FBI's CIO is on the job all the time
- By Sara Michael
- Jun 14, 2004
For Zalmai Azmi, the landscape of decentralized technology management at the FBI is a familiar scene. As the FBI's new chief information officer, Azmi is charged with reining in the bureau's system planning and development, a job he did at another division in the Justice Department.
With his experience building relationships within an organization, Azmi arrived at the FBI to shape a new enterprise and manage its information technology modernization efforts.
"It's enormous, and it's not going to be an easy task," Azmi said of the disparate systems that he and his IT shop are trying to collect. Although Azmi and his managers are evaluating the FBI's IT capabilities, the first step is to boost the skills and structure of the IT shop.
Azmi joined Justice's Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys about five years ago as assistant director for automation and led the Year 2000 modernization push. But the ailments of the office extended beyond date-change preparations because officials lacked a broader picture of IT implementation. In fact, that picture resembled the state of the FBI's systems when Azmi came on board — they lacked central management and security measures, he said.
Coming from the structured environment of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, in which he spent six years, Azmi saw the immediate need to rework the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, the Justice division that oversees U.S. attorneys' offices nationwide. Undaunted by the task, Azmi wrote a white paper on the need for centralized IT management, prompting the Justice CIO to authorize a CIO position within the office. Thus, Azmi was named the first CIO of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys.
"That actually was a very rewarding career for me," Azmi said.
From his experience with that office, Azmi learned how to centralize management and make communication with field offices a priority. He sent monthly updates to the field offices during the transition, doubled the number of employees in the division to 70 and expanded the IT shop's scope, he said.
"We had a great relationship with the operational divisions," Azmi said. "Every time they wanted to do something, we were out there doing it."
Azmi's new role at the FBI became official last month; he has served as acting CIO since January. He joined the FBI as a special assistant to the director in 2003. He now plans to reorganize the bureau's IT shop, a job that took him about three years at the U.S. attorneys office. Azmi anticipates that the FBI reorganization will be even more complex.
"The scope is a lot broader because of the number of responsibilities and the desire to be in direct partnership with Justice," he said.
When he took the reins in January, he already had a fairly good idea of the challenges facing the FBI and immediately began developing an enterprise architecture and a strategic plan.
"By then, I had already looked at the [General Accounting Office] and [inspector general] reports, and I knew what we were being criticized for," Azmi said, referring to reports in recent years that criticized the FBI for poor, decentralized IT management, inefficient contract management and slow systems modernization.
Azmi said he is working to build the CIO's office to include program management capabilities and project operations and maintenance, and so far, the increased staffing has come from within the bureau. However, he plans to soon recruit outside help while fostering in-house talent for management duties.
"That is a testimony to their effort, their dedication," he said. "We have the talent; we just need to put them on the right path. We need to grow some of our own for oversight, but we're also looking to outsource some of our other capabilities."
His biggest challenge at the FBI is ensuring adequate communication with technology managers and field agents, he said. Agents are often not aware of the capabilities within the FBI, such as Internet cafés, which were implemented in field offices to allow for various levels of secure access, Azmi said. His job is to tackle these less complicated tasks by supplying tools to agents, he said.
If that direction and focus of resources don't come from the CIO's office, FBI agents will find another way, Azmi said. For example, three other divisions within the bureau were already developing enterprise architectures.
"If we don't deliver the IT services, agents are going to find their own solutions; they're goal oriented," he said. "I'm on a very fast pace. I need to gain the confidence of the agents and users out there. That comes through communication."
Azmi practices that philosophy through meetings with the FBI director twice each day, morning meetings with the team that leads development of the Virtual Case File — the final piece of the Trilogy modernization program — and weekly meetings with those who report to him.
"I like to do that: I like to sit down face-to-face," he said.
His commitment to communication is evident because he is always available to his colleagues in the CIO's office, said Andrew Castor, a special assistant to Azmi who joined the bureau temporarily from his post as an assistant special agent in charge at the FBI's San Antonio office.
"He's probably the nicest person you'd ever meet," Castor said. "He always has time for you. That's probably why he's here day and night. He'd give you the shirt off his back."
Azmi has the energy and experience to utilize the creative talent within the bureau to get IT management and modernization on track, Castor said. "He's a tremendous individual. He's extremely energetic [and] creative. He's truly a visionary of where we need to go and how we need to get there."
With about 20 years of government experience under his belt, Azmi said he is dedicated to public service. He emigrated from Afghanistan in 1982 and spent seven years in the Marine Corps, first specializing in radio communications and later working in military intelligence.
In 1992, he joined USPTO as part of a co-op program at Northern Virginia Community College.
"All of my ambition has been in public service," he said. "I've never had any thoughts about the private sector — at least not yet."
After a year, he became a full-time employee for the government, but that didn't impede his educational pursuits. While his work ran the gamut from networking to program management for software development, he earned his associate's degree, a bachelor's degree from American University and a master's degree from George Washington University.
"I had no personal life," he said.
That has changed. Last year, Azmi married his wife, Rahima, and the couple is expecting their first child, a girl, in August. He met his wife, who is also from Afghanistan, four years ago. She has taken time off from her studies as a double major with a focus on premed, Azmi said.
Any free time Azmi might find outside
his duties at the FBI is dedicated to his wife and his voracious reading habit, mainly books on terrorism and Afghanistan.
He is also constantly connected to the office; he is copied on every e-mail message that circulates around the IT shop, a request that is often overwhelming. "I try not to leave any e-mail without an answer," he said.
The Zalmai Azmi file
Title: Chief information officer at the FBI.
Family: His wife, Rahima, is seven months pregnant with the couple's first child. He emigrated from Afghanistan in 1982. His immediate family, including four sisters and two brothers, also emigrated and now live in the United States.
Hobbies: Besides spending time with his wife, Azmi is a voracious reader. Among the four books he's reading now are "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001" by Steve Coll and "The Lion's Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan" by Jon Lee Anderson.
Education: He has an associate's degree in systems analysis and design from Northern Virginia Community College, a bachelor's degree in computer information systems from American University and a master's degree in managing information systems from George Washington University — all earned while working full-time for the
Work history: He spent seven years in the Marine Corps and joined the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1992 as part of a co-op program through Northern Virginia Community College. He
has worked with the Justice Department since 1999, first at the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys and currently at the FBI.
Quote: "I like to sit down with people face-to-face. Communication is a must."