For FEMA's Ronald Miller, planning for disasters is part of the job
One little question in college won Ronald Miller one big connection in politics. As Miller tells it, he impressed an influential guest speaker at Texas Tech University two decades ago. "Who are you?" the lecturer asked the earnest student after class. Then, George W. Bush invited him to volunteer on his congressional campaign.
Today, 42-year-old Miller has come full circle: He works with President Bush as the chief information officer and assistant director for the Information Technology Services Directorate at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In his new roles, he oversees and operates the systems that facilitate the government's response to disasters.
"It's certainly the biggest job I've ever had," Miller said in his office in Washington, D.C. "There are things that have been entrusted to me. I have an obligation to manage tasks and responsibilities effectively and lead people."
He considers improving FEMA's base of operations vital to that mission, particularly following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. His main assignment is building an electronic platform of services.
"We're trying to make e-FEMA architecture a reality rather than something on paper," he said, referring to an agency document updated in July. "We're realigning functions and people, eliminating multiple databases. It's not rocket science."
But Miller, a former intelligence officer, wasn't always so tech-savvy. It took an Air Force post in Boerfink, Germany, to plug him into computers.
"I was exposed to IT there" as chief of a 24-hour operations center, he said. "I had to use computers to do the job. I had apprehensions until I warmed up to them."
Soon he was building them at home.
"My wife now calls me a zealot," he said. "Computers interest me because of information. I'm an info junkie [who] likes gathering and communicating."
Hot on the technology trail, Miller brought intelligent information systems to a base in Florida with the help of Science Applications International Corp.
In 1992, he left the military with the rank of captain and joined SAIC, where he stayed for eight years, earning a master's degree in international relations along the way.
In the private sector, Miller's area of expertise was turning technical requirements into solutions. A year into using his know-how at Pricewaterhouse.Coopers, he started thinking about public service — again.
"I had a dream in college of being politically active," Miller said. "I thought that was a dream that had to go by the wayside."
But with longtime friend Stuart Bowen's sponsorship, he got an interview at the White House Presidential Personnel Office that led to his placement at FEMA in June 2001 as deputy CIO and deputy assistant director for the IT Services Directorate.
"He works well under pressure and has extensive experience in IT," said Bowen, deputy assistant to the president and deputy staff secretary, who worked with Miller in Germany. "He's a good leader."
Within four months of his arrival in Washington, Miller dropped deputy from both of his titles. He also found himself dealing with an unparalleled emergency Sept. 11.
"He's the perfect person for that time [and] this job," Bowen said. "He's already battle-tested, so to speak, from his time in the military."
And Miller's already convinced he's in the right place.
"I really believe, because of the unusual set of circumstances that brought me here, this is where I'm supposed to be," he said. "I still get a little chill when I come down South Capitol Street."
The Ronald Miller File
Position: Chief information officer and assistant director for the Information Technology Services Directorate at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Previous positions: Team leader and information technology project manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers; numerous positions with Science Applications International Corp.; air intelligence officer, attaining the rank of captain, in the Air Force.
Family: Married, three children.
Home: Huntingtown, Md.
Hobbies: Religious studies, reading, music, football.
Favorite foods: Steak, fried chicken.
Quote: "The functionality computers bring to our lives is what fascinates me."
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