'It was almost a quirk'

A lucky break launched Interior's Rachlin on an IT career

Sue Rachlin, deputy chief information officer at the Interior Department, has had a wide- ranging, satisfying information technology career in the federal government. But if not for a fortunate circumstance 31 years ago, things might not have turned out that way.

Rachlin had studied accounting and business administration as an undergraduate at Troy State University, in her hometown of Troy, Ala. A self-described extrovert, Rachlin now cringes at the thought of herself as an accountant. "I don't like to sit around and add up a bunch of numbers," she said. "I don't even like to balance my own checkbook."

At the time, however, that was her plan. Her father had always urged her to consider public service, and her school participated in a federal internship program for top graduates. Rachlin applied for an accounting spot at the nearest federal establishment, the Army's Fort Rucker.

"When I went down to talk to them, the accounting internships were all filled up," Rachlin said. Instead, they offered her a position in computer operations, "and I thought, "This is fascinating,'" she said. "I liked it from the beginning. It was thinking, applying logic [and] solving a problem.

"It was almost a quirk that I ended up in the career field I ended up in, but it was probably the luckiest thing that ever happened to me."

Rachlin grew up wanting to travel. Her family never ventured far from Troy (population 13,935), and summer vacations took her as far as the coast — the Gulf Coast.

"I always knew there was this big world out there," she said. "I was the only kid in the family who thought, "Oh, the world's out there for me, I have to go see it.'"

Her career gave her that opportunity, taking her to every state except Alaska. Rachlin ended up working at Fort Rucker as a computer programmer out of college and then joined the Air Force in Montgomery, Ala. From there she went to Washington, D.C., to work for the U.S. Information Agency and moved to the Agriculture Department in 1989, eventually becoming chief of the Agency Applications Services Division at the USDA's National Information Technology Center in Fort Collins, Colo. That was her post before joining Interior in January.

At Interior, Rachlin works with CIO Daryl White to lead the department's IT initiatives. That includes implementing the requirements of the Clinger-Cohen Act and helping develop a common IT architecture. Because Interior is highly decentralized, the CIO's office has to do more than set policy for the department's bureaus to follow, Rachlin said.

"We don't want to just be the people who set the rules or checks for compliance.... A lot of what we do is through cooperation, consensus-building," she said.

That's something Rachlin is well suited for, White said. In her previous job, Rachlin led an organization that provided applications development and support services to the USDA and other agencies on a reimbursable basis. That entrepreneurial environment is helpful when working with "customers" of the CIO's office, he said.

"She's bringing the same ideology forward," White said. "She can work both sides of the fence here, and those kinds of skills are important in an executive."

Rachlin, who calls this new job and relocation back to Washington a "second wind" for her, eventually wants to land a CIO position. Although she has realized all the career goals she's had so far, "I'm not finished yet," she said.

And she's glad she listened to her father's advice to enter the federal workforce. "My father was wise because he probably knew that if I ever got in it, I probably wouldn't leave, and I've never really wanted to," she said. "I always wake up in the morning excited about what I do."

NEXT STORY: Philadelphia to get CIO

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