the Defense Systems Management College Program Management Course in 1983, Filippi was named project manager for the Navy's Warfare Gaming System, a modeling and simulation system designed to support the Naval War College and various Navy training organizations.

However, in 1986 Filippi jumped ship, moving to the Commerce Department's Patent and Trademark Office, where she managed a $500 million contract to automate the agency's patent application and search process. She returned to the Navy in 1989, serving briefly at the Space and Naval Warfare Command (Spawar) and later rising to the position of deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for command and control and information technology.

With technical and program management experience under her belt, the move to the Marine Corps side of the house was not as much of a culture shock as it could have been. "I kind of walked the walk already when I arrived here," Filippi said. However, "although I'm not totally new to the Marine Corps way of life, there's still Marine Corps 101 going on for me," she said.

Days at the Marine Corps' C4I office sometimes begin before 7 a.m., which is a little earlier than Filippi experienced during other assignments, she said. In addition, her new role is "meeting-centric" and does not readily lend itself to the benefits of telecommunications. "This is one area where IT has not really benefited us yet," Filippi said. There's something about having a face-to-face exchange, what Filippi calls a "baby blue to baby blue," that really makes a difference in the decision-making process, she says.

However, Filippi is astonished at the flexibility and dynamism demonstrated by one of the world's most structured institutions. "I'm absolutely enchanted with the Marine Corps and in awe of the Marine Corps leadership," Filippi said. "The Corps' leadership has demonstrated a willingness to listen and a willingness to try to do things that need to be done in the area of IT."

Filippi also is helping to lead the charge. "We were very lucky to get Debbie," said Mike Decker, Filippi's counterpart on the intelligence staff at Marine Corps headquarters. "She not only brought an extensive [command and control] technical background with her from Spawar but also a personal drive that is energizing Marine Corps' C4I."

Filippi's philosophy reflects that energy. "I believe in the spirit and the exactness of the Clinger-Cohen Act," she said, referring to 1996 legislation that, in part, forces federal agencies to consider expected performance gains when making technology acquisition decisions. "I hope that over time we can effectively ramp up the role of the CIO in the Marine Corps to bring the true value-add of the CIO" to bear on the Marine Corps as a whole, Filippi said.

In the near term, Filippi said more funding would certainly come in handy. "I'd love to have the money necessary to modernize the Marine Corps' C4I and information management infrastructure this year," Filippi said. "This would allow us to do the things we know we need to do soon."

Filippi is looking forward to moving up to the Defense secretary level of IT decision-making, but for now she is concentrating on making a difference for Marines. "I'm proud to be a part of the team that is drafting the Marine Corps' way ahead and path to the future," she said. "I would hope that I would be remembered for stimulating thought and acceptance of new processes for capitalizing on new information technologies."

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