Straight shooter

Bonner mixes humor with a straightforward approach to make things happen in Defense medical logistics

Three and a half years ago, Steve Marquess, an engineer at Defense Medical Logistics Standard Support (DMLSS), realized that he could write an open-source encryptographic module that secures data.

Called the Cryptographic Module Validation Program, the software faced huge political hurdles in getting approved—in the form of resistance from software companies that sell proprietary modules to the federal government and others.
With an open-source module, anyone needing this kind of secure software stands to save a lot of money on licensing and vendor hardware needed to run proprietary software. Although the project also had some corporate sponsors, other companies that trade in this area might have had good reason to be unhappy.

But Marquess had a powerful advocate—Debra Bonner, director of operations for DMLSS.

Bonner, essentially, was the catalyst for moving the program forward.

Rocking the boat

“Vendors aren’t real happy because of lost revenues. There was a lot of pressure not to rock the boat,” recalled Col. Catherine Erickson, DMLSS program manager and Bonner’s boss. “Debbie was the one who said, ‘No, we have to continue with this.’ She’s a gutsy lady. She had to stand up to some of the larger corporations who might have put some political pressure on her.”

And when the program received Federal Information Processing Standard-140-2 validation on Jan. 27, Bonner said it was the highlight her 36-year federal career. Her time in government has been built around a straightforward, honest approach to working with other people—and a good dose of humor as well.

“The most important thing to me is honesty,” she said. “People may not like what I say, but it’s the truth. When you’re honest, you get trust; and when you have trust, you’re unlimited in what you can do together as a team.”

But, she said, “you also have to keep things fun. I work with so many witty people. And, it’s helped that throughout my career I’ve known people inside and outside work, which helps everyone gain trust and understanding.

“Also, I don’t squash creativity. I tell people what the job is, and I run a pretty tight ship—but I’m always amazed at the ways people accomplish their tasks. And when they succeed, everyone wins.”

Bonner jump-started her career from an Oklahoma City Dairy Queen, where she worked in high school in the late 1960s. She recalls her boss telling her that the FBI was looking for people to hire and that her—the boss’—daughter had applied and gotten a job. Bonner decided to give it a try, took what she described as a “weird spelling test” and passed. Soon, she got a formal letter that she was in.

Early days

“I was an 18-year-old on cloud nine, going to Washington to work for the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover,” she said. “It was so much fun. They put you in these boarding houses, and it was like one big party for 18-and 19-year-olds.”

Moving her way up the ranks, Bonner eventually found herself in 1994 at DMLSS, where she established herself as a leader and developer of information systems across Defense.

DOD initiated DMLSS, which develops and fields IT solutions for the military’s health system, to completely re-engineer its medical logistics supply chain through the use of e-commerce.

“This was a huge endeavor,” Erickson said. “What Debbie’s been involved with has changed the whole paradigm of the medical supply chain process. There were no rules on how to do an information technology program when she started. She went through the process from the beginning of DMLSS and throughout her career has been helping to mold the IT processes medical people use today.”

The result is that in December 2005, DMLSS had its final fielding of its “just-in-time” inventory system to more than 3,500 direct users and 11,000 tangential users around the world. It no longer takes six months to requisition and receive supplies; now, a request can be filled overnight. Plus, over the entire lifecycle of the system—an estimated 20 years—Erickson said there would be an estimated savings of $3.6 billion.

She credited Bonner with leadership that not only pushed the project forward successfully, but also enabled users to embrace it.

“Debbie goes forward with well-thought-out ideas and ways to execute them,” said Erickson. “It’s creativity but in a correct way, always making sure that people are supported and working within our guidelines, laws and regulatory requirements. Some people may say that they should stay in the safe zone, but she has her convictions and has the credibility because she knows what she’s talking about.”

It was that approach, said Mary Erikson, a business management specialist at DMLSS, that helped Marquess’ open SSL initiative go forward.

“It was very gutsy and took a lot of initiative to promote,” she said. “Debbie’s a mentor and great recognizer of potential. She’s very straightforward. You always know exactly what’s going on.”

Caron Golden is a freelance writer based in San Diego.

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